Northern Exposure

Through long years and tough conditions, one Albertan farm family stays close.

By Doug Johnson | Photos By Jeff McIntosh

Two small, white dogs dart between the feet of Lance Hingley as he sits down for lunch. Both Tia, a one-eyed pup, and Tucker—who is older and fluffier—seem more excited by the small gathering in Lance’s kitchen than the food.

Lance Hingley

Lance Hingley

Lance, a farmer who lives near Bonanza, Alberta, has assembled his wife, Teresa, and two of his three sons, Ben and Quin, for a light meal of grilled-cheese sandwiches and soup. (A room over, assorted grandkids watch “SpongeBob SquarePants” on a large flat-screen.) From the head of the table, Lance looks every bit the farmer: The remnants of his tan stand out against his white hair, and his blue plaid shirt matches his eyes. He seems happy to have this meal with family after a long, rough year.

Harsh Weather

In a normal summer, the Peace River region—where Lance farms and which straddles the lines between northern Alberta and British Columbia—gets a near-constant amount of sunlight, more than 22 hours some days. For area farmers, this amount of sunlight offsets a short, yet productive growing season. As a result of those long summer days and relatively mild nights, the Peace River region is one of the few places where grass seed is grown commercially.

That’s a boon for Lance, who grows a variety of crops, including fescue for seed. According to the Alberta government website, the Peace River region is the second largest turf-seed-producing place in the world, by area, after Oregon’s Willamette Valley. 

The family jokes about the long stretches of sunlight—Teresa suggests tinfoil as a pretty decent way to create a semblance of darkness when trying to get to sleep. Yet, it’s something the farm misses once it’s gone—or, like last summer (2018), when catastrophic conditions got in the way.

It was a year of extremes for farmers in the area. During the summer, wildfires in British Columbia claimed more than 1.3 million hectares of forest. Provincial officials called it the worst, most damaging wildfire season on record. Thousands were evacuated, and the ordeal cost British Columbia $400 million (Canadian dollars) in emergency response alone. 

The smoke from the fires—jaundicing sunlight across the area for months—even impacted the Hingley farm, which is located close to the border between the two provinces, but well north of where most of the fires burned. Lance’s crops suffered greatly. “Our canola took forever to mature, and they said it was because of the lack of sun through the summer,” he says.

To make matters worse, snow fell exceptionally early, in September, and across Alberta farmers had to wait to harvest, while frost sat on their fields. From mid-September to mid-October, the temperature rarely broke 10°C, and was regularly in the negatives. 

While Lance says weather turned favorable in October, harvesting then meant he had between six and eight hours of sunlight each day, instead of the 16 to 18 the Hingley clan was expecting earlier in the year. Making matters worse, crops became all the more dense due to the cold, making it harder to harvest. 

Plans Gone Awry

Last year, Lance planned to grow 850 acres of fescue grass seed, 2,500 of wheat, 2,000 of canola and 1,200 acres of peas. The cereals had good yields, but they sat out in the cold long enough for their quality to suffer. With the smoke choking out the sunlight, the canola seed never grew as big as it could have; Lance estimates it came out to be half the expected size.

“The whole area, everybody—it didn’t look too bad, but the yield just wasn’t there,” Lance says. “If a seed is half the size, well, that’s half of the yield, almost. It was small seed and a lot of immature seed.” 

Lance planned for a 60-bushel crop, but got between 35 and 40 instead. “The extra bushels are where you get ahead,” he says. The missing 20 or so bushels were, noted Lance, going to fund new equipment and land—an essential means of maintaining the business.

Sons Ben and Quin have second jobs as truck drivers, though their employment is, by design, flexible. In the past, Lance was an oil and gas operator, and held the position for around two decades. Taking on second jobs is just a hard truth of being a farmer and making ends meet in the region. 

“When you get a year like this,” says Lance, “you have to pull back and see what next year brings. That’s what farming is—next year.” 

Working Together

But next year can be hard to plan. The best way to prepare may be by keeping family close. Though Tom—Lance’s son who moved to British Columbia—isn’t around as much, his brothers help out every season, both as labor and as sounding boards, though Lance always gets the last word. And, of course, the family’s efforts to stay together act as a great moral support.

Teresa says, “It’s the only way.”

The Hingley family.

A Fendt® family.

Lance says it was always his dream to farm with his kids—that they would work the land his father, a WWII veteran from Saskatchewan, purchased. It’s the land where Lance has spent all of his 64 years. 

Now, over their end-of-season lunch, the family fondly recalls the years of work together. There’s a bit of good-natured ribbing, too. Teresa asks the boys if they can remember the smell of rotting grain—shoveling old grain was one of the dirtiest jobs her sons said they ever had to do. Lance, meanwhile, jokes to Quin about “all the hard work” he does. His boys, in turn, laugh about their dad’s profound micromanaging. 

“Dad gets wound up a bit once in a while,” Ben says, the hint of understatement in his voice. The rest of the family laughs. 

Lance admits that Ben’s statement is probably true. One day, though, he hopes to take a backseat; his sons are responsible enough now. Soon, he says, he’ll let them tell him what to do, so he can reply: “No, I don’t really want to work today; I want to go to the lake.”