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Archive for the ‘Farming’ Category

Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.

But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.

(more…)

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The following was originally published (in slightly edited form) for ActiveHistory.ca 23 January 201. We’re a group of historians interested in thinking about history and its current and future applications.

So, I’m writing a book.

What follows, for your January darn-it’s-cold-and-I’m-ready-for-something-kind-of-fun reading pleasure, is a primer (briefing notes) about the book. Given the growing recognition that Mother Nature remains strong and rather angry about human-induced climate change – kudos to everyone who spent Christmas with no power – I’m writing about human migration.

Drawing lessons from families who pulled up stakes and moved during the Great Trek from one biome (prairie south) to another (boreal north) due to drastic climate and economic problems during the Great Depression and Dirty Thirties, this book is based on history but with an eye to practical suggestions for the future. Imagine me having a conversation with my Grandpa and Grandma: what should I do to be prepared? Some of the following five lessons may or may not apply to your situation. It depends if you have a horse. Lessons may be tongue-in-cheek or serious. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

The underlying premise of the book is that climate change is happening and is worsening, and that Canada (in particular, Canada’s middle north and north) has been pinpointed as a place to which climate migrants from around the world may flee.

So, let’s get started, shall we?

Lesson one:

Leave sooner rather than later. Leave at the first sign of things going drastically wrong. Use this opportunity to go directly to a place where you think you might like to be. North Bay, Ontario? The Pas, Manitoba? Prince George, BC? Excellent choices – fresh water, some farmland, some trees, but with access to hospitals and schools. Edge places, with a lot of variety. You will be much more successful if you move sooner and get established, while you still have some capital and some energy. Waiting, hanging on where you are until the last moment, will cause you trouble in the long run. Takeaway: pull out your map of Canada and pinpoint possibilities. Then do your homework.

Lesson two:

Take family with you. And friends. And choose a place where you know a few people already. This is called social capital and you will need it. If things go to ‘hell in a handbasket’, as the old saying goes, you may need to rely on each other, pool resources, work together. This is no time to stand on your own, be stand-offish or independent. Social capital can save you or pull you through when things are tough. This will also help when you get lonesome and homesick for the place that you had to leave. Having your family and friends with you, instead of leaving them behind, will take the edge off your move. Takeaway: start making a plan, involve your friends and family, and make your social capital work for you.

Lesson three:

You will probably have to take lots of small jobs that rotate seasonally rather than one job. Yes, you’re right, you will be poorer. But you shouldn’t starve. Losing the single employment that brings in cash can put you in the poorhouse faster than you can say ‘mortgage payment.’ Having lots of small jobs usually means that you have a lot of skills that are portable and have value. You will need to be flexible if you are forced to move because of climate change. You may not find a job in your area of expertise, or you may find one but it may not be full-time. As the economy shifts beneath our feet, you may need to branch out. If you’re already on this path, good for you: you’re one step ahead. Takeaway: the future economy is perilous. The one-job, one-wage norm is changing. Change first, on your own terms. Be ahead of the curve.

Lesson four:

Physical labour will probably be required. Some of it will be hard, some of it will be icky. Learn to chop wood, use a chainsaw, haul water, build a fire, cook with wood, grow a garden, pick berries, shoot a gun, catch and gut a fish, learn your plants in the real world instead of the supermarket, and in general get closer to the land. Buy workgloves and work boots and work clothes. Expect your work days to last longer than 7.5 hours. Expect to work outside in all weather, in all seasons. Can you fix things yourself? Brush up on that. If storms and floods and fires and other major catastrophes are increasing, you need to be ready. Takeaway: join Scouts, make friends with an active grandparent who cooks, sews, cans, and has a garden, volunteer at a summer camp, take classes in plumbing, electricity, carpentry, and mechanics, and get fit. Be brave.

Lesson five:

Your horse might die of swamp fever. Otherwise known as ‘migration surprise,’ there may be material things (wifi gadgets, electrical gadgets, cars) or animals in your life who will either miss the old landscape so much that they won’t work in the new one (if, by chance, you end up in an off-the-grid cabin in the woods) or they find something in the new one that may kill them. Horses, for example, seem very good at contracting infectious anemia (swamp fever). Transmitted by mosquito bite, and mosquitos are common to nice wet areas, the best line of defense is to learn to make a smudge. Build a fire, then partially smother it with wet straw. Smokes like the dickens. Mosquitos hate it. Word of warning: cars don’t like northern roads, which are notorious when they exist and worse when they don’t. Buy a truck. With a winch. If you can’t afford a truck, and only have a car and a horse, take your chances on the horse. As for your internet fix, that’s harder. See lesson one about choosing your destination. Takeaway: cars vs. horses: horse wins. Cars vs. trucks: take the truck. And address your wifi habit before you go.

Recap: move first, move with friends and family, be flexible, be prepared, and be ready for surprises.

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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

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.

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Some 2013 activities to report:

SK Sense of Place.imagesCAFVW9ZL

1. Saskatchewan: A Sense of Place — Guest Speaker:

On February 21st, 2013, I was invited by the University of Saskatchewan Archives to be the guest speaker at their Saskatchewan: A Sense of Place exhibit. Located in the annex between the main Murray library and its north wing, the exhibit showcased Saskatchewan novelists and writers, a selection from the extensive postcard and poster collection, and a fantastic display of Saskatchewan local history books. As the guest speaker, I had my choice of topics — but for me, it was simple. My MA work, back in the distant past, studied Saskatchewan local history books and I had a ball regaling the audience with backstories of mice, murder, and mayhem (the stories that didn’t make it into the history books — and why!). It was a hugely successful event and I enjoyed the beautiful music provided by Carolyn and Sonia, to round out the afternoon.

2. Adjunct Professor, School of Environment and Sustainability:

In September 2013, I accepted an adjunct faculty position with the School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan. Think of it as an ‘association’ or perhaps an ‘affiliation’ if the term adjunct is too weird. What it means: we have a formalized relationship, where I have a home University base at the U of S, and can advise or mentor students whose projects fit well with my own research strengths.

3. The Future of Farming: Guest Speaker:

October 23, 2013 saw me troop back to the U of S campus to visit with students from the new Interdisciplinary Learning Communities group at the U of S. (Find them at http://www.usask.ca/ulc/lc/about). Along with soil scientist Terry Tollefson from the College of Agriculture, we hosted an open forum on “The Future of Farming”. The session was live-taped, and when the link becomes available, I will post it HERE. (That could take some time — bear with me!). Learning Communities coordinator Joel Fonstad said afterward, “we’ve never had so many questions!” What will the future of agriculture look like? Three thoughts from my corner were: increases and market gains in the farm to fork movement; increased growth in Hutterite colonies and perhaps a lesson there in how agriculture will look; and some thoughts on climate change and the pole-ward progression of farming. It was fun, as a historian and active farmer, to let my thoughts fly forward instead of backward, projecting toward a future that will — yes– bring change and growth and difference to western Canadian agriculture.

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The following is a blog post I wrote for ActiveHistory.ca. It was cross-posted to The Otter, a blog for NiCHE (Network in Canadian History of the Environment).  Links to those posts: http://activehistory.ca/2013/01/water-stories/ and http://niche-canada.org/node/10556.

Spring 2011 010

Water wells up and flows across the landscape of my memory as a cataclysmic force, ebbing and flowing through my earliest life story. Those encounters shift the flotsam of my perceptions as an environmental historian, shaping the way I think about water. And, these stories require sharing, as they differ radically from that of colleagues raised in urban environments where drinkable water flows under, around, into, and out of every home.

My family’s first farm house, purchased in the early 1970s, did not have a bathroom. Our toilets were the classic outhouse, and a metal five gallon pail with a toilet seat lid tucked strategically behind the furnace in the basement, next to a holder for the toilet paper. It was Dad’s job to haul the honey pail up the stairs every day and dump it in the bush. There was a base efficiency to that daily routine, though, that belies its yuckiness. Humans use bathrooms. Every day. What innovations –– in fertilizer, in composting, in sanitation –– would we create if each household was responsible for managing their own eliminations?

The bathtub was a huge galvanized steel contraption placed under the stairs in the hallway when it came time to scrub up four kids and two adults. Bucketed full of water, Dad plugged in a special water heater that looked to me like a metal foot. My job was to move this contraption every few minutes to different spots in the tub, to ensure even heating. As the youngest kid, I often had the privilege of first scrub in the warmest and cleanest water. But with all the work that went into hauling and warming the water, you can be sure that it cleaned more than one body. Efficiency, thy name is sharing.

When I was five or six, we moved in a much larger farm house, one with a bathroom. This necessitated massive renovations, including digging a cistern –– a huge holding tank for water, dug under the new verandah. While water could now gush, flush, and rush out of taps, we still had daily water concerns. Cisterns do not fill themselves. Our water came in summer from the Garden River (which conveniently flowed through our farm land), pumped by Dad via a snake of black pipe. Tadpoles and the odd frog came too, but they never survived the bleach bath: gallons of bleach poured into the water to stabilize it and kill some of the germs. In winter, water became an expensive commodity, brought to our farm and pumped into the cistern by a water hauling truck.

Living off a cistern creates an instant water shortage. Each drop translated into either time or money. Wasting water was not an option. Mom invested in a SudSaver washing machine and a laundry tub, saving wash or rinse water to use over again. We continued to share bath water –– Who’s next? Who wants my water? was the holler from the tub. And there is an old saying enshrined on the walls of many a bathroom in rural Canada: “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.’  On a farm, you knew the provenance of every drop, and you knew where it was all going. Grey and black water mixed in the sewer holding tank, which was pumped out regularly to some far corner of the yard.

Cistern water was for baths and flushes, dishes and clothes –– but not for drinking. As in our pre–bathroom days, drinking water did not come out of the tap. There was a pail of fresh soft clean drinking water, with a dipper, in the kitchen for general use: teapots and coffee pots, thirsty kids, boiling potatoes, and making juice. We hauled that water from generous neighbors lucky enough to own ‘good’ wells, or from the nearest village where water was treated.

On our current farm, the worth of water remains, and responsibility rests squarely on us. The well and its pump are monitored and maintained, the sewer lines checked, the reverse osmosis system (which purifies the well water for drinking) flushed and cleaned and kept in working order. There is always a back up of drinking water stashed away. If something goes wrong, it is our job to fix it, or find a way to live with or without it.

My water stories feed my imagination of our collective Canadian future: a cistern in every house; tap water clean enough for flushing and washing, but a separate system for drinking; innovation in black water reuse; and finally, a new universal maxim: running water, and (even more so), drinkable running water in everyone’s home is not a ‘right,’ or even a given. Access to clean water, yes. But modern city standards of drinking water flowing from every tap have skewed our perception of how water ‘should’ be delivered to all Canadians, and of what quality, no matter where they live. It is an unsustainable, and untrue, perception. If water was part of our everyday chores, responsibility, and routine (instead of an unthinking part of our day managed by someone else, delivered to our taps and whisked away when we’re done with it), water would once again be worth its weight. And its value would be true.

 

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[Note: this post is a reprint from a blog I wrote for The Otter, the blogpost for NiCHE, Network in Canadian History of the Environment. Find the original post here: http://niche-canada.org/node/10456]

I remember my first sight of the old Albert Kessel farm. Nestled on the number Four Saskatchewan highway halfway between Biggar and Rosetown, I loved it from the moment I laid eyes on it — through the window of the truck on my way for my first visit to my then-boyfriend’s parents’ farm. “Wow!” I remember saying. “Look at all those great trees!” A northern Saskatchewan bush girl, I hadn’t yet become attuned to the distinctive and iconic prairie landscape. The spruce and jackpine seemed a dollop of ‘home-as-trees’, stretching to brush the clouds of the prairie sky.

I couldn’t predict, then, that one day I would own that piece of land.

When luck looped through our world and the land came into our ownership and stewardship, I found numerous treasures embedded in the landscape. Stone fences, crumbling. An old road, now leading nowhere. An orchard, the last few hardy trees still birthing fruit. A well, which, when primed, still spills forth fresh water. Another wellhead, furtively tucked under trees and surrounded by growth, littered with empty whiskey jugs – the remains of a still? A steel-wheeled wagon, abandoned so long that its front right wheel is encased by the tree that quietly grew from sapling to spire, anchoring the wagon to the earth, ending its rolling days. A swatch of the Bear Hills, never tilled, native prairie warming the soil like a thick kokum’s quilt.

Wagon at the Kessel farm. Merle Massie collection.

One hill in particular rises to attention, flowing above the farm and the circle of pine and spruce. At its top, a cairn of stones cradles an old, rusted, flagpole.

Flagpole at the Kessel farm, 2006. Merle Massie collection.

Since our purchase, I’ve been trolling the memories of neighbors, local museums, and community history books, gleaning accounts of the farm’s original owner: Albert Kessel, a garlic-chewing, eccentric, WWI bugler, journalist, Czechoslovakian master prize-winning bachelor farmer crossed in love. Fascinating.

Albert Kessel, 1958. “Yielded 45 bushels to acre.” Hills in background. Courtesy Biggar Museum.

I wrote about Albert Kessel and my search for knowledge about him in 2008, published in the June/July issue of The Beaver, now Canada’s History Magazine. I knew that Kessel operated a demonstration farm, which was widely-known and visited every year on field day by as many as 400 researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, federal experimental farms, the Searle Grain Company, neighbors, and busloads of schoolchildren. He called it Vimy Ridge Farm.

Kessel was a bugler during WWI, shot through the thigh at Vimy Ridge. In my article for The Beaver, I wrote: did this hill remind Albert of Vimy Ridge? Is that why he called his farm Vimy Ridge Farm? Did he ever blow his bugle up here? I thought it most likely that the hill, or the series of hills, reminded Albert of his harrowing French experience. In salute, Kessel erected a flagpole and every day, he would stump up the hill and fly a British flag.

At the time, I had never visited the real Vimy Ridge. All I knew of the site was confined to history books and photographs, a landscape of the imagination but never of experience. I thought that Vimy Ridge was like Hill 70 or another strategic marker on a theatre of war where every height of land meant a mile more of sovereignty. That changed in 2009, when I visited Vimy Ridge during a conference tour of Belgium and France.

The experience was overwhelming. The imprint of war on the landscape is still tangible. I visited the tunnels, shuddered at being underground, and felt my jaw drop as my eyes skidded over the craters and hummocks that pock the grass – debris from bombs that exploded on the landscape nearly a century ago. Whether or not you believe that Canada was forged at Vimy Ridge – and I’m not a pinpointer of history – knowing that you stand on Canadian soil in the middle of France redefines your perception of what it means to be Canadian.

But it was at the monument that I had my epiphany. And I wasn’t looking at the monument when it happened. I was looking out, at a flat French landscape that was both foreign and intimately familiar. I was reminded of my own words in that article I wrote for The Beaver: To the north of the yard is a commanding hill, hosting a phenomenal panoramic view of the prairies in a fifty-mile swing from east to southwest.

France, from Vimy Ridge. Merle Massie collection.

I knew, in that instant, why Albert Kessel named our farm Vimy Ridge Farm. It wasn’t about the hill – it was the view. From both Vimy Ridge in France, and Vimy Ridge Farm in Saskatchewan, the two landscapes provide a near mirror-image of space, sky, and panoramic earth. Of course, France is covered in towns, villages, trees, and industry: the pyramids are piles of coal, and that is what both armies wanted. Saskatchewan provides a relatively empty prairie view, studded with a few isolated farmsteads and an expansive agricultural skin regularly grown and shaved by generations of farmers.

When Alan MacEachern issued his lovely summer call for photographs of historical landscapes (http://niche-canada.org/node/10423) I considered where I might go, what I would like to see. But my heart knew that I had already made this trip, even if it did not conform exactly to specs. My story draws together two landscapes separated by an ocean and half a continent, and almost a century of time. The story of Vimy Ridge, and the cascading memories of place, connected a little farm in Saskatchewan with an iconic Canadian symbol.

One day, we’ll raise the flag again. We’ll do it for tenacious Saskatchewan homesteaders; for unlucky romances; for Great War and Vimy Ridge veterans; for excellence in prairie agriculture; and, for garlic-chewing bachelor farmers.

And that’s my story.

Vimy Ridge Farm Flagpole, 2012.

 

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A link to my latest video, shot September 2011 at Massie Lakeview Farms in west central Saskatchewan, and in my garden and kitchen in Biggar, SK.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYykBOQJQdM

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