North Portal, Saskatchewan is a tiny village perched right on the border with North Dakota. One hundred twenty years ago, Nicole Davis’ great-great-grandfather arrived here from Scotland, carrying a packet of asparagus seeds that still yield a perennial crop on the family’s fields.
American Alvin Scheresky found his way to the area over a half century ago, after studying at an agricultural school in Tennessee. He founded Scheresky Mill in nearby Estevan, and soon became a legend in the Canadian organic farming movement.
Now 83, Al Scheresky has the great satisfaction of looking back at the way these paths crossed — and how so many talents and ambitions cross-pollinated — to create today’s special legacy: two thriving organic farms growing an incredible range of crops, from buckwheat, einkorn and millet to Red Fife, durum, spelt, barley, rye and flax.
Legacy is a word you hear often when Al, Nicole and father Gene talk about their life on the land. It’s hard to forget the generations that came before when the original house of the family’s first patriarch still stands, itself a testament to both heritage and dreams: made of sod, as any practical Scottish house would be, and built proudly, as any Scot would build it, to mark this as the land claimed for a homestead.
“When I walk through the fields to get in the tractor it feels like these are the same footsteps that my father has walked in, his father walked in before him; it’s just been in the family for generations,” Nicole says. “It almost feels like carrying on a legacy. And the way that we farm organically, we do our best to take care of the earth. And it just gives me a really good feeling knowing that I’m doing something that I feel good about that I know is good for our world and good for the people that consume these products.”
Nicole spent a happy childhood growing up on the family farm in North Portal, and just last year bought nearby Daybreak Mill, the successor to Al Scheresky’s farm. Some of her fondest early memories center on farming, and the times she would spend helping her dad. “I can remember being out in the field with him. I used to love to go baling with him. It wasn’t very often that he would let me, but he would let me go with him a few times. He’d bale through the night and I’d sleep beside him in the tractor and wake up just as the sun was coming up and watch it come up over the field. The beauty of moments like that, you can’t compare anything to it.”
On her land, Nicole is growing her favorite crop for One Degree: buckwheat. The young farmer with the golden hair and the favored plant share a few special characteristics. Just as Nicole doesn’t fit society’s conventional image of a grizzled farmer, buckwheat isn’t what you might first expect either. Although it produces grain-like seeds, it’s not wheat, not grass, and is most closely related to rhubarb.
“It’s really pretty when it’s blooming,” Nicole observes. “It’s an interesting plant to harvest, it’s indiscriminate. The bottom will be buckwheat and the top will still be flowering, not all ready to be harvested at same time.”
Nicole has learned from her dad that the best time to plant fast-growing buckwheat is late in the season, around mid-June. That gives the crop a good head start on weeds, allowing for an abundant harvest in September.
Gene’s land has been organic from the very start in 1892. Because it’s a large farm, he has room to let fields rest and recover. “He’ll put a field in hay for up to 20 years,” notes Nicole. “Most farms don’t have enough land to do that.”
Guidance over the years from Al Scheresky has also been key to the success of both farms. “Alvin comes out to the farm periodically and shares a vast wealth of knowledge with me,” Nicole says. “He is a huge inspiration to me, and without him there would be no such thing as Daybreak Mill.”
A founding member of the Organic Crop Improvement Association’s Saskatchewan chapter, Al takes a keen interest in helping other farmers prosper. Though retired since 2001, he spends days experimenting in his garden and poring over the latest agricultural reports, articles and books. He can recall the most arcane fact about soil nutrients, while at the same time refining his own grand unified theory of agriculture. From his perspective, declining vitality in the soil is a serious problem for not just the food supply, but also the health of consumers. Poor soil yields crops that provide poor nutrition.
“If you use animal fertilizer you’re going to upset your land even further,” he says. “You need more calcium in soil. You cannot grow crops without calcium. Nitrogen is driving all the calcium out. The flavor of foods is dependent on phosphorus, on calcium, on sulfur. Sulfur is a critical one. Just as important as or even more important than nitrogen.”
Nicole, too, focuses on the big picture, including pernicious trends that are bringing chemicals into the fields and GMO products into local markets.
“The big companies that are involved in the food system, they kinda want one or two crops to be grown. I think there’s a lot more to be gained from having a diversity of crops, rather than just one or two, because our bodies need a few different things. I just wish there was a way to make these big companies open their eyes and say, ‘Look there’s a better way to do this, let’s try to figure it out and stop hurting our world so much.’”
Like her intrepid ancestors who carried their dreams to a New World, Nicole believes in taking action to change things. This past spring, she spoke at a Stop GMO rally in the province’s capital, Regina. “It was very inspiring,” she remembers. “We were marching, and as we were marching people were asking us, ‘What’s a GMO?’ and once we told them they joined us and walked with us against it.
“It was a march against Monsanto, which was good because it brought awareness to who Monsanto even is — a lot of people don’t even know — but I tried to go into it more with a pro-organic mindset rather than anti-something, because I think you get more accomplished when you go into something looking at how to positively change things rather than looking at how negative it is right now. I also think you can’t really fight negative with negative.”
Core passion is something we see often in One Degree farmers, but Nicole’s idealism is especially refreshing. “I firmly believe in organic practices,” she says. “I read this quote a few weeks ago: ‘I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. Then I realized I am somebody.’”
— Charlie Dodge