Farming smarter can often mean farming later

A farm couple from Saskatchewan say they have no plans to retire, at least not in the way that it’s been traditionally done


They have worked hard for many years, they have overcome challenges and age-wise they might qualify; nevertheless, Marj and Ernest Swehla have no intention of retiring now — or ever. At least not in the conventional way.

“Our retirement just means doing things differently,” says Ernest at their dining room table in their farm home near Okla, Sask. “It’s not quitting. Instead of working lots, it’s working less.”

Adds Marj: “It’s being able to do more of what we want to do, instead of what we have to do.”

They’ll reduce their commercial cattle herd, continue to keep a few chickens and horses and maybe raise the occasional pig to butcher for themselves and their family.

Handling cattle is more of a challenge as they age, they admit.

“You can’t move as fast. You can’t run,” says Ernest.

“But you’re a lot smarter than you were 40 years ago. You learn to read them. You get to understand cattle. And any animals with attitude are gone.”

“You teach them to like you,” says Marj with a smile. “Giving them a little grain helps and so does just being amongst them. If they can hear us calling, even if they’re a long way off, they’ll come.”

The Swehlas also tend to keep their cows longer than a lot of producers do. They cull cows when they stop raising a good calf. This means that some of their cows are 12 to 15 years old.

This practice pays off in several ways. They get to know the animals and the animals get to know them. When they annually moved the herd to a pasture across the highway, their herd learned this custom so that when the time came, and the gates were open they literally moved themselves.

One of the things they want in the coming years and have always wanted is to help others. This common desire translated into caring for foster children for many years. Now Marj says that while her most important priority is spending time with her children and grandchildren she’d also like to help her daughter with Equine Assisted Learning and to facilitate retreats for people who need time away. She has a big house and she loves having people around. Travelling, camping, more family outings, training dogs and horses, growing flowers and improving the farmyard are all on her list.

“I want to be active and never want to retire into a sedentary lifestyle,” she says. “I have often thought how nice it would be to have one or two seniors living with us, someone who needs a place where they can garden, go for walks or whatever they enjoy on the farm.”

Rural depopulation has reduced the numbers in the little church they attend in nearby Hazel Dell. About 20 years ago, to keep the doors open, Ernest and another congregant volunteered to take on the task of preaching sermons.

“I was terrified of speaking,” he says, but Marj encouraged him to go to Toastmasters and it was there that he learned to overcome his fear.

“It’s been a long road. Some of my early sermons were pretty sad,” he says.” I don’t claim to be a natural speaker but I work at it so I’ve gotten better at it. Now I enjoy it.”

Preparing sermons also involved writing and as his farm work decreases he looks forward to spending more time writing stories.

Ovarian cancer was a challenge Marj faced with help from her family and her faith. In 2002, she was told she had six months to live.

“I just said to the doctors, ‘I don’t plan on dying of this.’ It came back three times and I had three sets of chemo. 2007 was the last one and it hasn’t come back since…. God has been good,” she says.

What happens to the land?

Neither of the Swehlas can imagine living anywhere else and travelling south has no appeal to them. They own the section of land they live on. When they were more actively farming they rented more land.

Their farm is a habitat for a variety of wildlife including elk, deer, moose, beaver, cougars, eagles, fishers, coyotes, fox and occasionally wolves.

“I have no desire to sell it because I don’t want it to ever be brushed. It has to stay as is,” Ernest says. “ Our neighbour sold out and now there’s maybe 75 trees left on the whole section. That’s sad.”

Passing it on to their children would be the first option and they hope they would keep the land as they have.

“You’re not going to make money in this day and age on a section like this,” he says. “We had a struggle too. but at the same time we had a life here that nobody else has.”

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