Shelley Bear is the first to admit she didn’t know a lot about farming.
“I knew you put the crop in the field in the spring and you took it off in the fall,” Bear told delegates at the inaugural Indigenous Agriculture Summit, held in conjunction with Canadian Western Agribition in November.
Bear is the director of economic development at Ochapowace First Nation. In 2009, then-Chief Denton George and other First Nation members set about establishing a 9,000 acre farm.
“Instead of renting out these lands to non-First Nations farmers, the plan was to develop our own people and start farming ourselves. With this vision, Ochap Farms Ltd. was established,” said Bear.
“One thing that I did take was some knowledge in business. And I know I’ve had my failures and I know I’ve had my successes in business, so I figured I’d build on what I knew in business,” Bear said.
Ochapowace has a proven track record in business, Bear said. The First Nation has a sand and gravel company that generates revenue for the First Nation. Along with Band Farms Ltd., the official name of Ochapowace’s farm, the First Nation also manages a community pasture on 19,000 acres of land. Ochapowace Pasture holds an average of 2,500 livestock, including patron animals and the First Nation’s own cattle and bison.
Ochapowace had other resources on hand as well.
“We have a lot of people. We have access to a lot of prime land and we have a recognized government that our people respect,” said Bear.
Ochapowace has just over 1,600 members, of which about 500 live on reserve. Nearly half are 29 years old or younger.
The First Nation sits in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan, near Broadview. Ochapowace Lands manages 56,000 acres, including the original reserve lands, and land acquired from 1992 on.
Back in 1992 Ross Allary, a councillor handling the lands portfolio, envisioned buying as much prime farm land as possible.
“And that’s what he did. He went out with his land claims committee and just started buying land,” Bear said of Allary, who is the current chief. The land turned out to be a good investment. Parcels costing $200,000 at time of purchase have more than tripled in value.
The First Nation was able to use the land to secure a line of credit for inputs.
Ken Bear, an agrologist and University of Saskatchewan graduate, took on the farm manager job. He put together crop production plans, focusing on canola, oats, and barley.
The First Nation had also banked good will with neighbours, including farmers who’d leased land from Ochapowace.
“When they looked at our plan and had seen what we wanted to do, they were more than happy to come and help us,” said Bear. Ochapowace hired these farmers as custom contractors to help with everything from seeding to harvest to transportation.
It took about a year to get everything in place before the First Nation could begin farming, Bear said.
“Actual farming operations commenced in 2010 and from there it was smooth sailing,” Bear joked. “Anyone that knows farming knows it’s never smooth sailing.”
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Challenges and changes
Ochapowace faced flooding their first farming year. Lack of machinery and farming expertise cost them, too.
“We were spending over $600,000 a year on custom contracting,” said Bear. Trucking grain to the elevator ate at the bottom line, too.
Band Farms also took a look at its “land demographics,” Bear said. “When the original plan was put in place, there was land 50 miles this way, a half a section over here.
“So we’re paying for all those costs of those custom workers driving in between all these little parcels of land.”
Band Farms leases land from Ochapowace Lands. They are separate entities, and the farm pays the going rate now, Bear said. But Ochapowace Lands did work with the farm to centralize its land base, allowing workers to drop drive times.
Farm decisions were initially guided by a board of directors, but that responsibility shifted to the chief and council.
“They had the authority to make the decisions immediately that needed to be made… And at the end of the day the chief and council are the ones that have to be accountable to the people,” said Bear.
Investing in people
Bear said believing in the First Nation’s own people was an important part of the renewed approach.
“We’ll train our people. We’ll get them more involved. And then… they will work at making our Band successful, our First Nations successful. And not only that, make themselves successful.”
In fall 2012, potential farm employees started learning about crop production and machinery operation at local community colleges. Once they completed their courses, Ochapowace members had jobs waiting for them with Band Farms.
Band members also accessed programs such as Inroads to Agriculture to get their Class 1A licenses so they could haul grain.
Bear said they also looked at cutting custom contracting costs. “We made a conscious choice to utilize our (AgriInvest) dollars and we purchased equipment that would reduce the amount of resources that we’re spending on custom work.”
The First Nation’s first major equipment purchase was an air seeder. A custom contractor trained one of Band Farms’ workers on the air seeder, and the two of them seeded Ochapowace’s land.
“When he finished seeding the lands that he was supposed to seed from our farm, he was actually contracted by outside farmers to seed their lands as well,” Bear said.
Asked how Ochapowace motivated their employees, Bear said they paid their employees what they were worth, meaning they don’t underpay employees.
They also looked to members whose parents were farmers on Ochapowace as a labour source. Bear said these workers were very committed and made good role models.
“They would actually sleep in their trucks overnight at seeding time because they were so determined to get the crop into the ground.”
Along with the agricultural training, Ochapowace required its employees to take a Dale Carnegie course on personal development, Bear added.
For the first time, Band Farms employed its own members in every farm operation, from seeding to hauling grain to the elevator. Investing in employees also allowed the farm to cut custom contracting and trucking costs drastically.
Offsetting custom contracting costs allowed Band Farms to buy more farm equipment, including two tractors, grain carts and extractors. A sprayer and second air seeder are in the works, too.
The First Nation will also be able to help its members who are farming independently, Bear said.
In 2013, Ochapowace seeded canola, barley, and oats into just over 8,300 acres. Good growing conditions and experience made it Band Farms’ most successful year so far.
Expecting a bumper crop, Band Farms bought plenty of grain bags and put existing grain bins to good use. But harvest was better than expected, and Bear was still phoning around for more grain bags in November.
Bear has learned about farming in the last few years. She can identify field crops and during the growing season and harvest she gets up early to check the weather.
“So I really actually got very involved with the farm so next year I might be on the tractor. We’ll see.”