For Colin Pierce, organic farming was just what the doctor ordered. Literally.
It was 1989, and Colin was still cultivating his fields conventionally, in a semi-arid expanse of the Canadian plains that his grandfather had first discovered.
“I remember I went down East-end Saskatchewan to see the doctor — that was the closest doctor — and I asked him if there’s any antidote in case I got some grasshopper spray on me. And he told me that the whole crop wasn’t worth it, then he kept getting louder and louder and everybody in the waiting room could hear him I’m sure — that’s the kind of a doctor he was — so consequently I didn’t spray. And he said, ‘You got crop insurance, let them have the whole field.’”
And so Colin allowed the jittery green pests to enjoy their buffet. “It was still early in June and so we got three quarters of an inch of rain, and the grasshoppers flew out,” he says. “I don’t know where they went.” He replanted the fields the grasshoppers had favored, and ended up with a bumper crop of barley and flax.
The ornery doctor’s warning resonated with Colin because he had already seen firsthand the devastation chemicals caused in the lives of people he knew. Once, while working in a granary, Colin met a man who needed surgery to remove a lung. “It was from that mercury seed treatment that they used to have. He’d get in the bin and shovel it around after he cleaned the grain to mix it throughout the grain. Of course, there was no warning labels on those seed treatments or chemicals they were selling to farmers at that time.”
It was not an isolated case. “A neighbor of mine was a spray pilot and he went up north and sprayed some pesticides, and of course later on in life he got sick. They called it Parkinson’s. He was very shaky and bent over and later died. I just thought if it does that to the people who are using the chemical, what’s it do to the people who are eating the product? And so I just wanted to have it so the people could have a good product that was safe to eat.”
By 1995 Colin and his son Randell began transforming the farm into a wholly organic operation. Part of the learning process involved sage advice from legendary One Degree farmer Arnold Schmidt, from nearby Maple Creek.
Colin was surprised to hear Arnold’s insight on organic weed control for the climate and topography of the region: “He said, ‘Oh you won’t have any trouble, they’ll just gradually disappear.’” And that’s exactly what happened. Arnold had long ago learned that healthy organic crops are better able to compete with weeds than are crops weakened by repeated applications of chemicals.
The proof was obvious even to local skeptics. “After I went organic one of my neighbors that was fairly critical about things, he actually complimented me and said you must be doing something right — your wild oat patches are disappearing.”
Today the Pierce family grows a variety of robust grains, including oats, barley, hard red spring wheat and durum for One Degree. The method of cultivation is not only organic, but also veganic — crops are fertilized without the use of any animal by-products. Fields are enriched by crop rotation and plowing clover, legumes and other plants into the soil.
“One particular year we had a really good catch [of clover] right close to the road, and all our rancher neighbors were wanting to buy it for feed. And I think it must have drove ’em crazy when we plowed it in,” Colin recalls with a chuckle. “But it sure built the soil; it raised the protein level on that field by about two and a half points in the years after.”
One of Colin’s preferred field-fortifying legumes is chickling vetch. “It looks like something you’d find at the bottom of your fish tank, you know, almost like gravel, all different sizes, shapes and colors, speckled,” he explains. “It was developed for dry land areas to fix nitrogen into the soil.”
Some of these veganic discoveries were familiar to Colin’s grandfather, who immigrated to the area from Wales around 1909. He was a homesteader whose original parcel of land was bought by the Canadian government to make way for a rail line and a new town.
That proud family heritage is never far from view. One small way Colin keeps it alive is by preserving some of the original field equipment used by his father. A tractor his dad bought new in 1947 stands in the open air as a monument to the toil that tamed the land and built the farm. “So I’ll have to be restoring it,” Colin says casually.
And in so many ways, that’s exactly what the Pierce family farm is all about.
— Charlie Dodge