Since Don Lotter wrote this piece back in September
2003 as part of his transcontinental odyssey, beef sales
haven't gotten any easier for Canadian ranchers. The
BSE-infected cow slaughtered in Washington state last
December was found to have been born in Canada.
The combination of the U.S. and Canadian cases put
one in five Americans off their beef, according to a
Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive poll conducted
in January--not good news for Canadian growers who are
almost entirely dependent on the U.S. market.
Japan has closed its markets to both U.S. and Canadian
beef, putting on additional pressure. Market analysts
predict BSE will cost U.S. farmers alone $5.5 billion
(we have no data on what it has cost Canadian ranchers).
So, when Don talks about folks in Saskatchewan eating
beef in solidarity with local ranchers, you can bet
your bottom dollar they're still eating burgers by the
truck load to show support.
One spot of good news: Canadian organic
beef sales surged in the second half of 2003, growing
by 35 percent.
Joff Bodera, 88, starting
working on the farm in 1930, when they grew mostly wheat, using
5-horse teams for traction. "Weeds back then weren't as bad
as they are now. My dad remembered when the first wild oats came
in, and I remember when black mustard, pigweed and the thistles
It takes the Boderas almost
two weeks to get all the crops in on the nearly 2,000 acres of crop
land. Pre-plant harrowing to control weeds started May 10 this year.
The harrow also seals cracks in the soil, which conserves water.
The air seeder also tills down weeds. None of Ken’s crops
are row crops, so there are no cultivating operations after seeding.
three generations: Grandson Marty, patriarch
Joff and his son Ken. The Bodera family homsteaded this remote
corner of Canada in 1881, miles beyond the end of the current
Posted March 23, 2004. Driving west from Manitoba,
by the time I get to Saskatchewan my old Saab is covered with the
remains of small grasshoppers. I find them in my clothes, in my
gear inside the car, and in the engine. The word is that this is
a bad grasshopper year. It is also an unusually hot, dry year.
The land has become distinctly drier as I go west. The long stretches
of prairie that take days to drive, are made less monotonous by
some good books on tape. Diner food and motels are cheap out here.
The friendliness of the people makes up for the terrible coffee.
I’ve never eaten so many burgers. The Canadian beef crisis
is at its height – the result of the U.S. recently closing
its borders to Canadian beef because a Mad Cow was found in Alberta
in June of 2003. Most of Canada’s beef is sold in the U.S.,
and Saskatchewan and Alberta are big beef producing provinces. A
lot of ranchers are about to go belly up. The talk in the diners
is all of the ban. Eating beef shows solidarity with the local ranchers.
Ken Bodera’s 3,000 acre organic farm in southeastern Saskatchewan
lies down a long stretch of gravel road that goes in a straight
line past expansive fields of wheat, flax, canola, and barley.
Ken, who looks to be in his fifties, relates how he farms in the
spare language of someone not out to impress anyone. The Bodera’s
two-story farmhouse is basic and doesn’t look like the house
of a big landowner. A tiny, oasis-like garden sits in the middle
of the circular dirt driveway of the farm ops area. A sizeable satellite
dish is the only thing around the house that makes it look modern.
Satellite TV is part of survival on a prairie farm. “We get
together to watch the Roughriders,” says Ken, referring to
the Saskatchewan’s Canadian Football League team.
Norma, Ken’s wife, works at the local hospital in the nearby
town of Moosamin. Sitting in the kitchen, we talk about funding
difficulties. The provincial government is putting more and more
of a burden on local communities to fund things like hospitals.
Norma is involved in the effort to raise funds - $3 million for
a local health facility.
Ken and Norma have four sons, one of whom, Marty, 26, lives nearby
and works the farm with Ken. Joff, Ken’s 88-year old father,
also lives nearby and still helps.
Ken’s great grandfather emigrated from England and homesteaded
this land in 1881. By that year the Canadian Pacific Railroad reached
westward well into Manitoba, and many British migrated here at that
time to settle the prairies. The pioneering Bodera walked from the
end of the railway line in Brandon, Manitoba, to the Moosamin area,
bringing a team of oxen with him.
Farmers here grew mostly wheat and other cereals for the first
50 or 60 years. Canada is second only to the U.S. in world wheat
exports, and most of that wheat is grown in Saskatchewan. Flax was
an occasional crop. Rapeseed, the genetic precursor to canola, was
brought from Argentina during the 1940s and was grown mostly for
industrial oils. Canola only came in as a crop in the late 60s and
early 70s, when varieties of rapeseed low in erucic acid and glucosinolates
were developed, yielding oils favorable for human consumption. These
crop lines were named canola, from combining “Canada”
farmhouse lies down a long stretch of gravel
road that goes in a straight line past expansive fields of wheat,
flax and barley. It doesn't look like the house of a large landowner.
While Ken and I talk, Joff, the grandfather, and Marty,
drive up with an enormous air-seeder. The octogenarian Joff is a
real character. When I come up a couple of decades short in trying
to guess his age, he throws his head back and has a good laugh.
A widower now, Joff married the local schoolteacher about 60 years
ago. He has another good laugh when I point out that he had an advantage
over all of the other single farmers – the school house was
only a stone’s throw from his house, in a land where farm
houses are a mile apart at least.
Joff worked on the farm from about 1930 at the age of 15, and took
it over some time in the 40s. “Back then we used teams of
horses to work the ground, usually five, although one year I tried
eight,” says Joff. “We would (moldboard) plow before
planting in the spring. We seeded with a ten foot wide drill. We
grew mostly wheat, with some barley and oats. We summer fallowed
every other year back then, cultivating down the weeds a couple
of times. This conserved moisture. Some of those Dustbowl years
were pretty dry. A lot of guys were out of work. We boarded them
at the farm.”
“Weeds back then weren’t as bad as they are now,”
says Joff, “My dad remembered when the first wild oats came
in, and I remember when black mustard, pigweed, and the thistles
(Canadian, Sow, Russian) came in."
Weeds invading the land had more to do with simple ecological succession
than with farming methods. After breaking the prairie ground in
the 1880s, there was a “honeymoon” period of about 50
years. Weedy plants, mostly from Eurasia, slowly invaded, brought
in with contaminated seed, animals, hay, or wind. During this period
the residual organic matter from the original prairie, which started
out at 7% or 8%, was mined down to about 2% by the annual plowing.
The mineralization of the organic matter provided good crop yields.
The Dustbowl, which occurred farther south, was a product of the
depleted organic matter and a severe dry spell.
Three thousand acres is not a real big farm in this region, although
it is big by organic standards, and it’s nearly three times
the size of the average Saskatchewan farm. Most organic farms in
Saskatchewan run in the hundreds of acres. Many conventional farms
in this area are over 10,000 acres, with some at 20,000. With profits
being whittled down to such a pittance per acre in conventional
agriculture, one way to maintain them is to increase acreage and
the scale of the entire farming operation.
Saskatchewan has over one third of Canada’s organic farms
and 50% of its organic acreage. The Bodera farm is certified by
the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba. Being near the Manitoba
border, they are closer to the Manitoba organic inspectors and certifiers
than to the Saskatchewan groups, which are farther north and west.
The Boderas decided to go organic in 1989. They had been practicing
minimum chemical farming for years, so the transition was not a
real difficult one. Wheat, barley, oats and flax are still the main
crops. They grow some “tame yellow” mustard –
the kind that makes mustard for hot dogs. Although this is canola
country, Ken doesn’t grow canola. Only one or two farmers
Ken knows of grow it organically. Problems with weeds, especially
wild mustard, and with the flea beetle, make it too difficult to
grow without chemicals. Most of the organic canola is grown farther
north, toward Saskatoon.
Southeastern Saskatchewan averages 17 inches of rain per year.
This year is very dry, but all of it in the second half of the season.
Most of the crops are harvested this year by the 10th of September
- an 85 day season. Most seasons are 110 days. The hot, dry weather
matured things fast, but didn’t affect yields that much.
Grasshoppers were bad this year, but the early drying-out of the
crops kept their damage to a minimum, according to Ken. There’s
usually nothing he can do about them except let them munch his crops.
“I counted 25 grasshoppers on a fence post the other day,”
Fusarium head blight of wheat is also down this year because of
the dryness. The wheat midge, which can also be a problem, seems
to have been sensitive to the drought and did not cause problems
in a field of wheat: In 2003, 50% of their cropland
was in wheat, 30% in oats and 20% in flax.
Ken normally puts his crops in around the third week in
May. Two-thirds of the land is sown with crops and 1/3 is kept as
summer fallow and green manure each season. Of the crop land this
year, 50% is in wheat, 30% in oats, and 20% in flax. Most of the
wheat crop this year is sown on the 1/3 of land that was summer
fallowed last year. Summer fallow operations are to disk down weeds
a couple of times and perhaps graze cattle on it. Oats can be put
into land that is fairly weedy, as it competes well, so it goes
into the second year ground, often following wheat.
It takes the Boderas almost two weeks to get all the crops in on
the nearly 2,000 acres of crop land. Pre-plant harrowing to control
weeds started May 10 this year. The harrow also seals cracks in
the soil, which conserves water. Ken usually does another pass with
a cultivator or rod weeder before seeding. The air seeder also tills
down weeds. This year it was cool early in the season and the crop
got a little weedier than usual. None of Ken’s crops are row
crops, so there are no cultivating operations after seeding.
Flax has to be sown quite shallow, and if moisture isn’t
good early in the season it can have trouble. This year the drought
came later in the season, so the crop is alright. Flax has delicate
blue flowers that bloom for only a day across an entire field, giving
a nice complement to the ubiquitous yellow canola flower.
The Boderas also have 200 cow-calf pairs. This is a tough year
because of the U.S. ban on Canadian beef. The cattle are not certified
organic, as there is little market for organic beef. Recently the
U.S. ban on Canadian beef was partially lifted and slaughtered beef
is being allowed in. The problem is that the Canadian beef industry
is not set up for slaughtering for the U.S. market. “We’re
set up to ship beef on the hoof. Shipping slaughtered beef would
make us a lot more money. You need half or less of the trucks. We
should take this opportunity to change our industry to shipping
slaughtered beef,” says Ken, “but no, you don’t
hear anyone talking about that. They’re just talking about
a massive cull of the herds.
We’re not subsidized as much as U.S. farmers,” he says,
referring to the difficulties of surviving episodes like the beef
ban. He cites some surprising statistics comparing farm subsidies
in the EU., U.S. and Canada. Some checking verifies his figures.
Economists have a statistic called the Producer Support Estimate,
which is the average percentage of a farm’s receipts that
subsidies make up. For grains and oilseeds the PSE is 12% for Canada,
35% for the U.S. and 53% for the EU. U.S. farms are subsidized nearly
200% more than Canadian farms. This is somewhat surprising given
that Canada is known for its liberal federal spending on programs
for its citizens. Obviously this does not apply to farmers.
Ken spreads the manure onto his crop fields, but can only do that
in the fields near the cattle. He’s trying to diversify the
locations of the cattle to get them to fields farther out, by transporting
the feed out to them. “But in winter, when it gets down to
20 below (Celsius) and stormy, it’s not easy or smart to be
driving out there all the time,” says Ken. He also bales hay
Ken’s yields are commonly 50%-66% of the conventional yields
in the area, which means 20 to 25 bushels per acre of wheat, and
40 to 50 of barley. Price premiums consistently reflect the yield
differences – in the 50-100% range.
There is a plethora of market channels for organic grains, and
who Ken sells to depends on who is paying what. “There’s
not much grower-buyer loyalty in the organic grain market,”
says Ken, “It’s best to diversify your buyers anyway,
so I generally don’t sell to the same outfit two years in
As I drive west from the Bodera farm, I can’t help but reflect
that the Boderas, all three generations of them, are the heart and
soul of the North American breadbasket, as well as its future –
farming sustainably, on the free market, and liking it.
The Have a Nice Day motel, near Moosemin,
Saskatchewan, where the author stayed.