This Canada

The old home ranch ain’t what she used to be

Paul Grescoe November 24 1980
This Canada

The old home ranch ain’t what she used to be

Paul Grescoe November 24 1980

The old home ranch ain’t what she used to be

This Canada

Paul Grescoe

It happened, as it does, inevitably. The Dersches were away helping neighbors brand cattle last May when the grey cloud carpeted their ranch in the Porcupine Hills of southwestern Alberta. The gritty powder, which for 10 days irritated the cattle’s eyes and nostrils and coated the grass they fed on, was ash from Mount St. Helens, the Washington state volcano that had erupted roughly 800 km to the southwest. It was another reminder that Alberta’s ranchers, despite their reputation as independent, free-spirited free-enterprisers, cannot escape the rest of the world. In a petroleum-rich province that keeps trying to free itself from Eastern Canada’s historical economic armlock, cattlemen continue to depend on markets in the East for their survival: about 60 per cent of their beef is sent by truck and train to wholesalers in Quebec.

Their dependence on outside forces rankles ranchers like 43-year-old Harvey Dersch, and that anger, at its worst, moves talk around to the imagined advantages of western separatism. “We’ve fed the East for too long,” he says. “I’m getting tired of paying the freight both ways”—a scratch of the old itch that western farmers pay once to ship to Eastern Canada and then pay again to have processed flour sent back west. As a rancher, Dersch also resents the federal government’s quotas that prevent him from selling his beef directly to the United States: “We’d be better off if we could deal with the States. As a rule, their prices are better. And right now, with our low Canadian dollar, their market looks pretty good.” There is a pause for effect. “So, when the ranchers hear this separatist talk, they’re for it.”

But what irks Dersch and other cattlemen almost as much is the fact that ranchers aren’t as crucial to the Albertan economy as they once were. Back in the days before 1971 when the Social Credit party still formed the provincial government, the land and its keepers were kings—had been, in fact, since the Socreds came to power in 1935 by promising to feed and protect Depressionwracked Albertans. And the ranchers were happy enough even when Peter Lougheed and his Conservatives broke down the door, so long as they had a strong character like Hugh (Doc) Horner (Jack’s brother) representing them in the provincial cabinet as Alberta’s minister of agriculture. But Horner was soon moved to another job, and the oil technocrats took over. The ranchers saw the beginning of the end. They may raise more beef cows than anyone else — 38.7 per cent of Canada’s 3.95 million head—but agriculture’s contribution to Alberta’s gross domestic product (GDP) is now a sixth of mining’s (which includes oil and gas royalties and accounts for 32 per cent of the GDP). Even manufacturing, which has never been Alberta’s fancy hat, contributes more.

Harvey Dersch sees the inevitability of it all, yet bristles at what he perceives as the neglect of agriculture by the Lougheed government. “Government’s main concern is the oil industry. They don’t seem to be worrying about ranching—at all. And I’m really a diehard Conservative.” Dersch berates the provincial government for what he sees as Alberta’s weak land-ownership regulations. “Foreign investors are coming in and buying up the land and putting an unrealistic price on it, and the land is just sitting there.” Grassland in the area that went for $35 an acre two decades ago routinely sells for $400 now.

Land prices, government controls, freight rates ... the litany of complaints is long. The reality is that Alberta’s veteran ranchers are reasonably well off these days. From 1974 to 1977, when there was so much Canadian beef that prices collapsed, ranchers slashed production after they lost about $400 million. Naturally, both wholesale cattle and retail beef prices rose again. “Starting early in 1978, prices have risen dramatically,” says Charles Gracey of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, who predicts that the boom-andbust cycle of the ’70s will be much more moderate during this decade. Harv Dersch says one reason for today’s strong cattle prices is that people are eating less pork as it becomes more expensive.

“It’s touch and go sometimes, but the land is paid for,” says Dersch’s wife, Colette. Their 2,560 acres, which they share with her in-laws, Walter and Rose Dersch, lie amid the Porcupine Hills about 80 km north of the Montana border. This is the southern end of the stretch of cow country that outdoor writer Andy Russell, in Men of the Saddle, calls “the tenderloin cut of the beef industry of Canada.” The Rockies rise in the west and these olive-hued foothills are painted with saskatoon and rose hip bushes and dotted with deer and elk, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge. On a reservation next door to the Dersches are Piegan Indians who have made both men honorary chiefs. On their own land the ranchers can still see traces of two rows of boulders that the Indians used last century as a giant funnel to stampede buffalo over a cliff.

Walter is a young 79, his red, wrinkled face framed in a peaked cap and punctuated with a pipe. His gnarled left hand is missing two fingers sliced off by a grain loader. “Hard work and a country life help people live longer,” his wife says. Joshes Walter: “Having a good husband has a lot to do with it.” His family left Germany in 1855 to settle in the U.S. and then moved from the Dakotas in 1902 to homestead near the present ranch outside Fort MacLeod, which began as a Mountie outpost. The Dersches’ early years were typically tough: in 1907, two years after Alberta joined Confederation, Walter’s father lost all his cattle in a spring blizzard. But he hung on and in 1923 Walter and a brother bought their father’s spread. Starting with about $40 in cash (“and a lot of ambition”), they built the 20 head of Hereford into a major operation. Walter Dersch took over the cattle and during the Second World War moved onto the ranch he now runs with his son.

By that time Walter had married his Italian wife, Rose. They had a daughter and a son, Harvey. Harv met his wife, Colette, who is French, at a country dance and married her when she was 16 and he was 18. In 26 years the younger Dersches have raised five daughters (who have given them four grandchildren) as they kept trying for a boy who would inherit the ranch. Instead it may go to the youngest, 11-year-old Jody, who was out riding with her Dad recently when she popped the big one. “Do you suppose you can hang on to the ranch long enough until I’m big enough to take over?” The ranch now boasts 120 cows, a cross of hardy Hereford and exotic Simmental, along with 115 calves and about 60 yearlings.

The elder Dersches spend their summers in a stucco house near their son’s place, but lately they have been wintering in Palm Springs, far from the hard Alberta winters that occasionally soften with chinooks. They recall the Christmas of ’32 when they lost 13 head of cattle to disease, and as recently as ’67 when several calves died in snow two metres deep in May. “And what year did the lightning kill the seven cows, three calves and a horse?” Rose Dersch wonders. No one seems to know. “Well,” her daughter-in-law Colette says, “we’ve been through droughts, we’ve been rained out and hailed out.” “And we’ve had some good years,” Rose reminds her as they sit in Colette’s kitchen where the inevitable pot of coffee brews on the stove. And on the wall a plaque helps explain why the two families have remained on the ranch in spite of cruel nature and callous government. It’s called “A Farmer’s Creed” and says in part: “I believe a man’s greatest possession is his dignity, and that no calling bestows this more abundantly than farming.”