This article was originally written for The Otter, the blog of the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) and of which I am a member. It was posted Jan 20, 2014.
In January, I attended the annual Crop Production Show in Saskatoon. If you love climbing on tractors and combines, swathers and sprayers, and seeing the new (and increasingly large) agricultural technology, this is the event for you. The organizers also have excellent break-out sessions that cover everything from new crop ideas (camelina, anyone? Anyone? How about quinoa?) to market trends to future ag innovation.
As an active farmer in west-central Saskatchewan, #CPS14 is a must-see. But a couple of points caught my attention – and gave me that feeling of contentment, like a cat being stroked while laying in a warm patch of sun. I was content because I saw the future.
First, the backstory: in October 2013, I participated in a University of Saskatchewan Learning Communities public forum called The Future of Farming. (I wish I could post a link to the forum, which was recorded, but it’s still not on the website. I’ll keep you informed). Along with my co-presenter, Terry Tollefson from the Department of Soil Science, we had a lot of fun, casting our minds forward to consider: what will farming look like in western Canada in the future?
As a historian, trained to research and create stories built on the past, thinking about the future is a fantastic exercise. Even if you’re not inclined to science fiction, dystopic, or otherwise futuristic imaginings, I do recommend it. It’s a bit like math plotting on a graph: if this, and this, and this are the trends, where might the next point on the graph be?
I decided to focus my talk on three points. One, the future of farming is an increase in the farm-to-fork movement. That means a closer connection between consumers and producers, whether that is through farmers’ markets, on-farm visits, organics, or food baskets delivered directly to consumers. Locally-sourced and fresh are buzzwords with impact.
I have personal concerns with this movement (which I support in both principle and practise) but those can be held for another day.
The second point I made during that public forum is, our farm future of western Canada is increasingly twinned with the future of bearded, plain-clad men (and kerchief-covered, dress-wearing women) sporting rather German accents. If you don’t live in western Canada, the answer is: Hutterites. Hutterite colonies (Hutterian brethren) offer socially integrated, religious-based, well-funded and well-resourced entities that are at the forefront of farming. They have an immense manpower base – kids often leave school at 14 to enter adult, full-time productive farm life, with specific roles and training. Hutterite farms are massive mixed farms that straddle both commercial productive agriculture (from grains to pork to dairy) and subsistence-based, farm-raised produce for sale at farmers’ markets or direct to consumers. I get my chickens and eggs from one of five local Hutterite colonies near Biggar, and buy plenty of produce in the summer.
Hutterite men were everywhere at the Crop Production Show. And the agricultural retailers, wholesalers, buyers, and manufacturers gave them full attention. With their increasing land base, connections to both commercial and local-style agriculture, and solid financial backing, the Hutterite farms are major players in our agricultural future and a model and lesson in how to balance the competing demands of commercial agriculture to feed a growing world population (hear Bill Gates get excited about fertilizer and feeding the world) with the need to provide consumers with confidence in our clean, healthy food (see the A & W campaign for better beef).
Clearing the land north of Prince Albert, c. 1920s. Source: Saskatchewan Settlement Experience R-A32676
My third point was, the future of farming has a specific direction: north. I’ve been researching the future of western Canada through the prognoses of climate scientists. Climate change predictions, in a wild case of positive spin, are pointing to Canada as a potentialsuperpower, a net winner andenvy of the world in global warming. As the Globe and Mail publishes in January 2014, the ‘magnetic’ north is Canada’s ‘last frontier’. These predictions offer a sense of historical whiplash, particularly for me. Unlocking frozen northern soil opens up a scenario of northern migration, of farmers, crops, animals, and whole societies moving north – a repeat of the Great Trek migrations I document in the last chapter of Forest Prairie Edge: Place History in Saskatchewan (April 2014).
During extensive droughts in western Canada between 1914 and 1938, the prairies dessicated, cracked and bled people in torrents. Thousands of those migrants – an estimated 45,000 in Saskatchewan alone between 1930 and 1938 – moved north. They hacked and grubbed farms out of the bush in the Peace River country of Alberta, across the forest fringe of Saskatchewan, and in the interlake region of Manitoba as the last generation of ‘pioneers’ moving into Grey Owl’s famous ‘last frontier.’ They fled a capitalistic, wheat-mining landscape that could not grow gardens, feed for livestock, or crops. Environmental refugees, they abandoned the desert and turned to subsistence, following the north star toward green, wet, trees, fuel, berries, fish, game, hay, warmth: hope.
Back to the present. While an agricultural show is not a noted bastion for climate change advocates, I saw plenty of evidence of climate considerations, from cold-weather and wet-adapted crops to insurance changes to an increase in back-to-the-land, alternative fuel, organic and clean food, and new transportation businesses. With the real threat of wild weather and electrical mayhem upon us, as Dagomar Degroot noted, climate change is bearing down.
It was fun, as a historian and active farmer, to let my thoughts fly forward instead of backward, projecting toward the future of western Canadian agriculture. What I see is a similar whiplash, a growing movement to reconnect to landscape, rebuild the ties that bind each of us to the earth. My advice? Make those connections in a place that has the basics of life: water, trees for shelter and fuel, and earth to grow a garden. Or at least, connect to a farmer who is already making that move.