Roots run deep Young producers follow in generational footsteps, but determined to set their own path
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/08/2020 (733 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Farming is a family business for many Manitoban producers. Opportunities to farm are usually inherited, methods are passed down (and inevitably tweaked) and multiple generations are often found working and living together on a shared slice of land.
This summer, the Winnipeg Free Press is exploring farm family dynamics and the challenge of carving out time in an occupation where the workday never really ends.
This is the second instalment of our serialized look at the realities of work and life on a modern farm in Manitoba.
Reporter Eva Wasney and photojournalist Mike Deal hit the road for a summer farm tour to catch up with ranchers Kristine and Graham Tapley of Old Shore Cattle Co. near Langruth; mixed grain farmer Colin Penner of Pennmann Farms Ltd. by Elm Creek; and organic vegetable growers Britt Embry and Justin Girard of Hearts and Roots south of Elie.
• • •
Maternity leave is proving to be a challenge for Kristine Tapley.
When first-born, Walker, was a baby, Kristine would strap him into a carrier and bring him along to feed cows while her husband Graham worked off-farm. These days, with two kids under three, farm work looks less like checking fields and more like trying to catch up on bookkeeping during nap time.
“I do struggle with not having as much responsibility on the farm right now,” she says.
Motherhood has been a jarring shift from the early days of Old Shore Cattle Co., when Kristine was the one showing her husband the ropes.
“He didn’t come from a beef operation and so I got to be the experienced one,” she says. “I’m feeling less valuable because I’m not the one taking the lead. And that’s just a natural progression, I think I just have to wrap my head around it.”
That said, Kristine is still heavily involved in management decisions on the farm. Being partners in life and business can often blur the line between work and family time.
“I feel like sometimes all we talk about is cows,” she says, laughing.
They’ve banned the subject at the supper table a few times — “It’s just silence while we’re eating,” jokes Graham — and cattle talk was off-limits during their two-week honeymoon in Portugal. The latter attempt only lasted seven days.
As with every summer, grass is a hot topic of conversation. Even on a warm day in late-July, Graham’s mind is occupied with what the cows will be eating come December.
“Being a Manitoba rancher, it’s winter all the time,” Graham says. “When it’s not winter, you’re thinking about winter, trying to get everything ready for winter.”
After two years of drought-like conditions, there’s been enough rain so far this summer to keep the pastures lush and the hayfields productive. They grow hay on their own 200-acre field and share hay produced on a larger plot with Kristine’s parents and brother.
Last winter, the Tapley’s fed about 900 bales to their herd, on top of feed such as straw and corn sourced from other farmers. Forecasting how much feed they’ll need to make it through a season is a complicated equation.
“We know we’re going to be feeding roughly this many cows and we know we are going to make roughly this many bales and our corn is going to last roughly this long,” Graham says. “Right now it really is a shotgun approach.”
Feed tests will determine the nutritional value of their hay crop and whether they need to add specific kinds of supplemental feed. And weather affects how much they feed the cows. A mild fall means the cattle can graze longer on pasture, while a cold winter means they need more food to maintain body temperature.
Grass is also, literally, a hot summer topic among ranchers for an entirely different reason. The combination of dry hay and hot machinery makes baler fires a relatively common occurrence. Last summer, a bale caught fire while Graham was working a field by himself.
“That was a panic situation,” he says. “I joined the fire department after that whole escapade.”
For safety and efficiency, baling hay is a task that works best with all hands on deck. If Graham is mowing, Kristine will follow behind in the baler, which sucks up hay, rolls it in twine and spits out a tidy bale.
Their son loves riding in the tractor, but child care is necessary when they’re both out in the field. Today, Kristine’s mother Louise Blair has arrived to entertain the kids while they check moisture levels in the hayfield.
Louise and her husband Hugh Blair live in Woodside, a 20-minute drive from the Tapley property. They met in high school and started farming grain before getting into cattle. Today, they’re grazing 700 cows and Louise, like her daughter, has had a hand in every part of the family cattle operation.
“I think all of the women that we associate with or know… have always been pretty involved in the farm in one way or another,” she says.
“The women can do everything,” adds Kristine. “Because they have to fill in wherever it’s needed.”
Women have been an integral part of agriculture since time immemorial, yet they’re often overlooked as farmers in their own right.
The traditional division of farm labour means women are usually responsible for running the household and caregiving, while men are typically involved in hard labour and mechanical work, says Annette Aurélie Desmarais, a University of Manitoba sociologist and the Canada Research Chair in Human Rights, Social Justice and Food Sovereignty.
“There’s no problem with the division of labour, I think to make a family farm work, that’s what you have to do,” Desmarais says. “The problem arises when there is more value placed on those different tasks. And historically, the tasks that were carried out by men were more highly valued.”
That hierarchy played out for Louise’s mother, who milked cows, collected eggs and swathed fields on top of caring for family.
“She never felt appreciated for what she did, she brings that up quite often,” Louise says. “But she was terribly involved.”
Until recently, women weren’t even counted among farm operators on the national census. In 1991, Statistics Canada allowed farms to list more than one operator and in 1996 the department asked for the sex of operators for the first time (that year, 25 per cent of farmers identified as female).
“Women could actually say that they were part of the farm,” Desmarais says. “To me, that’s really important.”
By 2016, nearly 29 per cent of Canadian farm operators were women.
Desmarais farmed with her sister near North Battleford, Sask. in the 1970s and experienced wide-ranging prejudice when interacting with men in the industry — from equipment salesmen asking to speak to the boss (read: the man of the farm) to parts store employees questioning her purchases.
“We were clearly stepping into male territory,” she says. “It took some time for people to accept us as farmers in the community.”
Desmarais recently co-authored a report on young farmers in Manitoba with U of M colleague Hannah Bihun, and was surprised to find many of the same gender dimensions at play in ag more than 40 years later.
“Farming is still a man’s world, even though it shouldn’t be,” said a male participant and conventional grain farmer.
Despite holding a degree in agroecology, a master’s in animal science and carrying a lifetime of experience, Kristine Tapley often feels like she needs to prove herself at industry events.
“Being a young female that actually does have industry knowledge… probably kind of buys me more respect because people assume that you don’t. If you can have that conversation and kind of hold your own then they’re quick to accept you.”— Kristine Tapley
“Being a young female that actually does have industry knowledge… probably kind of buys me more respect because people assume that you don’t,” she says. “If you can have that conversation and kind of hold your own then they’re quick to accept you.”
The number of female students enrolled in the U of M’s diploma in agriculture program has grown steadily over the last decade. Last year, 30 per cent of students were female compared to 18 per cent on 2010.
“I think that women are looking more at options to farm than before,” says Annemieke Farenhorst, associate dean of research in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences.
Farenhorst is passionate about getting more women and girls involved in natural sciences. She’s started an agricultural mentorship program for female students and penned an activity book for kids featuring women working in ag industries.
“What you can’t see you can’t be,” she says.
When it comes to professions, Louise Blair has noticed a positive shift in the kinds of jobs young women are pursuing in agriculture.
“In my generation, I don’t know any women agronomists and now two of my nieces are agronomists,” she says. “It’s quite a change, you wouldn’t have even seen a woman in that industry.”
● ● ●
Hugh Blair has been farming since he was “knee-high to a duck.”
He has a degree in agriculture, but learned most of what he knows by doing — even when it comes to succession planning.
“I was working on the same ranch with my dad. I had a pregnant wife, I was building a house, I had just bought a quarter section of land,” Blair says. “My dad drove in the yard and said, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘25’ and he said, ‘Tomorrow morning, I’ll be at work at nine and I’ll be asking you what I’m supposed to do.’ That was the transition.”
At 66, he and his wife Louise have started working on a more formal succession plan with their son John and daughter Kristine, who have both recently returned to the cattle industry after pursuing other careers.
“It’s all kind of overwhelming,” Blair says of sorting assets and deciding who gets what. “Trying to sit down and take that all to a banker and (figure out) how it’s all gonna work.”
Farmers are getting older and farms are getting more complex, yet only 8.4 per cent of all agricultural operations in Canada have a written succession plan.
Patti Durand is an agricultural transition specialist with Farm Credit Canada. She believes honest, ongoing communication between family members is more important than a formal, written plan.
“When a parent-child relationship shifts to a business partnership, there’s layers and sometimes baggage,” she says. “(What) happens commonly is both parties expect a lot, but they don’t tell you what they expect.”
Durand says transition plans are necessary in modern agriculture because people are living longer — which delays inheritance — and assets are getting more complicated, particularly when it comes to the value of farm land and settling an estate between farming and non-farming beneficiaries.
“Having a plan in place anticipates possible futures and anticipates the risks that could derail a farm family and the relationships of the families,” she says.
● ● ●
A gaggle of kids wearing shorts and a mid-summer tan are gathered around the open door of a garage on the Penner family yard. There’s a litter of kittens inside and Colin Penner’s kids — Wren, 7, Annalise, 6, and Everett, 3 — are eager to show the fluffy bounty to their cousins. After arguing about who gets to hold whom, Everett emerges into the afternoon sun holding a sleepy white kitten appropriately named Vanilla.
Attention is in short supply and the weekend is just getting started. Before long, the kittens are tucked back among the shelves stacked with machine parts and the party takes off across the yard; drawn by the pull of an above-ground pool.
Three generations of the Penner clan have been getting together for a family vacation every summer for nearly a decade.
Their first getaway at Falcon Lake was memorable for its lacklustre accommodations.
“It was right out of The Shining, but it had a waterslide so the kids loved it,” says Colin, laughing.
This year, the gathering will be noteworthy for a different reason. Instead of pitching a tent in a provincial park, the family has opted for a camp-out in the farmyard near Elm Creek amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Although Colin farms with his dad and brother and lives on the same property as his parents, quality time is hard to come by. The annual camping trip is a chance to rectify that.
“There’s never really downtime,” he says. “Me and dad are together all the time, but we don’t often talk about stuff. This is a good opportunity to just sit down and be like, ‘How are you?’”
Summertime on a mixed grain farm is a lot of hustle with significantly less bustle. The crops are in the ground and harvest is still weeks away, but maintenance — of fields and equipment — is a never-ending task.
It’s a sweltering Friday in early-July and Colin needs to finish spraying fields before he can clock out and join the family by the pool.
Sitting in the cab of his green and yellow John Deere sprayer, he makes calculated passes over his wheat field. Dozens of nozzles attached to a 100-foot boom deliver a mist of fungicide over top of the flowering plants in an effort to ward off fusarium head blight — a fungal disease that affects cereal crops across much of the Prairies, and can lead to reduced yields and, in some cases, the production of a mycotoxin that is dangerous to humans and animals.
For Colin, the decision to use synthetic pesticides to control weeds and protect his more than 4,000 acres against pests and disease comes down to effectiveness and efficiency.
“As much as they’re vilified, they’re necessary,” he says. “I can show you spots on the farm that I missed or didn’t spray and it’s just weeds… I can’t imagine farming 60 years ago when there was no control.”
Pesticide use is increasing in Canada and among Manitoba crop farmers. According to a 2011 Stats Canada survey, 77 per cent of local producers reported applying herbicides to their crops and 42 per cent used fungicides — the latter was the highest usage in Canada and almost double the national average. By 2017, 98 per cent of Manitoba field crop farmers were using herbicides and 61 per cent were using fungicides.
This trend, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, is thanks, in part, to the conversion of more pasture to cropland and the widespread shift to reduced tillage farming, which is great for soil health, but often requires more pesticide inputs to control weeds and diseases.
“We wouldn’t have had the adoption of zero-tillage without herbicides, and particularly Roundup or glyphosate,” says Mario Tenuta, a professor of soil ecology and the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Industrial Research Chair at the University of Manitoba.
Roundup, a broad-spectrum herbicide originally formulated by Monsanto, has been the subject of much legal and public scrutiny after the International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed the product’s active ingredient, glyphosate, as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015.
Health Canada conducted its own research in response and decided the chemical doesn’t pose a cancer risk to humans or harm the environment and non-target organisms if used correctly. The province has banned the residential sale and use of cosmetic pesticides, like Roundup.
Despite public opinion, Tenuta says glyphosate and other synthetic pesticides have been a game-changer for farmers. Not having to till fields saves fuel and time, while allowing larger areas to be seeded.
“It made the economics much better,” he says. “If we got rid of all our pest management products at the moment, we would be challenged to keep up with the same level of productivity and marketing the same amount of food, we would have to dramatically change how we do things.”
“We’re doing things to try and minimize the use of herbicides and pesticides; like spraying for grasshoppers, just doing the outside (ditches). We’re able to apply it more accurately and at lower rates with less overlap.”– Colin Penner
Colin would save a pretty penny if he didn’t use pesticides. The other day he picked up a load of chemicals in his half-ton totalling $15,000.
“We’re doing things to try and minimize the use of herbicides and pesticides; like spraying for grasshoppers, just doing the outside (ditches),” he says. “We’re able to apply it more accurately and at lower rates with less overlap.”
As pesticide use has grown, farmers have become more savvy about safe chemical handling. Colin’s dad, Calvin, has some cringe-making memories.
“We would be in an open tractor and if the wind was coming from behind you, you’d be coughing and sputtering because of the fumes,” he says. “I think of what my dad did too, he would reach into the tank and stir it around and mix it by hand and then the nozzle would plug and he would take it off and blow them out.”
The Penner family settled in the area in 1959 and Calvin grew up attending the nearby one-room schoolhouse up the gravel road — its existence is now marked with a roadside cairn. The rural landscape has shifted around him as neighbouring farms get bigger and families move away.
“We had a community skating rink, for instance, and every little town put together all ages for hockey teams,” Calvin says. “You can’t do that anymore because there’s not enough kids around.”
But his kids are coming back.
Calvin and wife Gloria encouraged their four children to leave home and pursue an education before considering a career in farming.
“I always say the best lessons can be learned working for other people,” Gloria says. “Over time they’re coming back, which is great.”
Their youngest son, Scott, moved back from Winnipeg last year to get more involved in the farm and raise his own children in the country. He’s still working as an engineer and one-day hopes to farm full-time.
“It’s a fun adventure, but I missed the farm after being gone for so long,” Scott says, adding that working with family is a major draw. “We’re not afraid to tell each other what things we would like to do differently, but we also know that the family runs the farm, the farm doesn’t run the family.”
With the sprayer parked and the shop tidied, Colin heads towards the splashing and shrieking coming from the pool behind his house.
His wife Lori is busy setting out snacks and smearing sunscreen on impatient limbs. She’s a substitute teacher and, together with her mother-in-law, has planned a weekend full of scavenger hunting, slip-and-sliding and swimming. While there’s plenty planned for the kids, Lori anticipates Colin will have a hard time relaxing with his shop full of half-finished projects within view.
“That will be a challenge for him… to let go of work because when we’re on the yard he looks around at all the things he could be doing,” she says.
The constant pull of farm chores is something she’s gotten used to in 12 years of marriage.
“We know when it’s busy and we have a routine where I know that I’m putting all the kids to bed and then in winter, like January until March, is usually the sweet spot when we’ve got him at home.”
● ● ●
Manitoba is home to the longest-running organic farming study in Canada.
For the last 29 years, University of Manitoba plant science professor Martin Entz and his colleagues have been comparing organic and conventional farming methods at the Glenlea Research Station 20 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
“There are organic farms that are not environmentally sustainable and there are conventional farms that are environmentally sustainable,” Entz says. “But we know that overall, on average, organic agriculture does a better job of maintaining biodiversity, which means bees, which means songbirds, which means water quality.”
Today, he is focused on fine-tuning “natural systems agriculture,” which attempts to overcome pests and nutrient deficiencies through the use of perennial plants, diverse crops and animals.
“Organic farming is like playing chess and conventional farming is a lot more like checkers. You have more diversity of players… you have different crops to both produce income and to perform those critical functions that keep the farm sustainable.”— University of Manitoba plant science professor Martin Entz
“Organic farming is like playing chess and conventional farming is a lot more like checkers.” he says. “You have more diversity of players… you have different crops to both produce income and to perform those critical functions that keep the farm sustainable.”
Over the last three decades, Entz has noticed more interest in his research from the conventional ag industry thanks to growing public demand for organic products.
There were 178 organic crop producers in Manitoba in 2019, representing about 127,000 acres of the province’s roughly 11.5 million acres of cropland.
In Canada, farmers wanting to transition from conventional to organic production need to wait 36 months from the last application of a banned substance to be considered for an organic inspection and certification.
For conventional farmers, Entz believes the main barriers to transition are a lack of knowledge and experience with organic methods.
“If the only way you’ve ever controlled weeds is by using a herbicide, how do you manage that weed now? How do you time your seeding?” he says. “It’s little things, it’s like somebody who’s gardening for the first time.”
Misconceptions about cost and scalability can also get in the way.
There are currently two 6,000-acre organic farms in Manitoba, although in both cases one-third of those acres would be used for non-commercial green manure to build soil fertility, says Laura Telford of Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development. And while labour costs of production are generally higher, organic crops fetch a better price at market.
“If you can grow good crops, organic agriculture has been more profitable,” Entz says.
● ● ●
Britt Embry and Justin Girard are tired.
They’ve spent all day in the field picking for an upcoming vegetable drop-off in Winnipeg and are getting started pounding posts for a new sheep pasture. Sitting on the porch during a break for dinner, it’s clear that the exhaustion runs deeper than a day of hard labour.
“I haven’t taken a day off since Father’s Day where I took my dad golfing,” Justin says, while leaning back in his chair and running a dirt-stained hand through his hair.
The couple’s demeanour has shifted noticeably since the springtime, when optimism and energy were plentiful. It’s the first week of August and they’re feeling burned out and beat down.
“July was really hard,” Justin says. “We were questioning whether taking the farm in multiple directions was worth it.”
This year, they’ve scaled back the market garden to focus on long-term projects that will help achieve their vision of turning Hearts and Roots into a resilient farm that gives more than it takes from the Earth.
Planting fruit trees and establishing new perennials won’t pay-off this season, but it will create new revenue streams down the line. Raising more animals is cost and labour intensive, but a large enough flock can do wonders for organic pest control — the geese hanging out in their strawberry patch, for example, have no interest in the fruit, but will happily munch on weeds growing between the plants.
However, building their future has pushed their present-day carrying capacity to the limit.
Cutting the garden plot also meant cutting farm labour significantly to make up for the loss of income. Where they might have hired help in the past, Britt, Justin and his sister Renée Girard have been doing everything from picking to washing to selling to bookkeeping to marketing.
“It’s a lot harder than people think,” says Renée, who decided to help out on the farm this season after getting laid off from her job as sous chef at Harth Mozza & Wine Bar amid the coronavirus pandemic.
This is the most time she’s spent on the family farm since moving to Winnipeg. Like Justin, her childhood was spent helping out in the fields and Renée has vivid memories of eating fresh-picked cantaloupe with her grandfather — memories she says inspire her love of cooking today.
Being involved in the day-to-day at Hearts and Roots has given her more insight into the operation.
“It’s hard to… even put into words the amount of work that goes into this type of farming,” she says. “It’s been very challenging, but also extremely rewarding.”
A significant challenge came in July, when the trio was scrambling to fill the farm’s largest ever wholesale order.
“While we were doing it, it was like, ‘Yeah, unbelievable, we’re killing it,’” says Britt. “Then it was like a crash… there was no break and I think that’s what pushes you over the edge; after completing something so big, you just keep going.”
Aside from the one weekend Britt was able to get away with friends, downtime at Hearts and Roots has been non-existent this summer.
“It was great,” she says. “Unfortunately, when I leave Justin has to do everything, so one person is refreshed and the other person is feeling not great.”
They’re well-aware the workload isn’t sustainable and have hired two friends to help out for the rest of the season.
“We probably shouldn’t be running a farm where Britt getting to take a few days off is a huge thing,” he says. “I was always of the mentality that I just had to put my head down and work 70 hours a week, March through October, and eventually we’d get to a spot where we could afford (time off) and it hasn’t really happened. We’re starting to realize that we can’t keep that pace up anymore.”
The experience is unfortunately common among small-scale farmers.
A 2020 national study on mental health and farm business management released by Farm Management Canada, shows that new farmers and small farm operators often feel “stretched too thin” when trying to juggle the business and farming demands of their operation.
Workload pressure ranked among the top three causes of stress for all farmers surveyed, along with unpredictability and financial pressure. Respondents under the age of 40 also reported higher levels of stress and worse coping strategies, like sleeping less and avoiding social gatherings, than older demographics.
On top of doing-it-all, most small-scale farmers in Manitoba do it without a safety net.
The Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) insures more than 9.5 million acres of farmland in the province, but because of the Crown corporation’s minimum coverage requirements of three acres of the same crop, most small-scale farms, like Hearts and Roots, don’t qualify.
“It’s silly when you can insure three acres of squash but you cannot insure three acres of a market garden which yields exponentially more gross profit,” says Justin Girard.
Although, change could be on the horizon.
Direct Farm Manitoba, of which Justin is a board member, and the Prairie Fruit Growers Association have recently approached MASC about more inclusive coverage.
“We recognize there is that gap,” says David Van Deynze, vice president of innovation and product support for the corporation. “There’s no guarantees what happens or how quickly things would happen, but it starts with trying to narrow down what an insurance product could look like and trying to sort out what that demand might be.”
Besides the labour struggles and the ongoing anxiety of farming uninsured, the season hasn’t been all bad. They’ve started selling through Crampton’s Market in Winnipeg and their online vegetable stand experiment has been a success.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to do a CSA again,” says Britt, referring to the “community supported agriculture” subscription model they used to employ.
Offering fruit and veggies à la carte has given them a better understanding of what customers want — less kale, lettuce and chard, apparently — and allowed them to sell larger weekly orders to less people (they’re averaging about 60 customers a week compared to 70 CSA members last year).
They’re also not missing the bustle of the farmer’s market this year.
“The farmer’s market is so emotionally and physically draining that I would take all weekend to bounce back from it,” Britt says.
Justin’s parents, Janet and Danny Girard, ran a U-Pick berry patch and Halloween farm until the flood of ‘97 wiped out the operation. Danny grew up working the land with his father and while each generation of the Girard family has practised a different style of farming, Hearts and Roots might be the most complex iteration yet.
“It’s basically a lot of manual labour compared to conventional farming practices,” Danny says. “They’re more diverse, which brings a bigger challenge because then your knowledge base has to be that much wider.”
“We’ve learned more from them than they ever learned from us,” Janet adds. “At times we think, ‘Are they nuts?’ because they work harder than we ever did.”
Although that might not be entirely true. Justin’s nose-to-the-grindstone approach to farming appears to be hereditary.
“He’s definitely got his dad’s work ethic,” Janet says, while her husband, who works full-time off-farm, is busy mowing pastures well into the evening.
When Justin and Britt pitched the idea of starting their own farm six years ago, Danny was surprised, if not a little worried.
“I was concerned because I know what this lifestyle demands,” says Danny. “When you’re into farming and you have a real personal connection to the land, it’s like a member of the family. It can be so rewarding one day and then the next day just breaks your spirit.”
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Mike Deal started freelancing for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1997. Three years later, he landed a part-time job as a night photo desk editor.