By Lyonel Doherty

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When a child isn’t aware that carrots grow in the ground, or thinks potatoes grow on trees, as an educator you know that you’re in the right profession.

Karen Barraclough from Skookumchuck has loved every minute teaching children the ways of the world beyond their ABCs, and has cherished her career for 33 years. 

“My fondest memories of teaching were watching the light come on through the eyes of a child when they learned something new and understood it (and were proud of the accomplishment),” she said, noting that being an educator is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.

“I couldn’t wait to get to school each day to see what they (students) would come up with next.”

Karen was born and raised in Skookumchuck where her father worked in the bush hauling wood. He was also a rancher and truck driver. Her mother was a school teacher.

“Growing up on the ranch was a hard life but one that taught the value of things,” Karen reminisced.

Her chores included moving and feeding the cows, cutting and hauling Christmas trees, and fixing machinery, all while attending school; the first one being at Sheep Creek about 10 miles from home in a little log cabin for grades 1 to 10. From there it was a one-room schoolhouse in Springbrook, then high school in Kimberley by bus.

“When it was cold my father drove us as he was working in Kimberley with his logging truck. We would leave home about five in the morning and return late at night after dad finished work. Then we had to feed cows before bed,” Karen recalled. 

Her social life was centred around dances in Wasa or community get-togethers. Nobody had extra money in those days so your entertainment meant ‘do it yourself.’

Karen initially wanted to follow a nursing career, but since she graduated from school at the age of 15, that idea fell flat because you had to be 21 to be a nurse. And besides, she didn’t have the money for five years of university.  

She landed her first teaching job at the age of 17 in Chilliwack at a wonderful school with 45 students in grades 2-3. This allowed her to take courses at night, culminating in a degree and having taught school for four years by the age of 21. 

“To see the children challenge themselves was terrific. Field trips were the basis of my teaching; I felt if I could show children what we were talking about, they had the prior knowledge to read about it, write stories, spell words that meant something to them and get them excited about school.”

Karen bottle feeds the twins.
(Photo submitted)

She will never forget how much fun the children had visiting an ostrich farm and catching baby goats. A trip to  Drumheller to learn about dinosaurs and sleeping in tents was another highlight for her.

“We were the first to sleep overnight with a class in the Railway Museum in Cranbrook in the dusty Pullman cars when it first opened,” she remembered.

Looking for turtle eggs at night at the Creston Wildlife Centre was also memorable.

“On one trip the little girl sitting next to me on the bus grabbed my arm for dear life. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she had never been out of Kimberley that far before and she was scared.”

Karen left teaching in 2007 to help her husband on the ranch. They have three children.

Since retiring from teaching she has worked for the University of Victoria as an adviser to monitor and help student teachers during their practicums. 

“This was one way I felt that I could give back to others after a wonderful career.”

In 2016 she was asked to teach children about agriculture for the Kootenay Livestock Association (KLA) where she chairs the Education Committee.

“Many children in the rural areas had never grown a garden or petted farm animals. Many children did not know that carrots grow in the ground, and one told me that potatoes grew in trees.” 

The program that she coordinates involves day visits to classrooms to teach different aspects of agriculture and to organize field trips to ranches, orchards, dairy farms, gardens and apiaries.

“The government and other agencies see food sustainability and availability as a priority now, so trying to get children interested in growing food is essential. As one of my hosts said, ‘I only do this because we need people in agriculture. Too many of us are aging out and there are not many replacements.’”

Karen said a grant from Fortis helps the KLA spend more time helping children. For example, they have built gardens and greenhouses at schools to educate students on food security.

“If we get more volunteers to deliver programs, hopefully we could expand to the middle and high school students.”

Karen and her husband operate a cattle ranch and a small feedlot. They sell beef to grocery stores, restaurants, and individual clients.  

Time for milking.
(Photo submitted)

You could say that ranching is in her blood. 

“When you get a chance to interact with animals and live in the peace and quiet of the country, it is hard to give up for the noise of the city,” she said. “Where else do you have to get up and warm colostrum at two in the morning for twin calves, or call a neighbour to help you bring a cow in at four in the morning and have it get stuck in a pile of dirt?” 

Karen’s neighbours have started sleeping with their phones under their pillows. “Having a neighbour sit with you all night in the bathroom as you hold a calf’s head up from the water in the bathtub to warm it up after hypothermia, while your husband has another heifer at the vets for a C-section.” 

You do what you have to do on the farm.

She will never forget one incident that scared her father something fierce while they were moving cows; she was only six years old. “I was riding a terrific small horse that could really do the job on her own. I came to a tree and leaned left to go around the tree, but my horse chose the right side. Needless to say we parted company and I ended up on the ground. My horse just stopped and looked at me (urging me) to get up. I piled back on and away we went.”  

For Karen and Doug, there is no typical day on the ranch because it all depends on the time of year. 

They get up, have breakfast, go down to the barn to feed the calves, grain steers and the cows. Then there’s the housework, bookkeeping, paying bills, and repairing machinery, etc.  

“This is the quiet time. In spring, in calving season, you could be up all night with calves (in the kitchen if they are hypothermic) . . . there’s never a shortage of jobs. Fixing fence, moving cows . . .”

Like taxes, one thing’s for certain: there isn’t much time for hobbies. They play cards with friends or just get together and chat with neighbours. “The one thing in the country, people help people all the time and they know their neighbours. When there is a problem, you can call on others to help.”

Karen says ranching is not progressing as it should due to the high costs of everything. 

“In our small area there used to be dozens of ranches. Now there are only about three left in our area. It is a profession that requires hours of hard work, little money and almost no free time. Not many people are up to that challenge. Also the cost of land has skyrocketed so many young people can’t begin to get set up.”

She says what needs to change is the government requirement that everything go electronic when most of the ranchers do not have the technology. “Too many ranchers are aging out and have not had the experience with computers. Also, the rural internet system is not sufficient to do everything the government wants.”  

Karen notes that ranchers have to put up with much of their crops destroyed by elk with only limited compensation, and the cost of replacing all the range fences that were built 50 years ago is a crippling expense. “That is only part of the reason many people are leaving the profession.”

Karen is a firm believer in food sustainability.
(Photo submitted)