Updated: Jul 7
Meet Elise Walker, our 6th feature in our Women in Agriculture series.
Elise Walker’s life has always been deeply engrained in agriculture. As a producer and seed cleaning plant operator, she values the role agriculture plays throughout society.
“Not only is agriculture the backbone of our country’s economy, but it’s critical towards our everyday life. Agriculture impacts you and your family,” Walker says
Walker grew up on a mixed-grain farm operation near Milk River, Alberta, where her parents ran a unique operation. Unlike most mixed farms, her family cared for a herd of buffalo which started off with 10 and soon grew to about 200.
“With raising buffalo, growing grass seeds, mixed crops, and irrigating off the Milk River on the farm, I think it taught me that being different was okay. Trying new things and hard work—it was something that my parents always promoted,” Walker says. “[They taught me] not to be scared of change—so I do think that it taught [my siblings and I] about diversification [on the farm].”
Then in the late ’80s, Walker’s father sold the herd of buffalo to pursue a new venture in the seed cleaning industry, and in 1987, Miller Seeds was established. As a child, Walker recalled accompanying her father while he worked in the seed cleaning plant. Although the work required getting your hands dirty, Walker didn’t mind it at all.
“I don’t mind getting dirty—the process and challenges of taking dirty seed and turning it into high-quality pedigreed seed is satisfying. Every lot of seed we clean is unique in its own way," Walker says.
From buffalo herds to the opening of Miller Seeds, Walker always knew that agriculture ran deep in her veins.
“My upbringing inspired me to continue with the ag industry—witnessing my parents’ perseverance and the diversification that we had on our farm gave me the drive to want to continue in agriculture,” Walker says.
Right out of high school, Walker attended Olds College. The long-standing agriculture school has historical ties with Walker’s family—her great-grandfather, Duncan Marshall, who was the Minister of Agriculture and farmer at the time, played a key role in establishing Olds College. Marshall’s farmland was one of the college’s first demonstration farms—a site where budding agriculture students can get hands-on farming experience.
With goals of taking over her family’s seed cleaning business, Walker pursued a diploma in ag business with most of her focus in seed and grain technology. At Olds College, Walker also met her husband Kelly Walker and they have been together ever since.
“It has some deep roots. I learned a lot at Olds College—[I gained] lifelong friends and acquaintances. It was the beginning of my ag career [and] the doors opened after college,” Walker says.
In 2001, Walker moved back to her hometown to take over the operations of Miller Seeds alongside her father, Ken Miller. She also started an Angus beef cow operation with her husband Kelly, which is now run with the help of their three daughters.
Between Miller Seeds and the cattle ranch, Walker finds that both these operations work efficiently with one another. When they harvest their grass fields, the straw is baled for their livestock, while the seeds are sent to Miller Seeds for processing.
Seed cleaning plays a vital role in agriculture—it adds value to the industry by eliminating contaminants like weed seeds from crop seeds. At Miller Seeds, Walker ensures the seeds that come out are of the highest quality, which they have been delivering for the past 34 years.
“It's important to have good quality, viable seeds that are pure with healthy germs,” Walker says.
A germ is the reproductive part of the seed. Seeds with healthy germs increase their chances of growing into a plant.
“All of the seed is certified for export and meets Canadian-grade standards—our fields are inspected and monitored so farmers know what they're getting when they buy it,” Walker says.
Miller Seeds partners with larger marketing companies in order to promote and sell their seed, allowing them to reach markets all across Canada and the United States. Building strong relationships and establishing trust with these marketing companies is crucial for marketing their seed—while they focus on sales, Miller Seed can focus on what they do best.
“Our reputation is based on providing quality seed and we strive to provide the cleanest seed we possibly can. We are constantly getting market updates and seeking potential opportunities to expand; we evaluate yearly production decisions carefully, so we can ensure supply meets demand,” Walker says.
For Walker, exporting their product into the US is lucrative for business—especially since the exchange rates for selling in the US is favourable. According to Walker, handling foreign exchange is much easier. Since most payments are processed online, exchanging from one currency to another can be achieved with just the click of a button.
But with shipping seeds to the US, they need to ensure that all the proper documentation is included before delivering.
“Cross border shipments require detailed paperwork along with proper seed analysis and certification. Every state in the US has their own set of seed standards therefore it's important to stay on top of this information.
Over the years, they have processed different types of grasses, such as bluegrass, tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, green needle, and other unique native species. As for reclamation seeds, they have crested wheatgrass (CWG) and intermediate wheatgrass (IWG). Both wheatgrasses work well for soil erosion control and are drought tolerant. A unique reclamation wheatgrass that Miller Seeds sells is AC Saltlander green wheatgrass. Shortly after Walker joined the family business, they obtained the commercial release of AC Saltlander in 2004.
AC Saltlander is a reclamation and forage wheatgrass seed that is especially resilient in saline soils—an issue that affects more than 5.5 million acres of farmland in Western Canada. Soil salinity makes it difficult for the plants’ roots to absorb water and nutrients essential for their growth. As a result, farmers’ crop yields decrease, and they can lose out on profit. For ranchers, soil salinity means the production of hay and forage is affected, so their cattle have less to graze on.
“The value of farmland has been on the rise. It is difficult to buy land, therefore producers are focusing on turning every acre they own into productive land,” Walker says. “Reclamation and forage grasses help regenerate the land, and AC Saltlander is a niche forage grass due to its salinity tolerance and ability to grow under unfavorable conditions. It is an enduring biological solution to income-depleting saline soils.”
First developed by Dr. H. Steppuhn from the Semiarid Prairie Agriculture Research Centre in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, AC Saltlander has helped farmers restore productivity in their cropland. AC Saltlander has an amazing rhizome root system that pushes deep into the soil and absorbs ground water. These roots help dewater and rehabilitate saline areas. AC Saltlander will also choke out nasty weeds like kochia and foxtail barley that often grow in these areas.
It is also a good option for livestock forage, either for pasture land or in hay production. Walker even noticed the benefits of AC Saltlander within her own cattle ranch.
“We turned a lot of poor farmland back into productive perennial forage acres that we can graze our cows on,” Walker says.
Additionally, since AC Saltlander is a nutritious forage for cattle, Walker combines it with a mixture of legumes and other grasses to see what works best.
“It's been really interesting to watch these grasses perform so that we can let other producers or buyers know what kind of successes and failures we're having with establishing these different blends,” Walker says.
Throughout the years, Walker is still keen on refining her operations. With her daughters growing older and also showing an interest in agriculture, she is preparing to expand her farm to support their own passions within the industry. Whether it be with the family seed cleaning business or her cattle ranch, every day Walker strives to grow her operations.
“One thing that my dad always instilled in me, is you constantly need to make improvements on your operation,” Walker says. “Whether it's a big improvement or a small improvement, every year you should do something to make it better.”
The History of Olds — Canadian History Ehx
Miller Seeds — Saline Reclamation Solutions