SOUTHEY, Sask. – The rain gauge perched on the fence measures one much-needed inch of the wet stuff.
Three-year-old Deanna, Bill and Bev Gerrard’s granddaughter, quickly climbs on to the wooden rail, grabs the gauge and empties it, tossing the water aside like a pro.
“She’s seen that done a few times,” Bill laughs.
The moisture on this grey Saturday is welcome on the Gerrard farm, about 19 kilometres northeast of Southey.
Bill and Bev have seen every kind of weather during nearly 30 years of farming. All kinds of commodity prices, government programs and
diversification schemes, too.
But when asked what the biggest change has been, Bill said input costs.
“Everything costs more money,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve been going backwards, but we haven’t been going ahead really fast.”
The Gerrards’s strategy for success has been simple – live comfortably, but frugally.
They used to milk cows and they still grow a huge garden and raise chickens and pigs. Bev had a clothes dryer, but not an automatic washer. And there haven’t been any holidays in Hawaii.
“We cut corners here, there and everywhere,” said Bev. “We don’t live in a new house. Our machinery isn’t new,” Bill said. “It’s second-hand or third-hand.”
“Or fourth-hand,” chimes in son Spencer, who lives with his wife and infant daughter on a nearby farm. Another son, Tyler, lives in the same yard as his parents, with his wife and two children.
The farming operation includes all three families. Both Spencer and Tyler also work at the local John Deere dealership full time, as salesman and mechanic, respectively.
“The kids couldn’t (farm) without their dad,” Bev said.
For his part, Bill said another set of hands during those hours before 5:30 p.m. would be nice.
The operation is traditional. Cereals, particularly wheat, are still the main crops, but this year they also planted canola, mustard, peas and flax on about 1,800 acres.
About half their cropland is in summerfallow, although they do some continuous cropping.
Bill said they would need different machinery and a whole lot more operating capital to continuously crop the whole farm. And then there’s the manpower issue.
“We put long enough hours in as it is,” Spencer said.
The Gerrards also run a collective herd of about 100 head of cattle. Spencer is just starting to get into cattle. Until recently he had about 50 pigs, but is now down to half a dozen.
He recognizes there aren’t too many people left who raise such a small number. He fears that environmental restrictions will push people like him out of the pig business.
Spencer, a journeyman agricultural mechanic who recently switched to sales, said choosing to farm was easy, but he can’t rely on it alone to make a living.
“They were both fortunate enough to get work at Southey,” Bev said of her sons, as she cuddles her grandson. “Otherwise they wouldn’t likely be here. And then where would we be?”
Bev works at the local school, does the farm books and drives the combine. She said she never thought she would be a farm wife. She obtained a university degree in mathematics before her marriage.
Bill has also worked off the farm, building houses and setting up machinery. It helps to be a bit of a mechanic, he said, to keep the machinery going. He did purchase a new air seeder recently, but otherwise tries to keep his older equipment in good repair.
A good example is the tractor Bill posed with for a 1977 Western Producer article. That was his main tractor then, and it’s still in use today.
“It makes a few noises that it shouldn’t but it still runs.”
The Gerrards said they have little advice to offer, other than hard work and prudence.
“I’m not one to gamble, or go into things first,” Bill said. “A lot of people get in trouble, maybe, because they spend too much. You have to be in debt to farm. But you also have to get out of it.”