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  Living off the Land

by Paul Yanko
Grain elevators stand guard over the crops in the 'grain belt' of southern Saskatchewan.

From above, it's a patchwork quilt of color and texture. At ground level, it's a gently rolling sea of crops, dancing to the breeze.

That's southern Saskatchewan in the summer. And the artisans who each year create this scene are her grain farmers.

Farming is a set of skills handed down from father to son. It's an endeavor that feeds millions of people the world over as well as our provincial economy. Farming is part of who we are.

"It's a good life," says Don Bashutski, a second-generation farmer who lives near Lestock, 140 km (87 miles) northeast of Regina.

"When you see the crop coming up and you go out and walk through it, there's a tremendous sense of pride. Seeing what you've accomplished in a four-month period is very satisfying."

Our conversation takes place in winter - a time for reflection, on the farm. We're sitting beside a window in Don's kitchen, and on the other side of the glass a snowstorm feeds two-metre drifts. Beyond the pine trees surrounding the yard lies an endless blanket of white.

"No matter how hard you wish, you can't hold the weather back," Don says, glancing outside.

"It's like gambling. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes. . . ."

The Bashutski's farm is located in the middle of Saskatchewan's "grain belt", which spans the southern third of the province and meets the boreal forest to the north. They grow flax, wheat, canola, oats and barley. Their house is a modest, 110-square-metre bungalow. Near it sits a small garage, a large "quonset" building used as a shop, several wooden storage sheds and a handful of steel grain bins.

Don was 10 when he began helping his dad farm their seven quarters of land (one "quarter" is quarter of a square mile, or 160 acres).

As a teenager, his school work and farm chores often stretched his working day to two or three o'clock in the morning. Something had to give. He quit school at 15 to work on the farm. He says he recognizes the importance of education, but adds he'd make the same decision today.

"Growing up on the farm, I always liked being outside working - fixing and maintaining equipment," he says, his callused hand reaching for the cup of warm water he's sipping. "It seemed like the lifestyle for me."

The Bashutski family: (l to r) Melanie, Tyler, Lasha, Don, Brody and Trevor. Farming in Saskatchewan is a family affair.

Farming in Saskatchewan is a way of life shared by the entire family. Don's wife Melanie helps harrow the land in addition to working full time at the local hospital in Lestock. Lasha, 17 (all information as per time of writing), helps keep the yard clean, while 16-year-old Trevor drives the tractor and cooks. Even Tyler and Brody, 11 and nine, help out. Because flax straw takes two or more years to decompose, it needs to be burned to allow a new crop to be planted the next year. That task falls to the youngsters, who travel the fields in a three-wheeled vehicle.

It's this kind of team work that keeps the agricultural economy afloat. In a province of just over one million people, there are 60,000 farms, averaging 170 acres in size. Fifteen per cent of the province's work force is employed through agriculture, and most people have friends or relatives living on the farm.

Saskatchewan farms represent 44 per cent of all cultivated land in Canada. The province exports 10 per cent of all the world's exported wheat.

Large and efficient farms are the reason for the prolific production, says Milos Menhart.

Menhart, 52, was born in what is now the Czech Republic. He's been involved with farming much of his life and has experience here and abroad.

Don and Lasha volunteer their services at the snack counter of the local hockey arena.

"Farms here are more family oriented, better equipped, and therefore require fewer people to run them," says Menhart, now a Regina-based cattle exporter. "European farms, in many cases, are just a few cows and a small parcel of land." It's more like gardening, he says.

Don's farm has an impressive garden, and my wife and I regularly stumble over sacks of potatoes, carrots, corn and peas left outside our door by Melanie. But Don's farm can hardly be considered a garden. Between he and his father, they farm 17 quarters of land and tend to 85 head of mixed-breed cattle. Don has invested more than $250,000 in equipment and his land is worth about $45,000 to $50,000 per quarter.

In addition to luck, farming takes hard work to make the investment pay off.

Seeding usually begins in mid May, weather permitting, and wraps up around the second week of June. Crops are changed, or "rotated", from year to year, to help the soil replenish its nutrients. Certain crops put nitrogen into the soil, for example, and that can aid in the growth of a different crop the following year.

Seeding can demand long hours.

"If the forecast calls for rain, and you can get your seeds in the ground before the rain hits, you've got the jump on Nature."

By the time seeding is completed, the first fields planted are ready to be sprayed for weed control. June, July and August are spent cutting hay from around the sloughs. The hay is fed to the cattle in the winter.

Harvest goes from dawn to dusk, and sometimes later, using floodlights.

Harvest runs through September into October, and occasionally beyond. The crop is cut down using a swather, which is basically a huge lawn mower. It cuts the plants about 10 centimetres above the ground, creating a 1.5-metre-wide "swath" behind the machine. The grain needs to dry in order to be efficiently combined, a process that separates it from the chaff. The drying period can be days, or weeks, depending on the weather.

The combine picks up the swath and forces it through narrow channels the width of a kernel of wheat. The grain is saved and the chaff and straw are discharged out the back of the combine.

The push to "get the crop off" before the first snow flies can create a dizzying work schedule.

"Sometimes, we don't go to sleep for days on end."

It's during harvest that city boys like me, generations removed from the farm, get phone calls from rural friends asking whether we've ever driven a tractor or a grain truck. If the answer is "no", the next question is likely to be a desperate "would you like to learn?"

In the summer, the cattle are usually left to fend for themselves on pasture land. In winter, they require almost daily attention to make sure they're properly fed and watered. The colder the weather; the more they eat. With a market value of $500 to $800 each, the cattle represent an investment that must be carefully protected.

Don sets an experienced eye on a dull skate blade.

Winter also is the time to repair and maintain equipment, keep the yard and approach free of snow and, of course, play hockey. This is, after all, Canada.

When I drove into Don's yard earlier in the day, sons Trevor, Brody and Tyler had just wrapped up a game of ball hockey - we call it "shinny". It was Trevor and Brody versus Tyler, whose goal posts (two five-gallon pails) were placed only one metre apart to compensate for his lack of a teammate. "And I won, too," Tyler proudly told me, his sandy-blonde hair still damp from his achievement.
Sharpening skates at the arena: Itís all part of rural life.
Don plays hockey for the Lestock Magnums, a dozen men in their 30s and 40s who get together two or three times a week for games at the local arena. He also does volunteer work at the rink, cleaning the ice and running the snack shop.

The spirit of volunteerism - helping one's neighbors - characterizes Saskatchewan's farming community.

"Neighbours usually help one another out - you don't worry about getting paid. If you help your neighbor one year, you're almost guaranteed that, if there is some way he can help, he'll give you a hand the next."

It's the life, not the money, that keeps people on the farm.

"You get a real sense of togetherness when you go out and see the crop coming up and know that everyone in the family has had a hand in it," says Don. "I don't think you can find that in too many other jobs."

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