Now Or Never

From city slicker to farm girl: Switching careers to run the family farm

Two years ago Anne Hill quit her job as a community outreach librarian in Calgary to take over her parents' farm near Waldeck, Saskatchewan.
Anne Hill left a secure job in the big city of Calgary to return home to run the family farm. From left: Larry, Sandra, and Anne. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

On the outside, Anne Hill is the poster child for farm life. Grease-stained coveralls. No makeup. Ballcap, plaid coat, work boots.

On the inside, though, she's all things city: sushi and the symphony, fancy coffees, films with Hindi or Tagalog subtitles.

The contradiction makes sense. Hill is a farmer — or at least, a farmer in training. But she's spent the bulk of her adult life living urban, until recently.

Two years ago, she quit her job as a community outreach librarian in Calgary to take over her parents' farm near Waldeck, Saskatchewan.

"I would never describe myself as a country girl," she explains between sips of a mocktail at Nightjar, her favourite hangout spot in the nearby city of Swift Current.  "I've lived most of my adult life in cities because I like cities. I like the plethora of options, the anonymity. It's the best."

Anne is all set to go out on the town (l) after a hard day's work on the farm. (r) (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

Even so, something changed in 2017. Hill had been working at the Calgary Public Library for five years. She loved the work, and was good at it. But her marriage was unravelling, and her elderly parents wanted to retire. She decided to make the leap and start farming, a decision that was both thrilling and terrifying.

"When I left Calgary to move back to Saskatchewan, and I realized that I wasn't coming back, and that I was always going to have that horizon ahead of me, it felt so freeing."

"And yet I left a permanent position with a wonderful organization that had a really good pension plan and good benefits. That's a little scary."

She really stepped out of her comfort zone to come out here.- Steve Penner

Hill knew very little about the daily operations on her parents' farm. She and her twin sister Laura were "bad farm kids," she jokes, "too busy watching Highlander or reading books to help out with chores."

Both girls went to university, got married, and had city jobs.

So when Hill turned up ready to farm, it raised some eyebrows.

Anne Hill with neighbour Steve Penner who wasn't so sure Anne was up for the job at first. Now they work together on the family farm. (Elizabeth Whithey)

"It kinda shocked me, because Anne's background is not farming," says Steve Penner, a neighbour who works part-time farming with Hill's parents. "She really stepped out of her comfort zone to come out here."

But Larry Hill, Anne's father, feels the timing was right. "If she was going to learn how to farm under my supervision and Sandra's supervision, now was the time. We're 75. We're not going to farm forever."

Getting a chance to work with one of your kids is a pretty neat thing. Not everyone gets to do that.- Larry Hill

The couple, who'd worked in town — Larry as an engineer and Sandra as a teacher, bought the land in the 1960s, and didn't become parents until they were nearly 40. Anne and her sister Laura were a surprise, born early during harvest. There was no expectation they'd farm.

Anne isn't as tall or as strong as her father. She doesn't yet have the wisdom and skills of her mother. She has to learn how to run and maintain all the equipment. Farming is noisy and messy, arduous and isolating. And then there's the math — calculating, measuring, converting. It's not Anne's forte.

Anne driving the truck to the fields. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

"I'm still that person who's like, I put 500 litres in the tank, and they're like, 'You mean gallons' Right! I meant gallons," she says. "I feel badly for everyone because they've been doing this for literally decades and now they're stuck with me."

"I try to be a really good sport about it. But it probably would be more fun for them if they had someone who had an inkling of what was going on most of the time."

"I think the most challenging thing for Anne has been the physical part of it," Larry says. "It bothers me to see her climb up to the top of a granary, frankly."

"We're gonna put cables on the bins and use harnesses, and things like that that we never used before. But when it's your child up there then that's a whole different thing."

Anne at work on a sunny day. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

Still, Larry and Sandra are delighted their daughter is taking the reins.

"Now that she's been here, I haven't been out in the field very much at all, and I kinda miss that," says her mom. "But if she's going to learn how, she has to do it."

"Getting a chance to work with one of your kids is a pretty neat thing," says Larry. "Not everyone gets to do that."

This season, Anne has convinced her parents to do an intercrop of flax and chickpeas — a first on the farm, which has traditionally grown wheat and lentils. She also wants to stop using glyphosate and Roundup.

Then there's the adjustment to living together again, after more than 15 years. "You can't just traipse around in your housecoat eating cereal all day when you live with your parents," says Anne.

"If she reverts to her 14-year-old self, I'm going to revert to being her mother!" Sandra says.

Sandra Hill and Anne Hill share a laugh before lunch on their farm. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

"I never thought I'd be 35, having a parent ask me how my homework is going," says Anne. "You lose that privacy. And I'm sure it's the same for them. But, then, my mom spies deer out the window, and we have a mother-daughter moment watching deer run across the field, and it's great."

Dating might also be a challenge. Waldeck has a population of less than 300 people, though Swift Current is only about 20 minutes up the road.

"I don't think there's any realistic prospects," she says, chuckling. "I'd have to find someone who I share common interests with, and chemistry, and long-term goals."

And even though more and more women are taking up farming in Canada, she still grapples with the stereotypes. "It's very funny being a single person farming. If I'm walking around at a crop show, people are actively looking for my husband.

"As a librarian, people didn't question my credentials."

Still, the advantages of being a farmer outweigh the drawbacks. She couldn't have a pet in the city because of allergies, but now has a dog on the farm because it can live outside. She gets to spend time with her family. And she's outside constantly.

Sandra Hill, Anne's mother, gives Anne's new dog, Phryne, a scratch. Anne's allergies meant she couldn't have a pet in the city, but she was able to get an outdoor dog on the farm. (Elizabeth Withey)

"I don't miss the city," she says, pointing to the sprawling fields on the horizon. "There's all sorts of wildlife. We have deer, antelope, and occasionally we'll see a moose. There's coyotes, there's badgers, there's skunks, there are all sorts of songbirds. It's really beautiful here."

"Starting all over again is a little tough sometimes," she says. "But this is year three, and year three is so much better than year one."

Anne Hill stands in the back entrance of her family home near Waldeck, Saskatchewan, getting ready for a day of seeding durum. Proper footwear and a hat are key elements of her farmer wardrobe. (Elizabeth Withey/CBC)

"I'm still a little nervous for her," says Steve Penner. "But she has the passion and the drive, and the ambition, so I think she's gonna make it."

"I'm also a little worried for me," Anne says. "But I'm confident I can learn it with good teachers."