Ag-Matters prides itself on telling the local story of agriculture in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and during any given year there is an abundance of them which are all special and interesting in their own ways. But from time to time, there are few stories which stand out just a little above the rest due to the memorable characters at the heart of the them, fascinating aspects of these operations, or the innovations on display.
Here are five of our most memorable stories of 2018 in chronological order.
THE BEEKEEPING LIFE IS SWEET AT SWEET PURE HONEY
Sweet Pure Honey owner Stella Sehn provided a fascinating portrait in this story of a woman trying to find new ways to get out from under the ongoing price crush of the honey markets, and save her family’s small beekeeping operation.
Sehn provided a strong voice for many in the Medicine Hat area who were still reeling from the crashed oil and gas economy in the early part of the year. Sehn’s resilience, determination and courage made for an inspiring and gripping tale.
As Sehn said at one point in the story:
“People with no agricultural background try to tell farmers how to farm,” says Sehn, who does all the (Sweet Pure) brand’s marketing. “We feed populations of people. Farmers are the new rock stars. Deep down we know we deserve to be treated better than we are.
We make the least amount of money, and we do the most amount of work … Now I don’t mind working, but I sure as hell want to be paid for that work I am doing.”
ARTISAN FLARE, NOBLE MEADOWS FARM SETS NEW BAR FOR CHEESEMAKING IN ALBERTA
Noble Meadows Farm has taken farm craft and artisanship to a new level with its award winning goat cheese lines, but make no bones about it owners Harvey and Carolyn Van Driesten are still farmers first and foremost, raising and milking their own goats to make the cheese.
The story presented a compelling portrait of a family who farms, crafts cheese and builds toward the future together, but also a story of a family of farmers being flexible and adaptable in the face of changing market conditions to stay in the business they love.
“We had a hog farm just before we got the goats, and the hog prices really dropped,” Carolyn told Ag-Matters. “There was a little bit of desperation involved in the decision at the time. It was either that, sell the farm or something. We had kind of hit rock bottom so we had to do something drastic.”
FARMING THE NITSITAPII WAY AT KAINAI NATION
The Kainai Nation, also known as the Blood Tribe, in southern Alberta is the largest First Nation in Canada, with the largest active agricultural activity. It is surprising on that score that more young Blackfoot youngsters don’t choose agriculture as a career.
J.R. Weasel Fat, Indigenous Agriculture Program co-ordinator at Red Crow College was hoping to change all that but finding ways to use Nitsitapii (traditional) knowledge to help bridge the gap between modern agricultural education and Blackfoot cultural beliefs. He hoped this might eventually help create good jobs and a more independent future in the Kainai agricultural operations without so much reliance on outside help.
“The current scenario sees a lot of non-native farmers and ranchers on the reserve,” he stated. “I want to see this cohort (of Red Crow agriculture students) coming back and farming. The success of our students is paramount, because if we don’t get the leaders to bring the next generation in the momentum gets lost … We want to ramp it up and get back out there and see all Native farmers on the Blood Tribe farming and ranching for their own well-being and their own good in their home community.”
STEWART STEPS DOWN WITH HEAVY HEART, BUT NO REGRETS
Before stepping down as Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister in 2018, Lyle Stewart had the distinction of being one of the best liked, most respected and hardest working politicians to fill that role in recent memory.
A still active farmer himself, Stewart loved the job, and admitted he would be on the job today if personal illness hadn’t robbed him of that privilege.
Stewart is still serving as an MLA as he undergoes cancer treatment, but he admitted to Ag-Matters that part of his heart will always belong to the office of Agriculture Minister.
“I have really loved the job, and I would still rather be the agriculture minister than the former one,” Stewart said at the time of our interview. “But I know this is going to be a more protracted (cancer) fight. I don’t want to do a half job. I have a reputation of working hard at this and I’d like that to remain intact.”
PREDICTING FUTURE GRASSHOPPER OUTBREAKS BY REWINDING THE CLOCK
With all the weight of biblical dread behind them, grasshoppers are part of deep subconscious fabric of prairie life. While major outbreaks are rare, when they come, they come with a pestilential might that puts all other insect outbreaks to shame.
University of Lethbridge entomologist Dan Johnson has been fascinated by grasshoppers throughout his entire academic career and is one of the foremost exports on the creatures in the world, and is one of the greatest prophets of their outbreaks.
It was a great privilege for Ag-Matters to speak with Johnson about these creatures which hold such power over the prairie imagination, and to explore some of his pioneering work compiling historical data and conditions of past outbreaks which may help farmers see the next grasshopper plague coming long before it happens.
By Johnson also expressed his personal respect for this diverse group insects, and wanted to make it abundantly clear they were an important part of the prairie eco-system.
“Not all grasshoppers are bad,” stressed Johnson. “For example, any grasshopper with a coloured wings is not a pest. Any one that sings or scritches or clicks is not a pest. There are rules of thumb like that are not really scientific, but they are quite handy to know when you are out on the land.”