Giving back and building community — one potato at a time

A crop which would have gone to waste in 2016, inspired an act of giving. It then became an intentional event — with over 120,000 lbs of potatoes donated in three years.

In 2019, it was a welcome, joyful way to end a trying, exhausting year for one Manitoba farm family. It speaks to the importance of community, giving back and reducing food waste while  creating a positive, uplifting environment to make connections and share farm-to-food stories. This story is an example of the kindness, determination and resilience of farmers.  

Originally published in the Manitoba Co-operator  April 23, 2020 


Giving away 44,000 lbs potatoes was the highlight of 2019 for Mark and Yanara Peters of Spruce Drive Farms. They grow certified seed potatoes on their farm 12 miles northwest of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.

With a less-than-average crop and a year filled with challenges, the Peters family wasn’t sure they would have enough potatoes to fill their contracts, let alone any to give away.

The growing season was filled with adverse weather conditions — far too dry when the crop was developing, excessive rains, early, heavy snowfalls in the fall — and mud. So. Much. Mud. Then an unprecedented 10-day power outage from an early October storm added another layer of stress — keeping generators running so potatoes already dug and in storage did not spoil. Harvest was incredibly slow, difficult and late. Overall, the farming year was physically and emotionally draining.

Yet, late in the fall, when Mother Nature gave a brief window of opportunity, the Peters family took advantage and dug two extra truck loads of their crop, specifically for a Community Potato Give-Away in Portage la Prairie. From past experience, they knew it filled a need and also how good it felt to give.

“This year more than ever we were good and ready for a pick-me-up,” Yanara Peters expressed as she smiled and patted Mark’s hand.

People gathering spuds along the 36-foot conveyor at the Community Potato Give-Away

It all began in 2016 as a result of circumstance. Seed potato production standards are very precise. That year, some of the Peters’ crop did not meet seed specifications but was perfectly suitable for the consumer market. However, without a contract to sell consumer potatoes, there was no place for those spuds to go. They could have left them in the field and avoided incurring more costs, but that type of waste didn’t sit well with them. They opted to dig the crop and the “Community Potato Give-Away” was born.

Fueled by its success, and the gratification they felt afterwards, the event continued in 2017. “It’s only potatoes, but it just brought so much to the community,” Mark said. “It’s a great opportunity to interact with people and hear their stories. The most basic need is being met with the most basic vegetable.”

But in 2018, Mother Nature had other plans. After an extremely wet fall, cold temperatures on October 11th froze 5,200 acres of unharvested potatoes in Manitoba. The Peters family was disheartened to lose what remained of their crop. What they had hoped would become an annual event was now not possible.

“We had them in the field, but when we got that early frost, that was it,” stated Mark. “We were disappointed, but that’s how it (farming) is. People understand.”

Mark Peters overlooking the crowd while unloading potatos onto the conveyor

Then, smiling, he went on, “I didn’t expect to be able to do it this year, because it was so late. After the power-outage and storm, I really didn’t think we’d be out there again. Once we realized we could, every load was just a gift — not expected at all, but so appreciated.”

It speaks volumes about the Peters family that they really don’t want to discuss the extra effort, time and cost it takes to do the give-away, but they were quick to acknowledge their employees who helped dig and grade the potatoes (removing mud and spoiled potatoes). When their crew knew those last loads were slated for giving, they generously donated their time.

So on Saturday, November 2, 2019, Mark and Yanara hosted their 3rd event. Family and friends readily volunteered to help. The day was cool, but thankfully the temperature hovered just above the freezing mark. They loaded two potato trucks and a 36-foot conveyor and drove the 12 miles to Portage la Prairie. They arrived early to set up, but with word spreading through social media and the local radio station, a crowd soon gathered.

Carrots donated by Connery Riverdale Farms

Peters and his volunteers moved quickly to get potatoes rolling out from the truck onto the conveyor to ease pick-up. Two large totes (about 3,000 lbs) of carrots donated by another local producer, Connery’s Riverdale Farms, added an unexpected bonus for those stopping by for spuds.

People came with bags, boxes, containers of all shapes and sizes to fill, not only for themselves, but for others — relatives, friends, shut-ins, those in need but with no transportation to get there. This is exactly the kind of giving and community building the Peters hoped to inspire when they had their very first give-away.

Conversations about why the potatoes were so muddy, and smaller than normal, created opportunities to talk about the realities of farming. Yes, the give-away is usually in mid-October, but the potatoes were still in the field then.

What makes the day so special though, is hearing the stories: potatoes going to a school lunch program and to families from that school; a young mom from India who has been here for nine years, delivering spuds to eight new Canadian families; a couple not taking for themselves, but for those in need in their neighbourhood. One gentleman driving by, saw the crowd gathered and stopped to inquire, “Free potatoes? Really? And carrots too?” He’d been asked to make food for a wake — it would now be a potato and carrot soup.

The atmosphere was jovial, light-hearted and welcoming. Smiles, hugs, waves and heartfelt thank yous were abundant. Someone commented, “You’re making a lot of people very happy today.”

That continued —9,000 lbs were loaded into bulk bags for First Nations communities across the province — delivered for free by Principle Supply, a local company serving those communities.

Yanara Peters enjoying one of many conversations during the give-away.

“It felt good — to see people, to talk to them,” shared Yanara. “At the end of the day we felt thankful — that we could do it, for our community, for all the people who showed up. We had so many volunteers, but others who came to get potatoes ended up staying to help because it was so much fun to be there. People of all ages, from all walks of life, helped each other.”

This act of giving is a deliberate one for the Peters family. Their potato storage bin was not overflowing — they could’ve sold those 44,000 lbs of potatoes, but wanted to give. Faith plays a huge role — this is what they feel called to do. They also remember being on the receiving end of help when they were young.

Mark reflects, “It was a tough, very poor year. It would’ve been easy not to do the give-away again, but we chose to do it and want to continue if at all possible. It’s how it should be.”

In a year which wore so many down in the farming community across the country, the Peters family created a way to fill their cup, make connections and build community —one potato at a time.

Celebrating Canada’s Agriculture Day with Farm Photos

Originally published in the Manitoba Co-operator February 7, 2020


February  11th, Canada’s Agriculture Day, is intended to showcase all the amazing things happening in our industry. It’s a time to create a closer connection between consumers, our food and the people who produce it. Sharing what you love about Canadian agriculture can be as simple as posting a photo.

For me, a social media “10-day farming-family photo challenge” last year was a great exercise in putting this into practice. Every day I was to, “Select an image from a day in the life of farming that has had an impact on me, post it without a single explanation and nominate someone else to take the challenge —10 days, 10 farming photos, 10 nominations, and 0 explanations.”

But with less than 2% of our population farming, it seemed like pictures without explanations would be a missed opportunity to share our farm-to-food story — to make a connection with the other 98%, to create a welcoming forum for asking questions, addressing concerns and virtually inviting others onto our family farm.

These are my choices — the photos that affected me, stirred my emotions, made me pause and reflect on 30 years of life on our family farm.  They’re ones I will share again on Canada’s Agriculture Day, along with others taken over the course of this past year.

What pictures would you choose and which stories would you share?


‘Home’ — Day 1

Across that golden field of blooming canola, within the bluff of trees, is our family farm. My husband’s great-grandparents and their family came from Scotland and settled here over 90 years ago.

June 2019 marked thirty years of it being my home. Thirty years of marriage and farm life. Thirty years of learning and adapting. Thirty years of challenges and rewards. I fell in love with my farmer and this vast, beautiful prairie landscape. We raised our two children here, cultivating values which have enabled them to follow their dreams.

I pulled over one day last summer on my way home to take this photo. I’ve taken many pictures in and around our yard, but never from this distance or perspective. This photo evokes many memories and emotions. Among them — gratitude and pride in being part of a family farm, caring for the land entrusted to us by our ancestors, growing food for Canadians and people around the world, all while making a living on the land we love.


‘Down to earth’ — Day 2

Some people see dirt, but this is soil — a living, dynamic ecosystem. The foundation of farming. Caring for it is crucial for growing healthy crops, now and into the future. Farmers work with agronomists and soil scientists to make decisions that will create and keep our land healthy. We are continually learning how to best do this by testing our soils, choosing proper tillage techniques, rotating the crops we grow, incorporating organic matter, reducing compaction and loss of nutrients. Education is ongoing and when we know better, we do better. Soil type, texture, structure and density vary from field to field and farm to farm, so techniques to care for it will also vary. But ultimately farmers strive to be stewards of the land and do their very best to care for the soil that sustains us all.


‘Hopper Full of Gold’ — Day 3

Harvest is the ‘red-carpet’ event of farming, and the combine (harvester) is the ‘star’. Those trucking grain from the field to storage bins, or going for parts when there is a breakdown, or making meals, play supporting roles.

It’s an exciting time as you reap the rewards of a full year of planning, working and hoping the weather is favourable. Not only to grow healthy crops that yield well, but also weather which allows you to quickly and efficiently harvest those crops in top condition.

This photo captures both the beauty and significance of harvest. The setting sun is over top of the “hopper”, (the part of the combine where the harvested seeds collect after they have been separated from the stems and leaves of the plants). One of my favourite harvest shots to date.


‘Food in Progress’ — Day 4

Wheat in the early stages, months before it turns into the iconic waving fields of gold many people envision when they think of this crop. 

As farmers we do all we can to ensure that our crops stay healthy and flourish over the growing season. But despite our best efforts, we also need faith, hope and optimism. Ultimately, Mother Nature holds the key. The right amount of rain and sunshine are beyond our control, as are hail, frost or other adverse weather conditions that can damage or destroy our crops.

But at this point, I choose to see the potential of this ‘food in progress’. I like to envision a healthy crop of wheat being harvested, then finding its way to flour mills around Canada and the world. A small portion is always reserved for my pantry, to be used in the cookies, cakes and muffins I like to bake.


‘Sunset Check’ — Day 5

Hands down, one of my favourite farm pics to date.

Like the majority of my photos, I just happened to be in the right place, at the right time. I was out for an evening walk with our dog, and as the sun was setting, my husband stopped to make sure he had enough canola seed and fertilizer in the seeder (planter) to finish the field he was working in that night.

The light was magical, the cool spring air was still and rich with the scent of freshly worked soil. This photo evokes so much emotion. It speaks to the dedication and determination it takes to farm. To the advancements we are fortunate to have compared with our ancestors. To how my life has been enriched by living here, being a part of our family farm and this amazing industry.


‘Remember when’ — Day 6

Up until 10 years ago, cattle were a part of our family farm. Our herd was small, only 30 to 40 cows and calves. This time of year would be filled with the excitement and challenges of cows giving birth.

But there came a time when it no longer made financial sense to keep our small herd. We either had to acquire more animals, which meant a large investment in them, shelter, equipment and more pasture, or sell our herd and focus solely on the grain and oilseed part of our operation.

Economically, it was an easy decision. Emotionally it was difficult. Cattle had been on our farm for generations. It requires dedication and a love for animals to work with them. And there are always those extra special animals who form an exceptional bond with you. There were many mixed emotions the day they left our farm.


‘Patiently waiting’ — Day 7

Our dog, Sage, sitting attentively in the truck, waiting for the tractor and seeder (planter) in the distance to come around the field to where we are parked. We had brought lunch out to the field for my farmer. Sage knows he’s in there, and also knows there’s a good chance he’ll share a bit of that lunch with her!

She is our second dog — both were city-dogs who came from owners who were moving and looking for a good home for their much-loved pets. Both adapted to farm life well — lots of space to run and play, long walks and even tractor rides.

A wonderful transition for them, but so much more for us. Yes, they warn us when someone comes into our farmyard, but they also provide companionship. And when things go wrong — whether it’s machinery breaking down at a critical time or crops being damaged from drought, hail or flooding — our farm dog plays the role of counsellor. Either with a goofy smile and playful greeting, or simply sitting silently beside you, guiding your hand to the top of their head. That, along with unconditional love and joy they bring into our lives makes them an invaluable member of our farm family.


‘Late night harvest memories’ — Day 8

This photo was taken during harvest, September 2013. My farmer was hauling wheat from the field into the farmyard for storage. He needed a hand. Our daughter, 18-yrs-old at the time, was helping. They’re pausing here, discussing something, as they keep an eye on the equipment working to unload the wheat. It wasn’t the first, or the last time she helped, but it’s the only time I had my camera to capture the memory, and for me it has #allthefeels.


‘After the rain’ — Day 9

No pot of gold here, but hopefully a sign of just the right amount of rain for the growing season. And ultimately, an abundant harvest which ensures those white storage bins in our farmyard will be filled with grain.

We can do absolutely everything to the best of our ability, but Mother Nature holds the cards, determines the outcome — and our income. Every. Single. Year. I’m not sure it’s a risk you ever get used to, but it’s a reality of farming. The reason we’re so acutely concerned with the weather. The reason many farmers have traits of optimism and resilience to deal with those challenges and keep going year after year.


‘Where it all began’ — Day 10

This old black and white aerial photo shows our farmyard four generations ago.

My husband’s great-grandparents settled here in 1926, a second move after immigrating from Scotland in 1922. They wanted a farm with trees, good drinking water and soil without stones. This site fit the criteria to make living and farming here better.

Much has changed since then, but reminders of our past remain with some of the buildings repurposed or repaired. Old steel wheels and pieces of harrow bar grace my flower beds and garden. Picture frames have been made from discarded barn windows. Our kitchen table and chairs are crafted from wooden barn beams.

It’s important to remember our history. To look back with gratitude on the hard work, determination and resilience of our ancestors which ensured we too could farm, make a life and a living here.


 

 

Three Gifts for You

Originally published in the Manitoba Co-operator December 24, 2019


I don’t think anyone in agriculture will dispute 2019 was a year for the record books. The challenges kept mounting throughout the growing season – all of them beyond our control.

Drought followed by untimely, excessive rains and snowfalls. A long, difficult harvest with conditions causing many crops to be left in the field. Poor yields and livestock feed shortages. A lengthy power-outage. Add to all that, trade disputes and a railway strike. It’s been discouraging and exhausting – physically, emotionally and economically.

With Christmas just around the corner, I wish I could do something to make a difference. I’d love to wrap up gifts of financial stability, fair trade deals and the promise of a stress-free, productive year in 2020 for all.

Unfortunately, I can only offer three simple wishes. They have no financial value, but are priceless commodities for the human spirit.

My first wish is serenity. I hope you have a place to find serenity. It may be a peaceful walk in the country, a drive to see Christmas lights, visiting a library or art gallery. Maybe a fireplace where you can curl up with a cup of tea. Perhaps a favourite chair in a quiet room – add music, candlelight or that book you’ve been meaning to read. You might find serenity in the face of a sleeping child or in the beauty of a sunrise or sunset. Or maybe it’s hidden in the glow of Christmas lights casting a peaceful and warm feeling over your home.

My second wish is faith. Faith means many things to many people. We are fortunate to live in a country where we have the freedom to choose our faith. But faith is more than religion – it is what keeps us going when times are difficult – believing things will get better; believing in the resiliency of the human spirit. You may find your faith in a place of worship. Your faith could be restored by a visit at the kitchen table with a good friend. You may find faith in the kindness of strangers or in the excited eyes of a child on Christmas morning. Faith may be buried deep inside you or found in the beauty of nature. When you gaze upon a magnificent prairie sky or watch the northern lights and millions of stars above, how can you not have faith?

My third and final wish is humour. Where would we be without laughter? It provides both a physical and emotional release, reducing stress and increasing relaxation, as well as boosting our immune systems. Laughter can re-energize you, give you strength and put life into perspective. You may find humour in a television show, movie, old pictures, a favourite comic strip or meme. Or how about a visit with that one friend that can always make you lighten up and laugh? Having a sense of humour helps us cope and keeps us moving forward.

Imagine these gifts under your tree this Christmas, beautifully wrapped, for you and your family. May serenity, faith and humour be with you always and help you deal with the many challenges farming and life bring your way.

And as you celebrate this holiday season, may you be surrounded by people who understand, support, uplift and encourage you. Merry Christmas from our family farm to yours.

Timing is everything — especially in farming

Storm rolling in a sunset over a soybean field

Dear September,

You sure weren’t yourself this year. The warm, sunny, dry, harvest days you usually provide happened ever so briefly the first week you were here. Then the rains, which we had longed for all spring and summer, came pouring down, bringing a sudden halt to harvest for the remainder of the month. What was up with that?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we didn’t appreciate you bringing some much-needed moisture to our drought-stricken area of Manitoba. But you really threw us a curve-ball. Over 3 times the amount of rain we had all growing season – in your brief 30 days here — was, well…badly timed.

If only you could have relinquished, at least a portion of, those excessive rains to May, June and July. You must know those are the ever-important formative months of growth for plants.

Didn’t you see us watching the skies in dire hopelessness, praying for moisture, as our crops and hay-lands struggled to grow and thrive? It was heartbreaking to see them dry up from excessive heat and lack of moisture, creeks run dry and river levels at record lows. Not sure if you caught the news, but twelve municipalities across Manitoba declared an agriculture state of emergency as drought and grasshoppers hindered crops.

So September, you can understand our disappointment and frustration, when you come along and completely shut down what little harvest we had with your heavy rains, hail, and in some parts of the prairies — snow.

It’s not that we’re ungrateful to you for restoring soil moisture and bringing pastures back to life for livestock in drought-stricken areas, but you got a little carried away with the “2nd wettest September in 150 years”. And snow? That was just mean.

You’re right, you’re right. Not all farmers are in the same boat. Some of us did manage to get all, or most of, our wheat and canola in the bins. Yes, others, in parts of the prairies where rains were more timely during the growing season, had healthier crops and better yields. But do you have any idea how difficult it is to sit and watch a bountiful crop deteriorate in quality and value from too much rain and snow? Or be totally decimated in a hail storm?

It might be hard for you to understand, but our income is totally dependent on the weather. Every. Single. Year. The timing of weather events is crucial for our crops to thrive and be harvested. When one or several months don’t deliver what is required, the toll it takes on farmers, and their families, is financially, emotionally and even physically exhausting. And I’m sorry to say, September, but you added even more stress and anxiety, which we really didn’t expect. After all, you are normally the driest month.

To date, October is following your lead with cloudy, dreary days, albeit with a little less rain. And now snow? For potentially the next 5 days? But we still need at least a few weeks of warm, sunny, dry weather.

Just take a look around. Potato and vegetable growers are struggling in the mud trying to salvage their crop before frost hits and destroys them as happened last year. There’s a hay shortage. It’s critical for livestock producers to get their silage made, and secure any other available feed and straw to ensure they can care for their animals over the winter months. And surely you see the all the wheat, canola, soybeans, sunflowers, corn and many other crops still out there — wet conditions and muddy fields making it a challenge to get to them.

So much food, feed and even next year’s seed is waiting to be harvested across the prairies. Some of it deteriorating beyond the point of being salvaged. So many resources have gone into growing it all. You might not be able to see the stress and turmoil the caretakers of those crops are going through, but with each passing day, it grows.

I know. What’s done is done. You’re sorry you were off your usual harvest-weather game this year. So what do I want you do about it now?

Well, could you please pass on a message to October? Enough is enough. Stop with the rain and snow. Please send a long stretch of decent harvest weather. The farmers of western Canada could really use a break.


If you or someone you know is struggling with this challenging year, please reach out for help. 

Do More Ag – Resources:   www.domore.ag/resources/

Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services:    www.supportline.ca

Calm in the Storm:    www.calminthestormapp.com

 

Community. Connection. Canola.

Food Day Canada is an annual celebration of Canadian food held on the first Saturday of August. It honours farmers, ranchers, fishers and processors by serving local and regional food and beverages.

But this year, I want to turn the tables to acknowledge, celebrate and thank a special community. A diverse, talented, inquisitive and caring community I would never had met without the Canola Eat Well team from the Manitoba Canola Growers.

Over the years they have organized farm tours, community summits, in-person and on-line food events. Opportunities for this prairie farm girl, and farmers from across Canada, to met chefs, registered dietitians, home economists, recipe developers, food writers/bloggers, scientists and media personnel from coast to coast.

It has provided the chance to share stories and have thoughtful, insightful conversations about food and farming. It has created friendships and meaningful connections.

Our #CanolaConnect community is a special one in many ways. The recent, thoughtful actions of those in it have inspired this post. Below is my thank you to them.


Flowering Canola

Dear Canola-Connect Community,

Since China banned Canadian canola exports, your support and concern for canola farmers has been phenomenal. Your response has emphasized the power and importance of connection and community.

So on Food Day Canada, I want to celebrate you – the chefs, registered dietitians, home economists, recipe developers, food writers/bloggers and media personnel. Your voices as food communicators are valued and important.

In the recent months, you have called on Canadians to include canola oil when they ‘support local’. You have highlighted not only the versatility and nutritional value of our made-in-Canada oil, but the impact of exports to farmers, the industry and our economy.

As I’ve watched you on your television spots or Facebook lives, read your blogs or social media posts, I’ve often had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Your shout-outs, your recipes, your unwavering support, really make a difference to me.

It may not change trade disputes or the outcome of this year’s crop, but it makes it easier to deal with the difficulties. Knowing someone cares. Knowing someone supports you. Knowing someone appreciates what you grow.

Using your talents and passion for what you do to share our stories with your audience makes my heart sing. Every time you make a shout-out to farmers, Canadian food, give the facts behind canola oil and food in general, I’m cheering from the sidelines!

Whether we have met in person at Harvest Camp, Canola Summit, cooking demos or on-line through #canolaconnect, I want to express my gratitude and appreciation. Thank you for your curiousity, interest and desire to learn. For connecting with farmers and understanding the complexities of food production. For appreciating where our food comes from as well as the risks and challenges associated with it.

As Ellen Pruden, Canola Eat Well Director, so wisely stated, “Acts of support are like acts of kindness. They do something to lift people up and make a difference.”

Jennifer Dyck photo


#CanolaConnect Blog Posts

Canada’s Crop: Why I Choose Canola

We Support Canadian Farmers

Opinion: A love letter to you

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting on the weather…

An early evening storm rolled along Highway 16. The heat of the +33 Celcius day dissipated as a much-needed rain began to fall. A rainbow arched across the sky ahead of me, beckoning me home from my road trip to a nearby town.

As I turned on the windshield wipers, I let hope slip in for the ride. Maybe, just maybe, the storm would reach our farm. But the closer I got to home, the lighter the rain became. The showy rainbow held out, but only a mere 3 millimeters* of precipitation fell. We needed 10–15 times that much. Crops suffering from lack of moisture, dry pastures and haylands in our area, would get no relief that night.

And unfortunately, not much in the weeks since. The heat is intense, temperatures about 10 degrees above normal. It feels like August, yet it is only the end of June.

We are still waiting on the weather, longing and hoping for a significant rainfall. We’re not saying the ‘D’ word (drought) out loud yet, but it’s in the back of our minds.

Last year was tough. Rains were spotty and more often than not, they missed our farm. It was a long, hot, dry, dusty summer. Harvest was discouraging with below-average yields. There were no celebratory moments. It was a year of trudging through, filled with worry, concern and disappointment. When the rains finally came in the midst of harvest, there was a bit of relief — at least soil moisture was building for next year.

Now here we are, looking at a seemingly carbon-copy of last year — possibly worse. It’s difficult to remain positive and hopeful for the growing season ahead.

As a result, I find myself reluctant to share our farming story. Even writing, which usually flows easily for me, has become a challenge. I want to be open and transparent, to convey an understanding of what we do and the crops we grow. But right now, concern outweighs good news. There is no joy in photographing crops that aren’t lush and healthy. And how do you talk about tough times without sounding like you’re complaining? After all, this is our chosen field of work.

A friend gently reminded me, as I was deflecting worry and not doing a good job at trying to be upbeat, it is perfectly normal to be concerned about your livelihood. Farming isn’t easy. Being authentic means being honest about tough times as well. Even if it makes us feel vulnerable.

So truth be told, the worry and weight of farming last year, and again now, is a tough slog. Watching the sky, chasing rainbows and counting raindrops takes an emotional toll. For me, gratitude is a daily practice. I strive to find the beauty in every day and share optomistic, encouraging moments. But even the most positive attitude can’t shift the weather. And as much as I try to push worry away, it still sits on my shoulders, jostling for position with hope.

The weather always determines the outcome, and our income. Every. Single. Year. You would think, after 30 years of farmlife, I’d be used to it. But that 100% reliance on Mother Nature is the most difficult reality of farming.

I’m not sharing this for sympathy, but rather empathy and understanding — for farmers everywhere. Imagine if the weather determined your paycheck. You work the equal amount of time every year, your living costs remain the same, or may even go up, but if it rains too much or too little, your take-home pay is cut — perhaps by 25% – 50%, or possibly more.

So if farmers appear to be obsessing or complaining about the weather, it’s because that connection ultimately decides the results of their labours — even when they’ve done everything within their control, to the best of their ability.

Lack of rain is causing stress and anxiety in our area of the prairies. Eastern Canada has struggled with excessive rains and flooding, wreaking havoc with planting. Cutting hay for livestock feed has been extremely challenging. The excitement and optimism a new growing season generally brings has been dashed for many.

So if you know a farmer, reach out – ask how they are really doing. Listen to concerns. Get together for a coffee, a meal, a movie. It won’t change the reality of too little or too much rain, but it always makes a difference knowing someone else cares. Often simply sharing our worries out loud, lightens the emotional load.

As for me, you’ll still see those positive posts and gorgeous prairie sunsets, but I’ll strive to be more open about the difficulties and disappointments as well. For now, it’s still eyes to the sky, waiting on the weather and a desperately-needed rain.

 

 


*Millimeter to inch conversion:    25 mm = 1 inch

Keep CALM and Garden On

Originally published in the Manitoba Co-operator March 14, 2019


Stewart Akerley by his Little Green Thumbs classroom garden at LaVeryndre School in  Portage la Praire, MB

From the moment you step into his classroom, Stewart Akerley’s unbridled energy, passion and enthusiasm for teaching is evident.

My husband and I first met this Portage la Prairie School Division elementary teacher when we volunteered for Canadian Agriculture Literacy Month (CALM) in March 2015.

Cucumber almost ready for harvest

It was also Akerley’s first year of participating in Agriculture in the Classroom’s (AITC) Little Green Thumbs (LGT) program which provides teachers with everything they need for an indoor garden. It compliments the curriculum at any level and offers students the opportunity to grow their own food (tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, lettuce, herbs) right in their classroom, giving them a valuable hands-on learning experience.

Mr. A’, as he is affectionately known by his students, found out about AITC and their Little Green Thumbs program from another teacher in the division.

“She was discussing the success she was having growing a garden in her classroom and I was hooked on every word. I filled out the online application to AITC that very same day,” Akerley said.

During his first year in the program, I asked if he was a gardener. Surprisingly he wasn’t. “I’m learning along with the kids!” he enthusiastically replied. He set up his garden and jumped into learning with his students.

Cherry tomatoes in progress.  Mr. A’s current record for cherry tomatoes grown in one year is 500. He’s hoping to break that record this year!

The outcomes were very fulfilling. “As a teacher, I love to see kids engaging with live plants and learning how to care for them. I love to see their enthusiasm as they get rewarded with healthy food for all their hard work. Gardens offer a wealth of learning for young minds and I will always have one in my classroom now. The challenges have been few. We’ve had a few bugs (insects); holidays make it tricky to keep the plants watered and once the plants are ready for harvest, it’s hard to keep little fingers off. That last one’s a good challenge, though.”

Akerley strikes you as one of those people who was born to teach, but the path to it wasn’t a direct one.

“I started out my career managing automobile collision repair centres and did this for six years. During this time I was asked by my church to try teaching Sunday school. For me, it was an instant hit. While my career was stressful and draining, teaching once a week poured life and vitality back into me. I knew I had to pursue this further. Within a few months, I had quit my job and was accepted into Education at University of Winnipeg. I am now in my eleventh year of teaching and have had the pleasure of teaching in six different schools.”

Akerley also believes in taking opportunities to expand learning outside the classroom. He has run both floor and ice hockey programs for students and is an ardent advocate for healthy eating. At the end of the school year, sending home plants for his students to care for during the summer months has become routine.

During his third year of having a classroom garden he added to the program by purchasing a Tower Garden (an aeroponic systems using water, liquid nutrients and a soil-less growing medium). Successful application for a bursary provided the funding. The vision was to have healthy food more visible and available to students throughout the school. The results were remarkable.

“By the end of the first year with the tower garden, we had produced three different types of lettuce, rainbow chard, arugula, red peppers, cherry tomatoes and strawberries. From it we were able to have three ‘salad parties’ throughout the year that fed 20-30 people each time.”

Feedback like this has made it all worthwhile. “Mr. A, my family went out for supper last night and I ordered salad because the salad we had at school was so good,” one student commented.

Akerley emphasized, “This is what I want my students to take away from this experience. I want them to know that growing food is hard work. It takes patience, and it tastes great. I want them to want to make healthy choices when the choices are available for them.”

Students getting hands-on with soybeans and canola during a CALM presentation

He continues to participate in CALM, extending the learning and allowing his students to connect with area farmers. The ripple effect from AITC’s programs, combined with Akerley’s engaging teaching style and passion for learning, is effecting positive change in the community.

We all have that one teacher who made a positive impact on our lives. There is no doubt that ‘Mr. A’ is a difference-maker who will be remembered by many. His enthusiastic participation emphasizes the value and far-reaching benefits of having, and continuing to grow, AITC programming across the country.

Prairie Magic in a Bottle

Originally published in Canola Digest – November 1, 2018 


Six Manitoba canola growers are bottling and marketing cold-pressed canola oils with flavour characteristics unique to their own farms. Described as ‘Prairie magic in a bottle’, the oils are a locally-grown alternative to imported extra-virgin olive oils.

Bruce Dalgarno, who farms at Newdale, admits the past year and a half since the growers joined forces to form CanFarm Foods Ltd. has been anything but easy, but he and the other farmers are extremely proud of the work they have done.

“When you tell people the canola from your farm is in that bottle, you can see their surprise,” says Keenan Wiebe, another partner. “They don’t get to meet the farmer behind the product that often.”

Cold-pressed canola oil comes from mechanically pressing and grinding the seed at a slow speed with temperatures not exceeding 60°C. While the process means less oil is extracted, the end product is extremely unique.

The terroir — a combination of geography, geology and climate — gives each region’s oil distinct differences in colour, flavour and even nutritional profile. Described as earthy, grassy and nutty, these distinct vintages are perfect for adding flavour to bread dips, salad dressings and marinades or drizzling over a variety of foods as a finishing oil.

As a premium, specialty product, a 250ml bottle retails at $10 — about 20 times the price of conventional canola oil. CanFarm Foods produces three cold-pressed oils — Northern Lights, Heartland and Big Prairie Sky — from the Interlake, Pembina Valley and Parkland regions of Manitoba.

As developing new markets is one of MCGA’s goals, the organization launched a research project in 2014. The Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network (MAHRN) studied virgin, cold-pressed canola oil, meal and co-products from processing. Growing Forward II provided $396,000 funding and MCGA contributed $10,000. The concept of this value-added oil began with Ellen Pruden, education and promotions manager with the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (MCGA). She noticed slight taste differences in conventional canola oil, was aware of terroir in other foods and beverages and knew there was a growing consumer interest in cold-pressed oils.

The research confirmed terroir did exist in canola. The Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie provided guidance in getting the product ready for retail and food service testing. Consumers, chefs and culinary professionals approved. The stage was set to fill a niche market.

MCGA put out a call for members interested in the commercialization of these new oils. Seventeen farmers initially expressed interest, but in the end it was Brian Chorney and son-in-law Kyle Norquay from Selkirk, Bruce Dalgarno from Newdale, David Reykdal and daughter Rebecca from Winnipeg Beach and Keenan Wiebe from Starbuck who incorporated CanFarm Foods in July 2017. Each stakeholder contributed $10,000 to get the company off the ground.

Dalgarno acknowledges getting the oil from farm gate to market has been slow and frustrating. The paperwork and legalities were easy. The challenges included sourcing reasonably priced packaging to improve margins, obtaining accurate nutritional analysis, development of new labels, marketing, shipping costs, working with facilities to crush and bottle the oil, and maintaining consistency in the amount of oil per bushel crushed.

Yet despite obstacles and set-backs, the partners are anxious to move ahead. Economic benefits will depend on how the company fares. But those involved speak more passionately about the opportunity to connect directly with consumers and share their farm story.

“I believe our long-term sustainability goals and the way we work our land means a lot to people who are concerned about where their food comes from,” Chorney says.

“I think as a farmer we need to be more involved,” Dalgarno adds. “The consumer is looking for info on how their food is produced. It is all about education, and it goes both ways. We can also try to understand what the consumer wants and is looking for.”

Sales to date have been mostly consumer-driven through retail outlets in Winnipeg and rural Manitoba. A few chefs are using the product, including Kyle Lew of Chew restaurant in Winnipeg.

“We’ve used it for a ton of different dishes in the past few years,” Lew says. “In a similar fashion to wine, the different types really reflect the terroir that they are grown in. I don’t really have a favourite (flavour). The oil itself is my favourite.”

Erin MacGregor, self-proclaimed food fanatic, registered dietitian and home economist from Toronto, is also a fan. “I’ve used them exclusively for drizzling over salads and cooked veggies for fresh grassy flavour.”

Online sales have seen the product shipped to Toronto, Vancouver and even New York.

Media coverage in the Toronto Star, Chatelaine, Canadian Living and Manitoba Co-operator has been beneficial. Last fall, Dalgarno took Big Prairie Sky oil to the Great Manitoba Food Fight, a competition featuring Manitoba entrepreneurs who have developed, but not fully commercialized, new and innovative food or alcoholic beverage products. While it didn’t win, he says the experience was phenomenal with valuable connections made in the food industry.

The local, authentic food movement is strong and growing – and with it, the potential for increased sales. As an example, CanFarm’s oils were purchased by a company this spring for a customer-giveaway. Made-in-Manitoba gift baskets and food box subscription services offer alternatives to direct retail sales.

Small-scale food processing may be challenging, but determination and resourcefulness is nothing new to farmers. CanFarm’s unique local oils give its partners a good opportunity to connect with their customers. “Usually, the seed would get hauled away as a bulk commodity and we would never get to be part of the equation,” said Reykdal. “I’m interested in making that connection — directly from the farm to the plate.”

Agvocating through Experience

 

Originally published in the Manitoba Co-operator October 18, 2018


Tracy Wood & Taralea Simpson

Tracy Wood and Taralea Simpson knew they found the perfect spot when they discovered a 95-acre wooded river lot just outside of Portage la Prairie was for sale.

Having long dreamt of owning their own farm-stay, bed and breakfast business, the sisters officially opened “Farm Away Retreat” last month.

With their roots deeply embedded in agriculture, advocating for the industry was an integral part of their business model.

“Agriculture is who we are, it’s what shaped us, it’s what we do now for jobs, it’s where we spend our volunteer hours at — from 4-H to fair board to educating kids at the school level to 4R nutrient management promotion,” said Wood. “We want to bring our knowledge, first-hand experience and love of agriculture to those who are eager to learn more. Plus, there is really no place exactly like this anywhere nearby.”

The sisters grew up on a farm south of Portage la Prairie. Both furthered their education at the University of Manitoba — Wood with a Diploma in Agriculture and Simpson with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture Degree.

Wood and her husband, along with their two sons, operate a 250-head cow-calf operation. She obtained Equine Assisted Learning Certification in 2014 and began her business, “Touch of Equine”. Currently, she is also General Manager for the Portage Industrial Exhibition Association.

Simpson has worked as agrologist for the last 25 years, and runs a 50-head cow-calf operation with her daughter and husband.

With their busy schedules, assistance from family and friends was crucial.

“Honestly, it’s a bit hectic at times. Our new business is like an extension of our existing family farms. Through the help of family and some great friends we are able to make it work. It takes organization, teamwork and communication,” Simpson acknowledged. “I think all those things are skills we have learned from 4-H, our farms, our jobs etc. Our ultimate goal is to transition to Farm Away full time as soon as it can support itself independently.”

Wood extensively researched both bed & breakfast and care farm (the use of farming practices for providing or promoting mental or physical healing, social or education services) before the sisters decided on how they would run their farm-stay business. Bridging the ever-growing urban-rural divide was one of their main goals.

“We want people to come and immerse themselves in agriculture and nature, to experience it first hand. Ask questions and hopefully leave feeling they understand more about where their food comes from,” explained Wood.

They see a wide variety of opportunities to do this, with their motto, “Gather – Learn – Stay” guiding the way.

Pasture tours are complimentary to anyone who stays and offer the opportunity to discuss hay processing, pasture and land management. Calving dates for the various family herds are September/October, February/March and April/May. Winter provides the experience of feeding and bedding for the cattle.

Horses, sheep and chickens are on-site with ‘guest appearances’ from occasional cows, calves and pigs. Lambing takes place throughout the year and Equine Assisted Learning runs from spring to late fall.

While the farm experience is an integral part of Farm Away, it also offers the opportunity to simply relax and enjoy the peace and quiet of country life. It’s a perfect spot for photo shoots. The house is surrounded by meticulously, manicured gardens. An outdoor pool provides a place to cool off on a hot summer day. Trails and walking paths are abundant. You can wander through an old farmhouse filled with antique decor.

Wood and Simpson are quick to acknowledge the previous owners for the love and care they put into the property which perfectly suited their vision. Serendipity played a part as it only took two weeks to find once they decided to pursue their dream together.

Financing a new business is always a challenge, but the sisters admit the first and toughest hurdle they faced was believing they could do it. “It’s daunting to step out of the familiar and into something new, admitted Simpson. “Putting the plan into place and how to make it happen was challenging.”

The biggest rewards to date has been the enthusiasm of others – those who have visited the property or checked out the website are cheering them on, supporting and encouraging them in their venture.

Knowledge is nothing unless you share it with others. These two passionate agvocates are taking that message to heart. They hope the first-hand experiences they are offering at Farm Away will leave a lasting impact and better understanding of agriculture with each and every guest.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” ― Benjamin Franklin

Their advice to anyone wanting to follow their agvocating through experience model: Do your research, talk to people to get ideas. Don’t be afraid to take a chance. Do something you are passionate about.


 

For more information visit www.farmawayretreat.com

E-mail:  hello@farmawayretreat.com

Phone: 1-204-870-1564 or 1-204-857-1910

Not as strong as I think I am

Originally published in the Manitoba Co-operator August 2, 2018


I thought I was doing fine. Not too worried or concerned. I kept telling myself, it would all work out, and if it didn’t we’d be okay.

We’ve always had a crop. We would this year too. It wouldn’t be a bumper crop. Not even an average one, but after being married to a farmer for 29 years, I knew the risks. Only two years ago, we’d struggled with the reverse — three months of excessive rain. Weather challenges are not a shock nor surprise. Disappointing, yes, but I know worrying doesn’t change it, or help me in any way.

So I tucked my worries away, concerned for the pressure my farmer was feeling, but confident I was dealing well with the lack of rain. I kept busy, focused on other things, took advantages of get-togethers with friends and carried on.

Then on June 29th it rained! Such relief! We woke to 13.4 mm in the rain gauge! The most substantial rainfall we’d had all spring. The crops looked so much better that day.

But I noticed something else. I felt happier, lighter. There was a spring in my step I hadn’t had for a while. I was smiling more. Despite believing I was dealing well with the drought-like conditions, it was still a weight I carried on my shoulders. I wasn’t immune to worry. Damn. Not as strong as I think I am.

I talked to a couple of other farming friends who could relate. It was a reminder to be aware, to look out not only for our farming partners in times of stress, but also to look after ourselves. To talk about what’s going on if we need to, even if we don’t want to be seen as that person complaining about the weather — again, despite those concerns being valid.

The business of producing food has many rewards, but it isn’t easy dealing with the weather-dependent aspect of farming. We can do absolutely everything to the best of our ability but ultimately Mother Nature holds the cards, determines the outcome — and our income. Every. Single. Year. I’m not sure it’s a risk you ever get used to, so finding ways to cope is important.

Building a support system helps. Personally I have friends — farming and non-farming — who truly understand and are always there for me. I met with a counselor last winter whose door is always open any time I need to talk. As well, there are many resources available at Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services.

More recently, the Do More Ag Foundation was founded by a group of people passionate about mental health in agriculture. They are not only creating awareness, educating and breaking the stigma, but are also creating a community for people to connect and find the resources they need — national, provincial and territorial — in times of stress and anxiety.

Through their website I discovered there’s even an app for that. Calm in the Storm is a free app, created by mental health professionals in Manitoba, launched in December 2014. The easy to use app and website are designed to reduce, manage, and learn about stress in your life using clinically proven information and strategies. Features include guided audio meditations, tools for assessing your stress with ways to customize and track your experience and even create a personalized safety plan.

A helpful tool for anyone and one I will be exploring as our crops continue to struggle with lack of rain. The recent heat wave has taken its toll on our farm and those around us. Other areas have been hit hard with storms and hail. With farming we rarely get the perfect year, but the extremes are especially challenging. The hold the weather has on our lives and livelihoods can, at times, be tiring.

A friend recently posted a picture of a canola field damaged by hail, stating, “Farmers are proud to share the good stories but suffer silently with the bad ones.” So true. It is much easier to share our successes than our hardships. But the culture is slowly shifting, for the better. There is more openness, increased awareness and many resources available for our mental well-being. No need to suffer silently in times of stress. Strength is being redefined. It no longer means carrying the load on your own.


Links:

Do More Ag – Resources:   www.domore.ag/resources/

Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services:    www.supportline.ca

Calm in the Storm:    www.calminthestormapp.com