Sask. farmer takes off his 71st crop

Mel Paton, his two sons and their families farm 12,000 acres, a far cry from where he began as a 14-year-old in 1949

Mel Paton has been at this farming thing awhile now.

At nearly 86 years old, his 71st harvest is in the bin.

“It is one of the best crops I have grown and weather-wise, it’s been one of the best years, especially after last year,” said the veteran rancher and farmer.

“But it can start raining any time now.”

Mel is the patriarch of the MM Ranch near Carnduff, Sask., a fourth generation Paton family farm.

Mel rises before the crack of dawn each morning and is often the first one to the barn, tending to the livestock, pitching in where he can and keeping a watchful eye over the empire he helped create.

“ ‘You only get out what you put in’ is one of his favourite sayings,” said his youngest son, Curt, one of many family members who work at the ranch.

Paton takes over combine operator duties from the youngest Paton, Kaden, as he prepares to return to college. | Curt Paton photo

“Eighty-five years old plus 15-hour days equals 100 percent commitment.”

Curt sees first-hand the dedication and drive the elder Paton possesses. It is a trait that Mel thinks was important to instill in his sons and grandsons.

“You’ve got to keep going,” said Mel. “If you quit, you’re done.”

It’s an attitude that has sustained him for 71 crop years, and probably the one that saved his life.

On Dec. 1, 2018, at 84 years old, Mel underwent emergency six-way heart bypass surgery. True to his spirited nature and principles, he was determined to not let his health scare keep him down. He fought back the long road to recovery and resumed his place at the helm, even saddling up to take part in the annual cattle roundup late last fall, not even a year post-surgery.

“He (Mel) said he was going to ride again, and today he did,” reported Curt in a Facebook post of Nov. 19, 2019, just days after Mel’s 85th birthday. “Tough times don’t last but tough people do.”

Paton was back in the saddle not even a year after his bypass surgery. | Curt Paton photo

Mel battled back yet again when he developed pneumonia around New Year’s Day and was laid up for another three weeks before fighting back.

Mel learned early on that in order to survive, he’d have to adopt a hard work ethic, be resilient and tenacious. In 1947 when he was 13 years old, his dad got sick and he remembers driving eight horses on a three-bottom plow to help with the farm work in his father’s absence.

His father died the following year and Mel put in his first crop on his own in the spring of 1949 at the age of 14 with his uncle’s guidance, using six Clydesdale cross horses and an ‘H’ International.

Mel has come a long way since then. With two sons, they collectively operate a 12,000-acre spread in southeastern Saskatchewan that is home to three generations of Paton brothers and their families. The ranch has more than 500 head of cattle and one of the largest Belgian draft horse breeding operations in North America.

Harvesting this year’s crop started for the Patons on Aug. 10. But before harvest they had haying to look after, and before that, back in the spring, it was spraying, seeding, foaling and calving.

Harvest will not officially be complete until the foals and calves are weaned and sold and the mares go back into the barn for PMU collection, and the cycle begins once again.

Mel does a little bit of everything on the farm, and oversees the operation. This year, he primarily looked after the square baling.

According to Curt, in 2020, Mel made 10,000 square bales of hay and about 5,000 bales of straw. In addition, he raked all the hay, broke up 200 acres of old hay land, cut 100 acres of second-cut alfalfa, hauled round bales and manure, checked cows and put out salt blocks, and even took his turn at operating the combine come harvest. Not bad for an 85-year-old.

Fondly referred to as the “chief of quality control,” Mel makes sure that everyone is kept busy.

Over the years, MM Ranch has hired few outside employees, but the one Mel hired back in 1967 played an integral role in the farming operation as it is known today. Now retired, Ernie Hansen still frequents the farm as often as he can, and was there on the first day of Mel’s 71st harvest. It was a milestone for Hansen as well, considering that he has been part of harvest on the Paton ranch for 53 years.

“Ernie came to work for me and worked here for 23 years,” said Mel proudly. “By then the boys (Clint and Curt) were ready to take over. He’s a big part of this place.”

Hanson was dubbed the “Mr. Fix-it” of the ranch, and is responsible for many “inventions” that the farm still uses today.

“Clint followed him around, and Curt followed me around,” Mel added.

This is evident today. Clint is the one who is mainly responsible for the mechanical side and equipment — the grain farming aspect of the operation. Curt is in charge of the livestock, while Mel oversees it all.

Mel is looking forward to his 72nd year of farming in 2021 and hopes the farming lifestyle has instilled responsibility and work ethic in his sons and grandsons.

The most important piece of advice Mel has to pass on to his sons and grandsons and future generations is to “do the work, don’t follow fads, and there are no shortcuts.”

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