“Being born and raised on this land, it has a sentimental value to me,” says farmer Eldon Kebernik as he surveys a golden vista of oats stretching along the Pembina River in north central Alberta.
“And I have a connection in it because you’re very familiar with the offerings the soil provides.”
More than a century ago, the mightiest river in the territory was the stream of prospectors rushing up the Klondike Trail on their way to the Yukon, that final destination a bitter landscape concealed beyond a mirage of easy gold and unimaginable wealth. Ironically, those Gold Rush dreamers passed by something of tremendous value: dark, rich soil that would one day help feed a continent, and the world.
The value of the land is something Eldon knows intuitively. He treats it as a priceless inheritance, a resource to be respected and used for maximum good. And that is why organic farming has always appealed to him.
“Organic farming is a passion for me, I truly enjoy it,” he says. “It’s important for me to grow food that I believe is healthy for us as consumers to eat, for our children.”
His family wasn’t always so sure. “When I started farming my dad and my brothers didn’t think I could earn a living by going that route,” he recalls. His parents were immigrants from Poland who had tamed the land and built a prosperous life on what was a lonely New World outpost. Organic sounded like something no one had the luxury to try.
Watching neighboring farms become increasingly dependent on pesticides and later GMO plants, Eldon made a decision. “I just felt it was time to turn away from that,” he explains. After learning about organic cultivation — and business models — from an organic farming association, he made the change, becoming certified in 1997.
Soon he would also become fully veganic, using zero animal-based fertilizer on his farm. Instead, he grows nutrient-building plants such as legumes and alfalfa, uses green plow-downs and rotates crops with the precision of a Swiss clock. Portions of his acreage are devoted to legumes for as long as 10 years. “With a larger farm I’m able to rotate into legumes for a longer period of time,” he observes.
The nearly 1,500 acres also benefit from the rich sediment of the Pembina River, which drains the land and provides one of many natural borders that keep drift from conventional farms away from his oats.
“The unique part about my farm is being organic in a sea of conventional farming,” he says. “I have some bush lands that I keep along the river, plus trees to reduce erosion.”
These days uncontrolled drift is a big concern for all farmers who care about the purity of their crops. In addition to clouds of insecticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizer, farmers now also have to worry about GMO contamination, and a related pest: lawyers.
One of Monsanto’s most commercially popular laboratory creations is genetically modified canola. No one is quite sure if it’s a weed, an invader, or the horticultural equivalent of a slip-and-fall plaintiff. What’s clear is that it commonly drifts into fallow land, as well as fields devoted to other crops. What’s even clearer is that Monsanto considers its seed to be proprietary, and will routinely send process servers onto farmhouse porches to intimidate the victims of its own plant mutations. Farmers in the province readily recount stories of families that have lost their land as a result of such legalistic terrorism.
Not surprisingly, organic farmers stay alert for any signs of GMO canola on their property, and move quickly to pull it out. Once established, this artificial strain of canola also happens to attract higher levels of insects. Bugs and attorneys: It’s hard to imagine this was a gene sequence worth patenting.
“There is a lot of canola growing on conventional farms,” says Eldon. “In most cases usually the broadleaf weed canola will be killed by tillage. If it grows anywhere usually it’s by the roadway. The situation of my farm with very little proximity to other farms provides a natural buffer.”
One Degree is proud to partner with farmers like Eldon who fight every season not only against the elements and natural pests, but also with the forces of greed who seek to undermine the purity of food and are blind to the real value of the land. These farmers are people of great integrity for whom the yearly harvest is not an invoice in a corporate file, but a life milestone, a triumph of will, a way forward for their families.
Most such farmers chose this life at a very early age. It was a future that always seemed exciting, and often destined. “I knew since the age of 14 that I was going to be a farmer,” says Eldon. “It has to be in the blood. If it’s not in the blood, if it’s not a passion, you’re not likely to succeed.”
Considering the size of the Kebernik farm, that passion is immense. Eldon and his wife farm the entire property, with help from their son who also has a separate career. Other key members of the family include Molly, Maple and Riley, Golden Retrievers who are happily pursuing their own puppy breeding careers.
“They’re organic as well,” Eldon jokes of the puppies he sells each year. Golden Retrievers are “a very friendly, sociable dog, a family-oriented dog,” he notes. And popular: Visitors to the farm, especially children, can hardly resist cuddling one of the warm honeyed puppies, small golden treasures born along the Klondike Trail.
Leaving the farm, we had a sense we had surely found a special place. Heading south to Edmonton, we retraced a path that generations ago would have been crowded with dreamers following a North Star of hope, imagining something priceless at the other end; never suspecting that the real prize might someday be generous hearts, flaxen puppies, and pure golden oats.
— Charlie Dodge