Where the buffalo roam

Why are Canadian farmers struggling to make a living when food is in short supply and prices are skyrocketing?

By Margaret Webb
THIS Magazine September/October 2008

There’s a missing story in every book. Guests the author desperately wanted at the dinner table but who didn’t fi t in, for whatever reason. In retrospect, the reasons seem lame—not enough chairs (or chapters), not enough food (or research dollars). The book launches and there’s much celebration and discussion and reviews. And no one notices the absence, though it haunts the author.

The missing story in my book, Apples to Oysters, which was published this year and took me across Canada interviewing farmers, belongs to Jackie and Kim Legault and their young daughter, Cloe, and the family’s brave vision for their bison ranch on the grasslands of southern Saskatchewan. An ancient seabed millions of years ago, it was scratched and clawed by receding ice and sucked dry by prairie winds. It is an area so barren that, in the 1850s, British surveyor John Palliser declared it unsuitable for crops. Of course, subsequent generations of grain farmers proved Palliser wrong, for a time.

I’ll warn you now that Jackie and Kim’s story does not have a happy ending. But in that sad ending—maybe, just maybe—we can begin to understand why Canadian farmers struggle to make a living growing food, and often fail, at a time when food prices are skyrocketing, and when the world is so desperately short of food.

So let me start by introducing you to the couple. Here’s Jackie, then 34. Imagine a young Doris Day, though brainier. And here’s her leading man, Kim, 35, dark-haired, handsome, easy to imagine in a tuxedo rather than his farmer’s uniform of jeans and workboots. The two answer my questions—completing each other’s sentences, bolstering each other’s ideas—so it is impossible to quote them in any kind of traditional way.

Jackie and Kim grew up near the same dusty prairie town, became high school sweethearts. At graduation, Kim encouraged Jackie to follow her dreams and go to university. She studied commerce, but wished she had focused on art. Kim followed his heart, farming alongside his father, eventually taking over the fourth-generation farm. The high school sweethearts eventually married, had Cloe. While Kim farmed, Jackie did the books, worked on her art. They made a great team; I could see that the instant I met them.

That was two years ago when I travelled to Saskatchewan to research a chapter in my book about fl ax farming. A side trip took me to Grasslands National Park, about two hours south of their home in Ponteix, Saskatchewan. The park had reintroduced a herd of buffalo—bison, as they are properly called—and I suppose I was haunted by a story often left out of Canada’s narrative, of the buffalo and the Aboriginal tribes who followed them. I wanted desperately to see the bison in their natural habitat, to hear the prairie thunder of those enormous beasts stampeding across ancient grassland. I did see the bison in the park, mostly thanks to a chance meeting with a photographer who knew where to find the herd of 75 animals. But I had made a backup plan just in case: a tour of Jackie and Kim’s Great Divide Bison Ranch.

The drive to their ranch was a teeth-jarring ride over washboard gravel roads, with poor Jackie, six or seven months pregnant at the time, sitting in the back seat of their pickup beside Cloe. On the way, the couple told me a little of the hardship they hoped was behind them.

Jackie and Kim and his father had been farming some 6,000 acres, grain and some specialty crops, along with an uncle and cousin. Like many other prairie farmers, Kim’s dad got hooked on chemical fertilizers and pesticides when they became widely and cheaply available. They were the ingredients for bombs and nerve gas adapted after the Second World War for peacetime use—growing food. With the advent of massive machinery and the ease of farming with chemicals, a single farmer could work thousands of acres. Bankers became an ambitious farmer’s best friend, lending huge sums in good times to buy out neighbours’ farms, acquire bigger machinery and plant more acreage. Then the price of fertilizers, pesticides and seed started climbing. And climbing. Jackie and Kim were spending about $80 to $140 an acre just to plant their crops—a $600,000 investment every spring. They ran a family debt of $1 million.

Under free trade and globalization, the price that farmers could get for selling their crops remained the same for years, or even dropped. Yet governments, banks and Big Ag seed, chemical and pesticide salesmen (often a farmer’s only source of information) still urged farmers to get bigger, and borrow more against the equity in their farms—profits would come with efficiency, they argued. But squeezed by escalating inputs at spring and falling prices at harvest, in 2003 and 2004, Canadian farmers registered their worst income years ever. Those same years, the big players in the food chain—fertilizer, chemical, seed and machinery dealers, processors and grocery stores—made record profits.

Like hundreds of other farmers in Saskatchewan (that province has the highest rate of farm bankruptcies in Canada), Jackie and Kim soon found themselves facing a sand dune of debt. All it took was a drought year or two, nothing uncommon on this hardscrabble land.

Maybe it was their daughter Cloe coming along that made them think about the effect of the chemicals they were sinking into the ground. Or maybe it was Kim’s headaches, and the sick feeling he got in his gut after spraying: “I felt like I was poisoning the ground.” Certainly the crushing line of credit didn’t ease Kim’s headache. As he said, “We fired our advisers. We fired our banker, the machinery dealer, the chemical and seed companies.”

“And we hired the buffalo,” said Jackie.

They sold their combine, rented out their cropland and let Mother Nature and the bison work the farm’s former cattle pasture, 2,000 acres, most of it native prairie land that had never been cultivated or contaminated by agricultural chemicals.

We arrived just before lunch. The grassland straddles the continental divide—to the south, water flows into the Mississippi Basin; to the north, into Hudson Bay. It is downstream of nowhere, meaning the water under this land, this turf, is absolutely pristine. Kim said the person who tested it thought his machine was broken, the water was so pure. They imagine the clean water and air will be worth something someday, maybe when Cloe is old enough to take over, the fifth generation of Legaults to farm this land.

Then less than two years old, Cloe knew four words—mom, dad, bison and yum. When Kim stopped the truck in a field, Cloe scrambled out of her car seat, flipped into the front seat and slid out the door after her dad. Standing alongside Kim, she calmly took in a scene that was fantastical to my eyes: the prairie dotted with some 450 bison—massive bulls, cows and baby calves. I followed them out of the truck and took a picture of little Cloe in her pink running shoes and pink shorts, seemingly towering over the bison in the distance.

Kim told me earlier that he had grown up dreaming about seeing bison on this range. This was the last area the bison roamed freely in the prairies (the last herd was captured about 10 kilometres away). But Kim never thought his dream possible, until Jackie read about prairie farmers starting to raise bison for meat. Even then, it took more convincing, Jackie and Kim’s father doing more research. Probably Kim told me this as if to say it wasn’t him chasing after some mad dream. His workboots were firmly planted on prairie soil when they bought the bison in 1998.

The herd started moving toward us, their hooves tilling the soil, their dung, full of grass seed, fertilizing and replanting it. “They’re always on the move,” said Jackie. “They’re like cultivators, planters and combines all in one,” said Kim. “But $200,000 combines don’t have babies. Every spring, the bison replace themselves.”

The bison are supremely suited to this harsh climate, existing off a natural crop of prairie grasses. A bison steak is the best steak you’ll ever eat, and the meat’s better for you than beef. They are the true prairie cow.

The herd moved toward us again, and little Cloe lurched toward them. Jackie yelled and Kim scooped her up in his arms, pulled her back into the truck. Furious, Cloe fought and screamed in her father’s arms until the herd was upon us, and, suddenly, the huge shaggy head of a bull appeared at my passenger window, snorting. I gasped. Cloe pointed and laughed.

‚ÄúThat’s Great Thunder,” Kim said, by way of introduction. It’s one of his top three breeding bulls—The Kid and Viagra being the others.

When Jackie and Kim got into bison farming, they saw a huge gap in the new market. One of the first challenges in resurrecting a heritage breed is genetics—having enough variety to avoid inbreeding and improve herds—so Jackie and Kim focused on developing good breeding stock. Their top animals were worth some $30,000 and more per head in the U.S., where bison ranchers like mogul Ted Turner are building massive herds. But prices plummeted after a couple of droughts in the U.S., followed by investors pulling out of the bison market. Then mad cow disease struck, and the U.S. closed its border to Canadian cattle—and, bizarrely, U.S. regulators classified bison as cows though the bison are a completely different animal and there has never been a single case of mad cow detected in bison. Within two years, Jackie and Kim’s herd was rendered almost worthless.

Jackie and Kim figured they could hang on for a few years, until the border reopened. In the meantime, they started selling some animals for meat in Europe and the U.S. But the local market in Saskatchewan is miniscule, the province littered with ghost towns, the consequence of farmers expanding into massive corporate operations.

With the exodus of the farming population, so went the infrastructure for processing local foods, leaving Saskatchewan with no federally certified abattoir for bison, which can travel across provincial lines only if they’re standing on four legs. Meat sold out of province must be killed at a federally inspected abattoir, and upgrading requires a significant investment. (Last year, when British Columbia demanded its provincial abattoirs upgrade to federal standards, many simply went out of business.) The nearest federally inspected abattoir is in Alberta, and the cost of shipping there was prohibitive.

And there were more, smaller heartbreaks along the way. The restaurant in their hometown of Ponteix, keen to help out Jackie and Kim, featured their bison on a special Valentine’s menu. Many in town had yet to taste bison, and there was considerable anticipation. Jackie warned the chef that you can’t cook bison like beef, and it can only be cooked to medium rare or it gets tough. Yes, the chef screwed up, but the diners blamed the bison.

Kim started the truck, and the bison scattered back. He drove us to a distant corner of the ranch, with a fabulous view of the valley and the herd in the distance. We spread a picnic blanket out on the ground, and Jackie unpacked a cooler full of thick bison sandwiches. They were tender, beefy and, as Cloe would say, yum. We washed them with down cold water Kim had drawn from the ranch well, maybe the most pristine water in the province.

Excited by my enthusiasm for their bison project, Jackie and Kim wondered if they could develop tours to the ranch. But, again, they butted headlong into old problems—the ranch is hours from nowhere, along a gravel road with no hotels or other tourist amenities.

“Changing even a few things would be a big help,” Kim said.

“The province has to develop policies to support local foods,” said Jackie.

Like the province’s antiquated tax system, for one, which has hardly changed since large farm families lived on every quarter section. Jackie and Kim said they pay some $15,000 in school taxes on land that now has no children, while their neighbours in town with children are billed just $500. Kim pointed out that Grasslands National Park receives huge government money to protect natural prairie and bison, while their ranch gets nothing for doing virtually the same. A tax credit for sequestering carbon or even a grant for their work maintaining the land as natural prairie would help, he said.

“We’re all in this world together,” said Jackie.

“But as the farmer, you’re in charge of the land,” said Kim. “You’re responsible.”

Cloe took a massive bite of her bison sandwich and pointed. The shaggy beasts, across the valley, were migrating toward us again.

Kim joked that if the bank foreclosed on his herd, he would board the bison on a truck and deposit them at the bank.

When I got home from my trip, I sent Jackie and Kim the picture of Cloe overlooking the bison. When my book came out, Jackie emailed to congratulate me. Then she told me she had sad news. After another two drought years, they had left ranching. Kim’s dad and uncle are now considering selling the land. “It weighs on our hearts,” Jackie said. “We consider that land sacred. But we don’t know what else we can do.”