Saskatchewan's Environmental Champions

Farmers of Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan's farmers were nominated by several people in an open call-in show on the Champions project. Indeed there are many aspects of their adaptation to the prairie environment over the past 125 years that make them champions. They have persevered in ingenious ways to improve farming methods and have developed and adapted many innovations. Farmers and the farm community have also been the source of political and social innovation, such as the cooperative movement.

More recently innovations in production practices, networking and marketing have arisen to produce a strong organic agriculture sector (see Organic Pioneers) and increasing diversification of crops and livestock. The following describes some general contributions and the roles of some specific farm champions.

Farming on the prairies began as an instrument of national policy. The West needed to be settled to forge nationhood and wheat was seen as an export commodity for the national economy and later during WW I as patriotic support of the Allied cause. However, many settlers had no farm experience and most of those that did were used to the thick soils and lush conditions of Europe.

Dryland farming required special farming methods and these were worked out by trial and error by farmers and researchers on Dominion Experimental Farms and later the University of Saskatchewan. During the first two decades of the 1900s, farm families showed their eagerness to improve farming practices and farm life by flocking to university extension short courses and Better Farming Trains. However, the initial research and recommendations did not take into account the critical climatic and soil variations across the province from the short grass region of the southwest to the Parkland region.

The practice of summerfallowing was first used in Canada at the Indian Head Experimental Station and then promoted with gospel enthusiasm to farmers as a way to control weeds and store moisture. During the first drought period in the southwest, 1918-22, such techniques began to be questioned. The desperate concerns of local farmers led to the 1920 Royal Commission on Farming Conditions held in Swift Current. One result was the initiation of soil surveys and the opening of a research station at Swift Current to focus on adaptive techniques for the drier southwest. However the changes were not enough to avert the much greater disaster of the 1930s. Here again farmers, through agricultural improvement associations and cooperative efforts, were very much a part of the front guard to halt wind erosion and reclaim blown out areas. (See Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration)

Many innovations came from farmers as well. George Morris1 designed an improvement for the rod weeder as an implement to till small weeds with minimal soil disturbance. He went on to found the Morris Rod-Weeder Company in Yorkton, which has produced other innovations in equipment to help prevent soil erosion and moisture loss. It has become one of the largest manufacturers of specialized farm equipment in western Canada. Jerome Bechard (1911-1991) of Sedley was a farmer-inventor who played a key role in the development of the air seeder with a caddy that carried the seed and fertilizer. With more precise seeding and a reduction in soil compaction air seeders revolutionized seeding technology. Bourgault Industries of St Brieux developed and still produces Bechard-inspired air seeders that are shipped around the world. Aside from farm machinery, Bechard built an early energy-efficient house using wind power. Emerson Summach was another Saskatchewan farmer who used his skills as a machinist to develop a thriving farm machinery manufacturing enterprise. He developed the idea for the coil packer in 1947 and it became standard equipment to reduce soil drifting and moisture loss when discers were used for seeding.

In recent years, farmers like Jim Halford have pioneered in no-till seeding. (See Jim Halford). With the growing awareness of climate change, continuous cropping and incorporating crop residue are key elements in keeping carbon in the plant-soil cycle and out of the atmosphere.

Dwayne Woodhouse of Assiniboia has developed and is still perfecting a way to clip back tall growing weeds in low growing organic crops like lentils using the concept of a "weed-whacker". He uses multiple blades along the 42-foot boom mounted on a swather power unit.

Hutterite farmers can also be noted for retaining mixed farm operations which not only provide the bulk of colony food needs but provide locally grown produce, meats and eggs at most farmers markets.

Seager Wheeler2 (1868-1961) is arguably the most celebrated farmer from western Canada. He is best known as an international prizewinner in wheat growing competitions but he also gained renown for breeding wheat, inventing farm implements and developing and growing a broad range of fruits, including apples, plums, and cherries, along with raspberries, currants and grapes. Wheeler also tested many varieties of vegetables, flowers and trees, sharing his findings with the experimental farms and the wider public. Maple Grove Farm, near Rosthern, is now a National Heritage Site and the orchard, once the largest on the prairies, is being restored and replanted along with the shelterbelts and extensive flower gardens.

Wheeler won an unprecedented five international wheat growing championships between 1911 and 1918 using his own hard red spring wheat varieties-a record that still stands. Wheeler spoke frequently on agricultural topics throughout Saskatchewan, wrote numerous articles published in the Grain Growers Guide-articles which later became the basis of his best-selling book on dry-land farming. Wheeler was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1943.

Another farmer, W.R. Motherwell3 (1860-1943) was a prime mover in the development of agriculture on the prairies through his active leadership and a great respect for education and research. As a farmer, he was quick to adopt new farming methods and as the first Minister of Agriculture in Saskatchewan (1905-1917) and later as the federal Minister of Agriculture (1922-25 and 1926-30) he was a firm supporter of agricultural research, extension and demonstration. He was a leader in lobbying for the extension of the Dominion Experimental Farm system to multiple branches in Saskatchewan. In a parallel but non-competing way, he worked to set up a network of demonstration plots so that farmers did not have to learn through trial and error but could see examples of successful farm operations in their own area. When the University of Saskatchewan was founded, Motherwell convinced Premier Scott to include a College of Agriculture. He also transferred activities performed by his department to the new College and provided most of the original faculty from his own staff. In his capacity to influence farmers he stressed the importance of conservation and diversification, but also promoted summerfallowing and plowing, now known to be detrimental.

As agricultural research has become more complex, regional producer groups have arisen which oversee applied research projects through the Saskatchewan Agri-ARM4 (Agriculture-Applied Research Management) Program. Eight regional research and demonstration sites are linked in a province-wide network. For example, the 480-acre Conservation Learning Centre near Prince Albert was established in 1993 to research and demonstrate sustainable land management and to provide information to farmers, school students, researchers and extension workers.

After 125 years of agriculture on the prairies there are many ironies. Summerfallow is now actively discouraged, efforts to restore and mimic native prairie are being researched, the railway tracks are being torn up, elevators are being torn down and the bison are being reintroduced. Diversified rather than monocultural systems are the order of the day. Yet, through it all prairie farmers have showed remarkable degrees of tenacity, resourcefulness, leadership and adaptation.

Seager Wheeler was nominated by Janice Penner.

References and more information (information is archival and some links may not be active):

Farmer sowing seeds Prince Albert, Saskatchewan ca. 1920 Photographer: unknown

Seager Whealer

George Morris

W. R. Motherwell