A fam­ily farm’s last har­vest

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY MARK TAYLOR

This fall, af­ter a life­time work­ing the fields sur­round­ing his south­west Saskatchewan home, Gord Will re­tired. Over the years, he’s been eye­wit­ness to a chang­ing in­dus­try – one that af­fects us all. He’s also one of a dwin­dling num­ber. His step­daugh­ter, Joanne Will, ex­am­ines the dis­ap­pear­ance of the fam­ily farm, and what we stand to lose

Joanne Will is a jour­nal­ist based on Van­cou­ver Is­land. She has been a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Globe and Mail since 2009. In 2014, she was a Knight-Wal­lace Jour­nal­ism Fel­low at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan.

In Au­gust, my step­fa­ther, Gord Will, an­nounced that this fall would be his last har­vest. At 72, and with each of those years spent on the vast agri­cul­tural plains in the ru­ral mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Wheat­lands, near the vil­lage of Mort­lach in south­west Saskatchewan, he is putting away his com­bine and his grain trucks, his trac­tors and gra­naries, his auger, swather, cul­ti­va­tor, baler, sprayer and seeder.

Gord’s fleet of equip­ment, some of it dat­ing back to the 1960s, is in solid work­ing con­di­tion, and each piece car­ries un­told me­mories. Sen­ti­men­tal­ity aside, the ma­chin­ery and im­ple­ments can be sold, rented, lent or gifted to other grain, pulse, oilseed, hay and for­age farm­ers. It will live on, so long as it is found use­ful, and so long as some­one tends to it with the same metic­u­lous care that he has.

But what of Gord’s ac­cu­mu­lated and in­ti­mate knowl­edge of more than 2,000 acres of prairie pas­ture and crop­land, in­clud­ing sig­nif­i­cant wet­lands and wildlife habi­tat, cared for through­out his life­time? Or his keen ob­ser­va­tions of the weather and chang­ing cli­mate in this semi-arid re­gion of the Great Plains known as Pal­liser’s Tri­an­gle? And his life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence and un­der­stand­ing of what has in­creas­ingly be­come the “busi­ness” of farm­ing? And what of the com­mu­nity that counts on him, and oth­ers like him, to be its lifeblood?

My step­fa­ther is not the last farmer, but he rep­re­sents the last of a cer­tain type. The fam­ily farm is dis­ap­pear­ing.

When you think of farm­ing, you may well pic­ture the in­dus­tri­alscale fac­to­ries and mega­farms that pro­duce the lion’s share of what you’ll find for sale at your lo­cal su­per­mar­ket. Or you may think of the truly small-scale op­er­a­tions whose pro­pri­etors sell their hand-picked wares at farm­ers’ mar­kets.

But in fact, there’s an­other size of op­er­a­tion, one that sits in the mid­dle of those two ex­tremes. Owned and op­er­ated by fam­i­lies firmly linked to the lo­cal com­mu­nity, medium-sized fam­ily farms are big enough to sup­ply sig­nif­i­cantly more food than the ven­dors you’ll meet at those Satur­day-morn­ing booths staffed by a farmer who op­er­ates an acre or two. And yet, they man­age to be much bet­ter for the land, for ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and, I’d ar­gue, for the health of Canada, than out­fits that are run by large cor­po­ra­tions or land-own­ing in­vestors who ei­ther hire their own man­agers or lease out their land to those who work it.

My step­fa­ther’s fi­nal har­vest has re­minded me that the fam­ily farm is home to one of the most im­por­tant and no­ble jobs on the planet – one that in­volves work­ing with one’s neigh­bours and with the land, all in the name of feed­ing a lot of peo­ple you will likely never meet face to face. When fam­i­lies own the land, that is what they do.

The loss of any fam­ily farm is, in my eyes, noth­ing less than a tragedy. For all of us.

FARM­ING I N THE BLOOD

Gord is a well­spring of in­for­ma­tion and of his­tory that orig­i­nates long be­fore his birth, and that was passed on by el­der farm­ers in fields and cof­fee shops, in grainel­e­va­tor line­ups and at farm-sup­ply stores and com­mu­nity gath­er­ings. Such his­tory was also trans­mit­ted at home, by his fa­ther, James Will, who em­i­grated to Saskatchewan from Scot­land in 1921 at the age of 19.

Gord was only 10 when his fa­ther died of cancer. But the young boy was sur­rounded by fam­ily and com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing un­cles and sev­eral neigh­bour­ing farm­ers who showed him the ropes. In the spring of 1965, the year af­ter he grad­u­ated from high school, Gord planted his first crop.

“There was never any time I can re­mem­ber that I had any no­tion of do­ing any­thing else,” he told me re­cently, as we walked through one of our favourite fields in the un­du­lat­ing Coteau Hills. “I re­mem­ber go­ing to the cir­cus with my dad, and the main thing I was in­ter­ested in was how much horse­power the ele­phants had.”

My mother, Nora, moved to Mort­lach while I was a tod­dler, in the late 1970s, af­ter she and Gord mar­ried. A 30-minute drive west of Moose Jaw, this is where they had three more chil­dren: twin girls and a son. Al­though Gord grew up on what we call “the home farm” – the three quar­ter­sec­tions of land south of Mort­lach that his fa­ther bought af­ter work­ing for sev­eral years at a nearby ranch – our fam­ily al­ways lived in the vil­lage (cur­rent pop­u­la­tion 261) in view of the K-to-12 school.

When Gord and my mother started their fam­ily, things were boom­ing. They paid cash for the house they built in 1978, and worked hard to ac­quire more farm­land and the tools needed to work it. I re­mem­ber well the fall of 1983 and the ar­rival of Gord’s first four-wheel-drive trac­tor. Back then, he al­ways had a full­time hired hand from spring un­til fall, through the busy seed­ing and har­vest sea­sons. At har­vest time it­self, an as­sort­ment of other help would show up: rel­a­tives whose jobs were far from the land, and a farm­ing friend and neigh­bour or two who had fin­ished their own work. Ev­ery­one pitched in be­fore the frost and snow ar­rived.

My mother would make din­ner for the crew. Along with pots of meat and veg­eta­bles, Ther­moses of steam­ing tea and cof­fee, trays of pies and other desserts, she’d pack us kids in the car, a dust trail fol­low­ing us down the gravel roads to the field be­ing worked that day. It was our nightly rit­ual from late Au­gust to early Novem­ber.

At our des­ti­na­tion, we’d spread two or three heavy wool blan­kets and quilts over the golden stub­ble and dirt, un­fold stools and lawn chairs, and un­pack the meal. The men would pull up in their har­vest equip­ment, and while they ate, we played in the grain truck box, chew­ing mouth­fuls of wheat ker­nels un­til they trans­formed into wads of whole­wheat “gum.” (I’m obliged to men­tion that to­day, play­ing in grain trucks, whether empty or loaded, is dis­cour­aged by farm­safety ex­perts.)

THE SEEDS OF CALAMITY

Then came the one-two punch of sharply ris­ing in­ter­est rates and plung­ing com­mod­ity prices. In­fla­tion-fight­ing rates that soared to nearly 22 per cent in 1981 stub­bornly re­mained in the dou­ble dig­its for the best part of a decade, mak­ing land-mort­gage pay­ments hugely dif­fi­cult, and some­times im­pos­si­ble, to meet. By the sum­mer of 1986, mean­while, the price of wheat – the dom­i­nant crop then grown in the Prairies – dropped by more than 50 per cent from where it had stood in the fall of 1980. And as if those eco­nomic demons were not trou­ble enough, a drought ri­valling that of the Great De­pres­sion de­scended on the Prairie prov­inces in the early eight­ies. Al­though it let up for a spell mid-decade, it came roar­ing back in 1987 and held firm through ’89, pack­ing its hardest punch in 1988, the sin­gle dri­est year in two decades.

In 1988, roughly 10 per cent of farm work­ers left agri­cul­ture. Crops were so poor – vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent in some ar­eas – that Gord didn’t even take his com­bine out of the Quon­set hut. That fall and win­ter, he had to find work else­where to sup­port our fam­ily and farm: He left for the oil rigs on the Saskatchewan-Al­berta border, re­turn­ing just in time to join Christ­mas din­ner with his ex- tended fam­ily in Moose Jaw.

As with the De­pres­sion of the thir­ties, the re­ces­sion of the 1980s even­tu­ally ended; but it was long enough that many farm­ers had to let go of pre­cious land for which high mort­gage pay­ments had be­come un­ten­able. Land prices plum­meted; it would be more than 20 years be­fore they fully bounced back.

And there were new chal­lenges to come. For those who sur­vived, such as Gord, the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion of farm­ing be­gan to re­ally take off: more mech­a­niza­tion, more chem­i­cals, ever more costly equip­ment, con­stant con­sol­i­da­tion. The pres­sure built, in the mantra of the time, to “get big or get out.” On some lev­els, this cre­ated ef­fi­cien­cies. But on many oth­ers, some­thing im­por­tant was lost.

Just as Gord didn’t fore­see the down­turn of the 1980s, we four chil­dren never en­vi­sioned, from within the land­scape of our youth, the re­al­i­ties of agri­cul­ture to­day: sky-high land prices; farms com­pris­ing many thou­sands of acres; an ex­plo­sion of tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing trac­tors with GPS and au­to­mated steer­ing; and max­i­mum farm-credit loans reach­ing sky-high lev­els.

The most re­cent Cana­dian Cen­sus of Agri­cul­ture, in 2016, tells much of the story.

Be­tween 2011 and 2016, the value of all farm ma­chin­ery and equip­ment, owned and leased, in­creased more than 15 per cent, to $54-bil­lion. Agri­cul­tural land and build­ings in­creased in value by more than a third, to $428-bil­lion. In the same pe­riod, the to­tal value of the largest cat­e­gory of trac­tors grew a stun­ning 50 per cent, to $9.4-bil­lion, ac­count­ing for more than half the value of all trac­tors.

Farm­ing has be­come a case of sur­vival of the fittest. Or more ac­cu­rately, the big­gest.

One re­sult of this relentless shift: Fewer farm­ers are “re­quired.” In 2016, 193,492 agri­cul­tural op­er­a­tions were counted na­tion­wide, down roughly 6 per cent from 2011, while the size of farms (once again) in­creased.

It is, in many ways, an old story. In Saskatchewan alone, be­tween 1911 and 2016, the num­ber of farms dropped by 64 per cent, even as the amount of to­tal farm­land more than dou­bled. And over that cen­tury, the size of the av­er­age farm sex­tu­pled – from 295 acres to 1,784 acres. And where will it end?

“One day, and it’s not too far off, there won’t be any peo­ple out there farm­ing the land,” Gord pre­dicts. “In some ways, I’m glad I’m fin­ish­ing be­fore that hap­pens.” This isn’t sci­ence fic­tion: Small au­ton­o­mous trac­tors, just like driver­less cars, are al­ready be­ing in­tro­duced at agri­cul­tural shows.

The loss of any fam­ily farm is, in my eyes, noth­ing less than a tragedy. For all of us.

As a coun­try, we’re the world’s fifth-largest ex­porter of agri­cul­tural com­modi­ties – even as fewer than 1 per cent of us op­er­ate farms.

But a ro­bot driven solely by the cor­po­rate profit mo­tive can­not smell the soil it is till­ing. It does not feel in its very core the need to pre­serve that soil for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. And the only meal it presents you with is one pro­duced at the low­est pos­si­ble cost, us­ing the cheap­est pos­si­ble in­puts, grown on in­dus­trial-sized fields. Your health, and the health of the com­mu­nity in which you live, will not be the driver of this kind of food pro­duc­tion. The stock mar­ket, with its eye on in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion for in­vestors, will be.

We will no longer have any farm­ers at all – only “food pro­duc­tion.”

‘IT’S NOT A HEALTHY SYS­TEM’

The av­er­age Cana­dian farmer is 55 years old. The next gen­er­a­tion, those un­der 35, rep­re­sent fewer than 10 per cent of farm­ers. And the fu­ture for them does not look bright. Only one in 12 farms na­tion­ally has a for­mal suc­ces­sion plan.

Saskatchewan – the prov­ince with the largest area of field crops, the largest av­er­age farm size and the most (rel­a­tively) af­ford­able land – is a mi­cro­cosm of what’s oc­cur­ring in the rest of the coun­try. The av­er­age value of land and build­ings in the prov­ince (about $1,200 an acre) in­creased 76 per cent from 2011 to 2016. And yet, that’s still less than half the na­tional av­er­age (al­most $2,700 an acre), which in­creased close to 40 per cent over the same pe­riod.

At to­day’s prices, apart from tak­ing over an ex­ist­ing fam­ily op­er­a­tion – it­self a daunt­ing prospect, given the com­pet­i­tive pres­sures kin­dled and stoked by Big Agribusi­ness – how can a new farmer ever af­ford to get started?

Gord’s first trac­tor, a used model, cost $1,700. His next, also sec­ond-hand, was $7,500. His third, a brand-new 1976 model, was $17,000 when he or­dered it; due to high de­mand, by the time it ar­rived at the deal­er­ship, the price had shot up to $22,000. Sound like a lot? To­day a new com­bine can run up to $750,000. Al­to­gether, a com­bine, seeder, trac­tor and sprayer can run from $1.5-mil­lion to $2-mil­lion and even higher.

In­ter­est rates are rel­a­tively low these days. But what hap­pens if you’re highly lever­aged and rates go up, as they did in the 1980s? “You’d pretty much have to turn and run,” Gord says.

Gord him­self has wit­nessed a four­fold in­crease in crop pro­duc­tion in his life­time. Yields per acre have dou­bled thanks to bet­ter tech­nol­ogy, not to men­tion new seed va­ri­eties, pes­ti­cides and fer­til­iz­ers – and thanks, as well, to more land be­ing con­stantly pressed into ser­vice: Sum­mer­fal­low – al­ter­nately work­ing a field one year, then leav­ing it to rest the next – is no longer widely prac­tised. “In a good year now, 40 to 45 bushels-to-the-acre crops are com­mon,” my step­fa­ther says, while “in the old days, if some­one had a 30-bushels-tothe-acre crop, peo­ple would drive to that field just to see it.”

But grain prices have not kept pace with the in­creas­ing costs of pro­duc­tion. The price of wheat is roughly the same to­day as it was in 1980. In ad­di­tion to weather, farm­ers are at the mercy of world mar­kets and a sys­tem of trans­porta­tion over which they have no control. To make mat­ters worse, the farmer’s share of the food dol­lar has sharply de­clined. To af­ford the in­puts and equip­ment “re­quired” to farm, you need to pro­duce a lot. And to do that, you need to cover a lot of land.

On bal­ance in Canada, we don’t have any­thing ap­proach­ing the level of sub­si­dies that Euro­pean and Amer­i­can farm­ers re­ceive. In fact, here, it seems, farm­ers them­selves sub­si­dize agri­cul­ture: More than one-third of Saskatchewan farm­ers de­pend on a sec­ond, non-farm job for ex­tra in­come. And still they strug­gle to bal­ance the books. Farm cash re­ceipts dou­bled be­tween 1996 and 2016 – but farm debt in­creased 3.5 times. In 1996, cash re­ceipts ex­ceeded the debt load, but in 2016, that re­al­ity had re­versed it­self: Farm debt ex­ceeded cash re­ceipts by a fac­tor of 1.6.

“You just look at the eco­nomics of the whole thing and you know it’s not right,” says Kent Mullinix, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­able Food Sys­tems at Bri­tish Columbia’s Kwantlen Polytech­nic Univer­sity and an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at UBC. “It’s not a healthy sys­tem.”

To­day, even as I ar­dently as­sert the im­por­tance of the Cana­dian fam­ily farm, I’m the first to ad­mit that I’m in no po­si­tion to take over ours. Nor are my sib­lings.

My brother, James, a fa­ther of three who man­ages a city-gov­ern­ment parks-and-recre­ation depart­ment in Al­berta, has at least given it more thought than his sis­ters. But they have, on the whole, been sober­ing thoughts. As a teen, dur­ing those dif­fi­cult 1980s, he wanted only to in­su­late him­self from the un­cer­tain­ties of farm­ing. He de­scribes an imag­i­nary ad cam­paign of the era: “Hey, all this could be yours some­day: the drought, the as­tro­nom­i­cal in­ter­est rates, the debt, the grasshop­pers!”

To­day, he runs through stag­ger­ing num­bers as he out­lines the money he’d need to run the fam­ily farm. And those num­bers do not add up to any­thing he could fea­si­bly man­age. Fam­ily farm­ing is in our blood, but our wal­lets tell us to turn the other way.

LOS­ING HIS­TORY

In 1986, just 2 per cent of farm­land in Canada was rented. To­day, more than a third of all agri­cul­tural op­er­a­tions rent or lease some of the land they work. Among Cana­dian farm­ers un­der the age of 35, half of the land they tend is rented. On the one hand, we have ab­sen­tee land­lords; on the other, the farm­ers who are, ef­fec­tively, their em­ploy­ees, even when they live on the land.

In the world of fam­ily farm­ers such as Gord, a “good” farmer works to be sus­tain­able – not only fi­nan­cially, but eco­log­i­cally: You must look af­ter the land, the fu­ture health and vi­a­bil­ity of your soil. But in the world of cor­po­rate agri­cul­ture, farms get worked to within an inch of their life.

When we see only the bot­tom line, we lose sight of the need to nur­ture the land. And to nur­ture, as well, hu­man re­la­tion­ships, and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing hu­man val­ues, that are tied to the land: those in­volv­ing our fam­ily, our neigh­bours and their fam­i­lies, and the broader com­mu­nity – all the things that own­er­ship, and a lo­cal mul­ti­plic­ity of fam­ily-sized farms, have long led to.

In the words of Amer­i­can farmer and en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Wen­dell Berry, the “con­test be­tween in­dus­tri­al­ism and agrar­i­an­ism now de­fines the most fun­da­men­tal hu­man dif­fer­ence, for it di­vides not just two nearly op­po­site con­cepts of agri­cul­ture and land use, but also two nearly op­po­site ways of un­der­stand­ing our­selves, our fel­low crea­tures and our world.”

I’m not ar­gu­ing for a whole­sale re­turn to the old days of back­break­ing work un­aided by tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances, but rather for a re­newed aware­ness of our col­lec­tive fu­ture – one that in­cludes in­cor­po­rat­ing val­ues of stew­ard­ship, both for the land and for the cul­ture of com­mu­nity that fam­ily farms nur­ture. Large-scale farm­ing has a place in this fu­ture, but we must weigh its costs against its ben­e­fits.

In Gord’s youth, the vil­lage of Mort­lach had an ar­ray of busi­nesses, in­clud­ing a butcher, two gro­cery stores, three im­ple­ment shops, a liv­ery and a lum­ber yard. At one time, the vil­lage even had two banks and a weekly news­pa­per.

They’re all gone now. There were also five grain el­e­va­tors. To­day, just one stands – and it’s closed. All the grain in the sur­round­ing area is trucked to Moose Jaw, con­sol­i­dated in four “high-through­put” el­e­va­tors, the new­est of which can fill up to 147 grain cars in a sin­gle day.

In 1964, when Gord grad­u­ated from Mort­lach’s only school, it was home to more than 300 stu­dents. “Re­mem­ber when we at­tended in the eight­ies and early nineties?” my sis­ter Jan­ice asked me a while back. “There were eight buses sit­ting out front of the school each day.” Now, says Jan­ice, who lives in the area and whose boys go to school there, “there’s just three.” With only 75 stu­dents from kinder­garten to Grade 12, there are no longer enough kids to form vi­able sports teams. An­other tra­di­tion, and all that comes with it, is lost.

In the world of fam­ily farm­ers such as Gord, a ‘good’ farmer works to be sus­tain­able – not only fi­nan­cially, but eco­log­i­cally.

Or con­sider this: Our fam­ily has al­ways called each piece of land by the name of its pre­vi­ous owner – Har­ley’s, Percy’s, Nicholson’s. Some of these peo­ple have been gone now for many decades. But Gord still car­ries the his­tory and knowl­edge of the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of each par­cel that those fam­i­lies passed on. We’ll be the last gen­er­a­tion who can name those fields, my brother re­minds me. And then he asks me: Who will re­mem­ber, pro­tect or even ap­pre­ci­ate the an­cient te­pee ring and buf­falo jump that border the Coteau Hills field, just a few kilo­me­tres from our home farm, that we so love?

“When it comes to land, if you lose the mem­ory, the sto­ries and knowl­edge of the peo­ple who were on it be­fore you, it be­comes merely a cor­po­rate en­ter­prise,” James says. And then, sud­denly, the en­ter­prise it­self is “just a com­pany that’s go­ing to farm 15 sec­tions, with no his­tor­i­cal con­text. When you don’t hear about the strug­gles and chal­lenges of the older farm­ers who came be­fore, you don’t know or re­mem­ber that peo­ple lived a cer­tain way. You lose his­tory.”

PLAN­NING NOW, TO HAR­VEST LATER

So, maybe it’s time to take a step back from the tread­mill – call it big, call it in­dus­trial, call it what you will – that is farm­ing to­day.

Years ago, Gord at­tended a farm-man­age­ment sem­i­nar hosted by so-called ex­perts in mod­ern agri­cul­ture.

“They had a black­board full of fig­ures, and they were lean­ing to­ward the idea that un­less you have an aw­ful lot to har­vest, you can’t af­ford a com­bine,” my step­fa­ther re­calls. “They were talk­ing about some­one who had 800 acres, and they said: ‘ He can’t re­ally af­ford a com­bine, be­cause it’s so mas­sively ex­pen­sive,’ and on and on. Fi­nally I spoke up, and said, ‘Well, if you’ve only got 800 acres to har­vest, you don’t buy that new $200,000 com­bine. You buy a used pull-type for $15,000. Then I added: ‘If you don’t be­lieve it, well, that’s what I’m do­ing.’ ”

Be­sides, he points out, when times get tough – and at some point, he notes, they al­ways do – what’s even nicer than not hav­ing to re­pair older equip­ment is not hav­ing huge pay­ments for new equip­ment hang­ing over your head.

And when you are not as be­holden to the lat­est tech­nol­ogy and the debt that comes with it, Gord says, you don’t feel as much pres­sure, when the time comes to re­tire, to sell your land to the high­est bid­der. “True, ded­i­cated farm­ers won’t sell their land. They just won’t,” he says. “Some­one could of­fer a mil­lion dol­lars a quar­ter and we still wouldn’t sell.”

Gord in­tends to prac­tise what he preaches: He and Nora will re­main in the area, and rent out their land to farm­ers they know and trust. They will not be ab­sen­tee land­lords, and in­tend to keep a close con­nec­tion with the farm, and those tend­ing it.

It is a con­nec­tion that ex­tends to parts of their land that don’t even get farmed. There is a ma­jor slough, or wet­land, on the par­cel of Gord’s land we call “Nicholson’s,” whose wa­ter could be used for ir­ri­ga­tion. But while drain­ing it would in­crease the farm’s value, Gord has let it be. For one thing, he says, “I’ve al­ways en­joyed watch­ing the pel­i­cans, and all the birds, that use it.”

And, it’s too early to say for cer­tain, but there is hope that some of my step­fa­ther’s knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence may come in handy to some of his grand­chil­dren. My sis­ter Janelle and her hus­band, Larry, live near Saska­toon, on the site where his great-grand­fa­ther home­steaded in 1901. Janelle works in the city, and, in ad­di­tion to farm­ing, Larry runs a land­scap­ing com­pany. They’ve pur­chased some fer­tile land, on which they grow peas, oats and canola, and raise cat­tle, a few Berk­shire pigs and her­itage chick­ens – all of which are cared for with the help of their two young boys. While my sis­ter and brother-in-law have en­cour­aged their chil­dren to go to col­lege, the boys are al­ready ask­ing: If ev­ery­one leaves the farm, who will be left to look af­ter the an­i­mals and the land?

Or per­haps there is a mid­dle way: go­ing to col­lege pre­cisely in or­der to cul­ti­vate bet­ter ways to tend the land. B.C.’s Kwantlen Pol- ytech­nic, Prof. Mullinix says, fo­cuses on teach­ing its stu­dents about “sus­tain­abil­ity, and re­gen­er­a­tive, agro-eco­log­i­cal-based agri­cul­ture.” In Crafts­bury Com­mon, Vt., just over the Que­bec border, Ster­ling Col­lege cul­ti­vates farm­ing meth­ods that are suited to the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment and that em­ploy both age-old tech­niques and cut­ting-edge re­search. The col­lege has also part­nered with the non-profit Berry Cen­ter in Ken­tucky on a new de­gree pro­gram in place- and com­mu­ni­ty­based agri­cul­ture. As in­struc­tor Rick Thomas told me when I toured Ster­ling last spring “Our grad­u­ates don’t go very far.”

There is also the kind of ed­u­ca­tion that we con­sumers can un­der­take for our­selves. We need to learn more about our food, where it comes from, who makes it, how healthy it is and how healthy the com­mu­nity that cre­ated it is. And we need to learn that con­ve­nience comes at a cost – that, for in­stance, farm­ers typ­i­cally make pen­nies on the dol­lar for what we buy at our lo­cal gro­cery mega­s­tore. Cer­tainly, many of us can af­ford to pay more: In 2017, Cana­di­ans spent only 11 per cent of their house­hold in­come on food, among the low­est of any coun­try in the world.

And all of us, even those liv­ing in cities, need to start sup­port­ing poli­cies that help the fam­ily farm. Some of those poli­cies are fi­nan­cial (for ex­am­ple, re­duc­ing the tax bur­den on ex­ist­ing and in­her­ited farms). Some are en­vi­ron­men­tal (ev­ery­thing from main­tain­ing soil fer­til­ity to wean­ing food pro­duc­ers off ex­pen­sive chem­i­cal in­puts that aren’t ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary). Some are ed­u­ca­tional (as sim­ple, say, as spon­sor­ing field trips in our lo­cal schools to teach kids where good food comes from).

Fi­nally, farm­ers can help them­selves by ex­plor­ing new crops, such as or­ganic or her­itage grains, and new meth­ods that re­quire less-in­ten­sive in­puts and that the pub­lic is of­ten wait­ing for with open arms. Peren­nial grains such as Kernza (a wild rel­a­tive of an­nual wheat be­ing re­searched at the univer­si­ties of Man­i­toba and Min­nesota, and at the Land In­sti­tute in Kansas), which re­quire fewer in­puts than soil-de­plet­ing an­nual crops, show great prom­ise.

FOR GORD, A LAST HAR­VEST

This year, the an­nual Mort­lach Fall Sup­per, a long-stand­ing com­mu­nity gath­er­ing that caps the har­vest sea­son, wel­comed 360 at­ten­dees; that’s 100 more than the pop­u­la­tion of Mort­lach it­self. In my youth, the event, held at the vil­lage hall, was packed with lo­cals, and pretty much ev­ery­one who came was in­volved in farm­ing.

Now, many at­ten­dees come from sur­round­ing towns, and even from Moose Jaw. A tra­di­tion built around those who owned and worked fam­ily farms – and who built an or­ganic com­mu­nity on their way to feed­ing their fel­low Cana­di­ans – is be­com­ing a gath­er­ing un­teth­ered to the land.

But not ev­ery farm­ing rit­ual has been lost, at least not quite yet. In late Oc­to­ber, when Gord was racing to com­plete the fi­nal stretch of his fi­nal har­vest, 320 acres of North­ern Spring wheat, he (along with many other farm­ers across Saskatchewan and Al­berta) was halted for a month by wet weather, in­clud­ing early-sea­son snow. When the sun fi­nally reap­peared for a few days, dry­ing the wheat, he was able to re­sume the har­vest, only to face an­other weath­er­driven dead­line: With four days of com­bin­ing work still to fin­ish, he had only two days be­fore rain was set to come in again. And his crop would not with­stand an­other down­pour.

As he raced against time, work­ing late into the night, he called ev­ery­one he could think of for as­sis­tance – in­clud­ing his for­mer hired man, who had re­tired. No one was avail­able.

Then, at the 11th hour, he got ahold of a lo­cal fa­ther and his two sons who had just com­pleted their own har­vest work and were now ready to lend a hand. The next morn­ing, they ar­rived with two com­bines and a grain truck, and, to­gether with my step­fa­ther, fin­ished the work in just more than a day.

Gord’s last har­vest was one for the his­tory books.

We need to learn more about our food, where it comes from, who makes it, how healthy it is and how healthy the com­mu­nity that cre­ated it is.

A paint­ing by artist M.C. Kukura de­picts the Will fam­ily farm as it looked prior to 1975, the year the barn burned down. Gord Will grew up on the farm lo­cated near the vil­lage of Mort­lach in south­west Saskatchewan. Apart from the house and the barn, his fa­ther built all of the build­ings on the prop­erty. You can see the large gar­den his mother kept be­side the house. Parked in the drive­way is a 1952 Chevro­let.

Top: Gord Will and his wife, Nora, stand in their farm­yard south of Mort­lach, Sask. Gord has farmed his fam­ily’s land since the spring of 1965, the year he grad­u­ated high school. Af­ter har­vest, Gord does his books at the din­ing room ta­ble in his home. In Saskatchewan alone, be­tween 1911 and 2016, the num­ber of farms dropped 64 per cent even as the amount of to­tal farm­land more than dou­bled.

Gord Will har­vests wheat on his land in the Coteau Hills, near Mort­lach, Sask., in Oc­to­ber.

Gord Will gets un­der the hood to re­pair one of his grain trucks be­fore head­ing out to the field to con­tinue har­vest­ing on his farm in Mort­lach, Sask., in Oc­to­ber. Gord has wit­nessed a four­fold in­crease in crop pro­duc­tion in his life­time, but this in­creased pro­duc­tion has come at a cost to the land, he says.

ALL PHO­TOS BY MARK TAYLOR

The an­nual Mort­lach Fall Sup­per is a long-stand­ing com­mu­nity gath­er­ing that caps the har­vest sea­son, once at­tended pri­mar­ily by lo­cal farm­ers; this year, the sup­per wel­comed 360 at­ten­dees from sur­round­ing towns and even as far away as Moose Jaw, as the tra­di­tion slowly be­comes un­teth­ered to the land.

While this year is Gord’s last har­vest, he and his wife, Nora, in­tend to rent their land to farm­ers they know and trust, and to keep a close con­nec­tion with the farm.

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