For a third-generation North Saskatchewan farmer who’s only moved once in his entire life—from his parents’ farm to a house a quarter mile down the road—Larry Marshall has a globally inspired approach to farming that’s anything but traditional.
Starting in the early ‘80s, Larry, his parents and his sister and brother-in-law ran Marshall Farms as a cooperative farm. As part of that global network, Larry participated in four international exchanges, to conventional farms in China and Zimbabwe, then organic co-ops in Cuba and Costa Rica.
“I always had the organic philosophy, but those exchanges were the trigger for me,” he says. “I saw how passionate the farmers were about organics—and the potential that we could have here.”
When his parents retired 12 years ago, Larry didn’t hesitate. He converted his portion of the farm to organic and focused on growing hemp, which had recently become a licensed crop in Canada. Now he supplies tasty, nutrient-dense hemp hearts for One Degree Organics.
“Going organic has been the best thing we’ve ever done,” Larry says about the 3,000-acre farm that’s now a joint venture with his wife, Meryl, and two sons, Joshua and Karl. “If we can grow our food without chemicals, it only makes sense. When my parents started farming, they didn’t use chemicals. The chemicals crept in and took over.”
Marshall Farms began like many Canadian farms, when the government awarded a quarter section of land after World War l to Larry’s veteran grandfather, Joseph Marshall. Perched at the far northern edge of farmland in North America, about ten miles from the tree line, it wasn’t easy to cultivate. “My grandfather was not a good farmer, but he survived,” Larry says. Luckily, his dad, Bill Marshall, was good at it.
As a boy—and to this day—Larry says his favorite farm job was raking hay. “At 10, I was able to drive a tractor out in the field before dawn when the dew is still on the alfalfa—if you rake it when it’s dry all the leaves will fall off. The sun is coming up, the smell of alfalfa is wonderful and you’re the only one up and out there. It just feels so nice.”
At 61, Larry is still in love with farm life—and tickled that his sons recently decided to join him so they can keep the farm going after he and Meryl retire. “Every year I’m very excited even before the snow melts, planning what we’re going to do on the farm,” he says. “I love every part of it: seeding, harvest, working with soil. I guess it’s something I’d have to call a passion.”
Switching to organic practices and learning how to cultivate hemp has been a steep learning curve. “But it’s fun to bring innovation into farming,” Larry says. “It seems that when we were conventional farming we were more controlled by the chemical and seed companies. Now we’ve got more freedom.”
Over the past decade, Larry has become something of a local expert on both organics and hemp, sharing farming tips he picked up abroad (and has refined at home) with curious neighbors and young organic farmers.
According to Larry, one of hemp’s best qualities is that it’s the fastest-growing weed around. “With organic, we don’t want weeds to get out of hand. We’re trying to keep green on the land as much as possible, so we even seed our hemp with clover,” he says.
Sun-loving hemp grows faster the further north it’s cultivated thanks to abundant daylight. For instance, the dwarf variety Larry grows can reach 9 feet at its native Finland (at the 70th parallel)—and a more manageable 5 to 6 feet at his farm (between parallels 52 and 53). Since hemp outcompetes weeds, there’s no need to spray chemicals, he says.
Another of Larry’s sustainable agriculture practices: “I’m a treehugger.” Organic fields are required to have a 10-meter border from conventional fields. At Marshall Farms, all fields are surrounded by trees to further protect crops from chemical sprays and strong winds.
In contrast, Larry says non-organic farmers often take down trees because they think they get in the way of spraying. “We’re proud of how we are planting more,” he says. “It’s what our forefathers done, too. They planted trees to keep down erosion to hold soil moisture around.” Plus, he adds, they look nice.
Although it’s easy to grow, hemp is a “high nitrogen feeder,” meaning its crops deplete the soil of nutrients. To restore fertility, the farm team cultivates rotation crops between harvests. Specifically, they grow legumes—peas and fava beans—that naturally “fix” nitrogen in the soil.
To amplify the beneficial effects, Larry first treats the seeds with soil “probiotics” or inoculants—bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi that form a symbiotic association with the roots, helping the plants uptake more nutrients and naturally resist diseases. For good measure, the farmers also “plow down” the pea plants just before they go to pod. Adding fiber and biomass to the soil helps build nutrient-rich topsoil and prevent erosion.
In Costa Rica, Larry learned how to use beneficial microorganisms found in nature to grow and ferment organic fertilizers, compost and “biological” pest controls. He was shocked at how effective these natural, homemade solutions were, compared to toxic chemical sprays. “Costa Rica has a very wet climate so cabbages are normally diseased, but the co-op’s organic cabbages were completely unblemished,” he recalls. “We went to help a neighbor who had lots of blemishes despite applying 13 different fungicides.”
Back on his home farm, one of Larry’s favorite things is trying to figure out different ways to utilize microorganisms in farming. “Good microorganisms are always more powerful than the bad,” he says. “The life of the soil is so fascinating. If NASA would put one-tenth of its budget looking down for life instead of looking up for life, we’d be so much further ahead on this planet.”
Larry is also concerned that conventional agriculture practices may be harming the beneficial bacteria in humans, aka the microbiome, which scientists are learning have a huge impact on our health and even mood.
He’s seen a big increase in the amount of the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) being sprayed on nearby farms, often as a desiccant to help crops dry faster for easier harvest and storage. When farmers spray cereal crops like wheat, oats and barley before the grains are mature, the pesticide goes into the seed or grain, he says. “And then we eat it. I think that’s what’s causing gluten intolerance. These chemicals are killing all the flora in our guts, both good and bad.”
Get Larry started talking about hemp—the seed, the oil, even the leaves—and you’ll get an earful. He’ll describe its healthy balance of omega- 3, -6 and -9 oils. He’ll share a new study that found consuming 4 tablespoons of hemp seed daily may significantly lower risk for heart disease. He’ll tell you hemp hearts are delicious sprinkled on cereal or pancakes or mixed with sunflower seeds for a snack.
“We take a lot of pride in trying to get the best quality hemp possible,” he says. When harvested, he explains, hemp is high in moisture, so you have to work quickly to dry it thoroughly and cool it before storing or shipping it. If the hull cracks or it heats too much, the seeds and oil can oxidize. “I’ve had so many people who’ve tried our hemp hearts tell me that they really can taste the difference in flavor.”
Days on the farm start before dawn and run until dark, or a little after dark. “They’re full days,” Larry admits. “During harvest season, it can be chaotic. A lot can go wrong. No one said this would be easy.”
Still, Larry is a man who appears to be utterly content with his place in the world. “As an organic farmer, you have more control over what you’re doing. Plus there are always exciting new things happening. This year, so many of my neighbors want to try organic on part of their farms. They see that it works. They see my clean fields and the higher prices I get for crops.”
Indeed, he says he’s able to support three families on 3,000 acres when most conventional farms need 6,000 acres to support one family, due to thin profit margins. “The chemical companies make all the money selling pesticides and fertilizers,” he says.
Concerned that the region is losing organic acres as people like himself retire, he does all he can to convince young people to get into organics at a low cost. “We’re very anxious to keep the organic acres up and increase them as much as possible,” he says.
Larry and his family have cultivated a vibrant life with deep, connective roots on this historic farm and the surrounding rural community, where locals gather at a little country school a mile down the road for pancake breakfasts and conversation.
Larry, for one, isn’t taking any of it for granted. Describing his favorite time, right after the harvest in late September, he says, “There are no bugs now and the days are just beautiful. It’s pretty darn peaceful—and we get a lot of wildlife. Today, I saw deer, a moose, bear tracks, and a fox wandered into the shop. Mick Jagger, one of our barn cats, chased him away.” He cheerfully confesses to liking winters here, too, despite the frigid 40-below temperatures. “I set up and maintain cross-country ski trails, so we can get out outside in nature and stay active,” he says.
Although he’s planning to take a step back with the farm business over the next few years so his sons can take over, Larry is not going anywhere. “Lots of my friends are moving to different parts for retirement,” he says, “but you’re not going to pry me away from this area.” In fact, he’s already relishing thinking about his “retirement project”—devoting more time to digging into all the new discoveries in sustainable farming. “I won’t lose my ingenuity with agriculture,” he vows.