If you’ve driven north on Highway 11, from Regina to Saskatoon, you’ve seen Riskan Hope Farm. The farm name is spelled out on a big red barn between Craik and Aylesbury.
I see it at least twice a year, on my drives home from Canada’s Farm Progress Show and Canadian Western Agribition. It’s a milestone for me, marking the halfway point between Saskatoon and Regina. Often the highway conditions are dicey during Agribition, and when I see that barn, I think it describes my drive a little too well.
But, as Dave Luther told me via email, Riskan Hope Farm really tells the story of farming. Farmers take a risk planting their crops, then hope for the best, he explained.
Today, Dave and his son Vern raise Simmental cattle at Riskan Hope Farm. The actual barn was built in 1919 by his grandparents, Robert and Alice Luther, who emigrated from the United States.
It was Dave’s mother, Myrna Luther, who named the farm. Myrna taught at a country school in the Avonlea district. A nearby farm had a sign that read “Risk and Hope Farm.” Myrna decided that if she ever had a barn, she’d write “Riskan Hope Farm” on it. As fate would have it, she met and married Martin Luther. The Luthers put the name on the barn in about 1946.
Since then, the barn has attracted plenty of attention. Drivers stop to take pictures and chat, Dave said. Riskan Hope Farm is featured in a children’s book about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. A Regina couple even named their daughter after the farm, although they changed the spelling, he said.
Back in 1919, Dave’s grandparents built the barn for $600, and the house for $1,750, he said. They also sold their flax for $7 per bushel. I was intrigued by that price, and Dave explained flax had been in demand because of the First World War. It was used in paint, he explained. A Wellington Advertiser article states that linen was also used for airplanes’ wings during the First World War.
Things have changed a little since 1919. Construction costs are higher. Airplane wings are a little sturdier than the early linen appendages.
Farming itself has changed, too. Farms are bigger than they used to be. Machinery is bigger too, and has more computers, and carries a hefty price tag. Most farmers have switched to minimum tillage. And while the cattle industry may appear more traditional to an outsider, everything from vaccinations to traceability have shifted ranch practices.
Yet most farms are still family farms. Today, Vern and his wife, Barb, are raising their three kids at Riskan Hope. The family will always be at the core of the farm, I think.
Why do family farms persist on the Prairies? Why haven’t we seen a wave of farms owned by shareholders in Toronto or some other distant urban centre?
It goes back to that whole risk and hope thing, I think. How can shareholders, most of whom expect profits every year — or every quarter — stand the risk inherent in farming and ranching? How can they be expected to wait out years of drought, flooding, disease, insects, low prices, trade action that slams shut borders, or all the other things that producers face?
Why do producers do it? Is there something in them that draws them back to the land and makes any other way of making a living unsatisfactory? Something that allows them to see the potential in a seed or a newborn calf? And something that carries them through the bad years?
Last fall, Dave reshingled the Riskan Hope barn and gave it a fresh coat of paint. Cattle prices were high, and he wanted the barn to look good for its 100-year anniversary, he told a reporter with the Davidson Leader.
That’s the hope side of farming. †