Budget conscious couple takes on century farm

Grain farmers look for deals on equipment but keep up with agricultural innovations like auto steer and GPS

UNITY, Sask. — Two animated Springer Spaniels are so eager to greet the car entering the farmyard that they block access to the parking area.

Inside the house, a bevy of exotic Sphynx cats, devoid of hair, are equally attentive and affectionate to the two generations of family gathered around a kitchen table to talk about their 104-year-old Saskatchewan farm.

The pets are family, say Travis and Tracey Schaab, whose blended clan includes four adult boys living off the farm.

This day, Travis’s father and former reeve, Vern, is visiting from Red Deer after attending a rural ratepayer’s meeting the previous day.

He said the farm’s beginnings can be traced to Van Seymour, his wife Sharon’s grandfather. He was one of many American farmers who came to the Unity area from Oklahoma, lured by land developer J. F. Luse, the namesake of the town of nearby Luseland.

Vern studied plant science at Vermilion College with plans to be an agronomist but instead got the opportunity to farm with Sharon.

“I have no regrets,” he said.

“The farm’s been good.”

However, Vern conceded it was not without challenges, including grasshoppers, hail and drought.

He and Sharon started succession planning in their 50s, bought a house in Red Deer, where two sons live, and have slowly been handing over the reins to the next generation.

The couple stays involved by doing the books and helping during the growing season. Travis, an agricultural parts person by trade who also worked in the oil fields as a mechanic, does most of the machine maintenance, management and fieldwork.

Tracey, who once bred purebred cats, helps with farm chores but maintains a full work schedule as an educational assistant, manicurist and rehabilitation services aide.

The family grows wheat, peas and canola on 3,300 acres of deeded and rented land.

The Schaabs can haul most of their crops to grain handlers in Unity but had to take durum to Kindersley because of the lack of local markets.

They will add flax to the rotation this year to help with disease problems they faced in peas.

The current wet climate cycle they are in has meant a greater use of fungicides, something they had to apply by sprayer plane last year.

“We lost land to sloughs. We previously farmed those low spots,” said Vern.

Spring runoff often means erosion here, something they counter by working the land as little as possible.

“Sometime we hire a grader to close the washout,” said Vern.

Travis said they have good moisture to begin seeding the first week in May, an earlier start than the last few years. The snow is gone and fields are drying, but the ground in mid-April was still frozen in places.

“Spring has been late the last five years,” said Travis, noting wet conditions two years ago when they bought a new drill meant they couldn’t come down the grid roads.

Generally, they buy “next to new” equipment, with Travis spending much time scouring websites for sales, information and how-to tutorials and attending events like Crop Production Week.

“I’d sooner keep later model stuff going,” said Travis.

This day, he is applying bright pink packer scrapers to his seeder to knock dirt off the packer tires during seeding.

Travis points to other innovations for the Schaab farm, which was one of the first in the area to use liquid nitrogen and now operates tractors with auto steer and GPS.

For Vern and Travis, focusing on one job makes the most business sense, citing the conflicts for farmers juggling two occupations and dealing with unpredictable weather.

“You can’t do both,” said Vern.

“You can lose a grade and lose a hay crop.”

Weather is their nemesis.

“We always look at the weather channel,” said Tracey.

Travis said cattle numbers have declined in the community since BSE, and grain prices are down since the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board’s single desk.

“Prices are not as good as they should be. Elevators are buying cheap grain,” she said.

Travis’s wish list includes a heated shop while Tracey would like to update the kitchen of the home formerly occupied by Vern and Sharon.

Both enjoy their rural lifestyle.

“It’s a good life. I enjoy being out here,” Travis said.

Tracey called it a good, safe place, with lots of space to walk the dogs.

She grew up in Chauvin, Alta., where her father kept cattle and worked in the oil patch, so she likes the freedom that grain growing offers.

“I don’t want cattle because you’re so tied down,” she said.

Travis’s love for farming stretches back to childhood.

“I’ve left five or six times to try other things and ended up coming back.”

Contact karen.morrison@producer.com

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