By the time I get to the farm, the sun has set – leaving a soft yellow glow hanging over the yard. I park by the house and step into the brisk Turtle Mountain air. A Border collie slinks back into the shadow of the faded red, hip roofed barn, barking a required warning. The door to the milk room stands open, welcoming me into its offering of light. I had arranged to meet Larry and David Black here, specifically because David, Larry and Susan’s twenty-two year old son, has decided to become a farmer – which at his age and in our parts is a remarkable event. I want to know more about him and his family.
I only have a moment to myself in the milk room – taking in the sweet aroma of fresh milk and the swish-swoosh of the stainless steel vat. David enters and greets me with bright black eyes and a shy tilt of his head. He moves self assuredly around the room rinsing the milk lines with hot water. I just missed the milking, he tells me. I follow him through a door into the barn – steaming and pungent in comparison to the milk room. Ten cats – mostly fluffy yellow creatures – scatter and look up as we walk – hoping they’ll get another splash from whatever we’re carrying. The black and white rear ends of thirty-six Holstein cows are lined up on either side of us – all doing what cow rear ends do best. Larry comes out from behind one of these generous beasts to greet me with the same bright eyes but with an added air of authority. This is, after all, the farm he and Susan have built up over twenty-five years from little more than a dream.
Susan, Larry explains, has gone to Edmonton for a couple of weeks to visit her aging parents. Her absence means extra work for the men. But they’re used to work – managing, as they do, both a dairy and an organic grain farm. This year he and David are building a new corral system so they can tend to the needs of their herd in more selective ways. “There’s no question,” Larry goes on, leaning back against a barn post, “David will have to make every nickel count to survive as a farmer.” But, he hopes, because of the way they’ve built up the nutrient base of their soils, David will not have to sacrifice to the extent that he and Susan had to when they bought their farm. His father, Larry, tells me, didn’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers on the soil, but as he aged, he didn’t seem to manage his grain land as well as he might have. Larry feels he has been able to build on what his father taught him – partly because he and Susan took on some debt load (something his father never did). The debt load forced them to manage the farm more intensively, Larry says. Larry and Susan are both keen to pass what they have learned on to David and feel confident that in time David will make more of his own assessments and improvements. They enjoy the farm, but don’t want the farm to be their total existence until their dying day like it was for Larry’s father.
“Our first crop every spring is weeds,” David tells me. He goes on to explain how they wait for the first flush of weeds to come up before they plant. The first tilling kills the most vigorous competition and provides added nutrient and moisture for their crops. David sees how his parents have worked and how they now can afford to hire help when they want to go away for a bit. He figures the need to be diligent and focused in the beginning is best for him too. “I don’t always like it,” he says, “but it’s good.”
It’s easy to see the admiration David has for his father. “We work things out in similar ways,” David says. “We don’t always agree, but we think the same.” David tells me how he went to work in Alberta for a while right out of high school. He liked the money but he was always broke. He yearned to be at home – to work with his folks. Larry interjects with a chuckle, “And his girl friend was here too.” David is now a partner in the farm. He owns (is paying off) a hefty weight of milk quota. And he’s contributing to every aspect of a life on the farm. Together they recently decided to build a modern, new milking barn. The planning process has given them all some new enthusiasm for the farm.
David goes out for a few minutes and Larry leans forward to say of his son, “He’s got everything a young person needs to be a fine farmer. He just doesn’t realize his potential.” ‘But,’ I ask, knowing a thing or two about fathers and sons, ‘doesn’t his confidence have something to do with yours?’ He nods and settles back against the post. “That’s why I’ve taken a part time job with the Milk Marketing Board,” he says. “It gets me off the farm so that David can make some of the day to day decisions.”
The collie meets me at the door – telling me I’m no longer a stranger. I take in the crystal clear, star filled sky for a moment and slip into my truck. I know, as I drive away, why David wants to be here.