Every year since 2011, this Turner Valley, Alta.-based distillery has teamed up with the ranch, a National Heritage Site, to give visitors an opportunity to experience a farm-to-table taste of what ranching was like 100 years ago.
Overlooking the Rocky Mountains, an hour south of Calgary, Bar U Ranch was one of Canada’s biggest ranches in the 1800s. Times changed and now it’s a fun place to learn about old-time ranching culture.
In the spring, the Eau Claire Distillery team organizes volunteers to plough a few acres of the ranchland with antique equipment. Then the volunteers plant barley crops, used to make the distillery’s award-winning spirits.
A few months later, in the fall, farmers and ranchers bring more antique equipment and teams of horses — Belgians and Percherons — to the ranch to volunteer during harvest, a process that’s spread over few days in September.
First, there’s the binding and stooking. Tying the sheaves of grain upright in the fields protects them from lousy weather, something that’s not uncommon in Alberta in early fall.
A week or two later, there’s the threshing. Volunteers work hard to pile the stooks — bundles of grain — on horse-drawn racks. Then they take them to a circa-1920s threshing machine, which separates the straw from the grain.
Only a few metres from the parking lot, the work is clearly underway. Some visitors sign up to help out; at the end of the day, they’ll enjoy dinner in Turner Valley at the distillery, perhaps sipping on Eau Claire’s Three Point Vodka, named after a nearby creek.
We, on the other hand, opt to simply watch the action, cameras in hand. It’s fun just the same, and a lot less work; even watching, we gain a better appreciation of how difficult farming was just a couple of generations ago.
My dad could stand and watch the teams work all day. It reminds him of growing up on the family farm when he was a kid, minus the blisters and the aching back. Eventually, though, we wander off to explore the rest of the ranch. The vintage bunkhouse is a big hit with the kids, as is the opportunity to try their hand at roping. I chat with a group of volunteer interpreters who are making coffee over a bonfire nearby. Dressed in well-worn gear and cowboy hats, they wouldn’t be out of place as extras in a western movie.
On the way home, we stop at the Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley, for a bite to eat and, yes, a couple of bottles of local spirits to take home. I opt for the Parlour Gin, while my dad chooses the Prickly Pear EquineOx, made with Alberta cactus. At the last minute, I grab a few bottles of the distillery’s handcrafted tonic water, made with Alberta beet sugar. (It makes the best gin and tonics.) The tables are packed with the happy buzz of people having fun. Us, too. We can’t wait to return.