On the Farm: David and Jean Caldwell emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1995 — now they’re moving back
For just over a quarter of a century, David and Jean Caldwell of Kenton, Man., have called Canada home. But by their own admission, their Scottish roots run deep, and on April 30, their life will come full circle as they head into retirement with a move back to their bonny homeland.
The decision to return to Scotland was not made in haste, nor was the move to Canada back in 1995. It was logical and deliberate. The difference this time is that it was made more from a place of abundance and fulfilment rather than economics and the need of that earlier time.
Before coming to Canada at age 54, David had farmed in Scotland his entire life; first, at the family farm near Kilmarnock, and later at his 375-acre farm, Southcairn, near Stranraer. It was there that he and Jean raised their family and built up their 140-head herd of pedigreed Holstein cattle, twice proclaimed the top Holstein herd in Scotland.
However, having accomplished all of that, there was still something missing in their lives. Sons Donald and Douglas had aspirations of grain farming and the rolling crop lands necessary to eventually support three families were not available nor affordable in Scotland. When the bottom fell out of the dairy industry, it was the last straw and made their decision to move across the pond a relatively easy one.
“Donald and Douglas farmed with us and although they would milk the cows, their hearts weren’t in it,” said David of the decision to move to Canada. “The final catalyst was the deregulation of the Milk Board, knocking the guts out of the dairy industry.”
For them, it was a no brainer. Moving to Canada and changing to grain farming would allow them more free time in the off season; they wouldn’t be tied to the farm with the responsibility of milking cows seven days a week. This would allow them to travel and take holidays, something that had virtually been impossible until this stage of their lives. They could always go back to Scotland and visit once a year, and then, of course, there was the money.
With the land being much more affordable in Canada than it was in Scotland — $500 to $600 an acre compared to $4,500 to $5,000, “we could increase our acres without going to the bank,” said David.
Another drawing card for the Caldwells was that a handful of friends and relatives from Scotland had already emigrated to Manitoba. Plus, David and Jean had come to Canada several times, importing embryos from Quebec for their pedigreed Holstein business and visiting those friends and family.
In 1995, they stayed at Jean’s brother and sister-in-law’s dairy farm in the Belleview district. They happened to be out for a drive in the Lenore area one day when her sister-in-law, Janice, mentioned that she knew of a farm for sale in nearby Kenton, and they decided to drive by and have a look.
The first thing they noticed when they neared Kenton was the sign on the west side of town, which read “Kenton, Best Little Town by a Dam Site”, and Jean’s first thought was, “these people have a sense of humour. I like it.”
Then they noticed the farm they were looking at was located right off of Highway 259, so no gravel to contend with. They liked the location; they were within an hour’s drive of family and friends, and the house required minimal renovations to update it. All of the boxes on Jean’s wish list were checked.
The day they made arrangements to actually look at farms in the area proved to be even more interesting. When they got to Kenton, despite the fact that it was raining elsewhere, the sun was shining. When they stepped foot in the residence and noted the mural of the old grist mill on the wall of the office, the deal was all but sealed.
“My dad had run a grist mill in Scotland, so it was like he was telling us to buy,” said Jean.
The couple, along with two of their three sons, Donald and Douglas, decided to make the 6,000 kilometre trek to establish themselves as grain farmers and livestock producers in Canada. They left an older son and brother, David, in Scotland.
The Caldwells arrived in Canada on Dec. 10, 1995, with two shipping containers and big dreams. They were pleasantly surprised upon their arrival in Kenton, when neighbours and town folk just started showing up to help them unpack and bring meals and baking to feed the volunteers. They had heard that Manitoba was friendly but had no idea just how friendly until that day.
“You even swear politely,” laughed Jean.
One reason they decided to arrive in December was to get accustomed to their new surroundings and get to know people before spring seeding began. The winter of 1995-96 proved to be one of the coldest on record, causing the Caldwells to get a rude awakening to what life on the Prairies was like.
The climate was one of the main adjustments they had to make when they arrived on the Prairies. Scotland has far more precipitation and the temperature fluctuations are not as great. According to the Caldwells, the grass never really stops growing in Scotland.
One of the other most noticeable differences between farms in Manitoba and Scotland was of course, the size.
“We’ve fields (here) that are bigger than our whole farm in Scotland,” said David.
Considered one of the largest land purchases in the area, the transfer of the 2,600-acre package probably still qualifies as one of the largest complete land transactions to date in the area.
Other noticeable differences were language-based and even though both countries recognize English as the primary language spoken, the words used can sometimes be confusing. For example, cookies are scones, cornstarch is corn flour, and tomato paste is tomato puree. Jean will never forget her first encounter at the local Co-op store to get some tomato puree, which of course she was unable to find, and upon her description to the clerk at the time, in Jean’s own words the clerk replied, “oh I knew-a what you were-a meanin’, but I just loved your accent.”
They feel as though they made the right decision to move to Canada, and make a life in a country that appreciates and celebrates agriculture.
“The public in the prairie provinces are more in touch with the farmers,” David reflected. “The British public are in general, eight or 10 generations removed from the land, so no interest.”
They have noticed how many of the radio and television commercials in Canada are aimed at agriculture (especially during televised curling), as well as the public service announcements broadcast on radio during seeding and harvest warning motorists to take precautions and make allowances for farm equipment.
“Even the newscasts here give agriculture quite a prominent position, plus farm market updates every day. All these things give you the impression that agriculture has an important part to play in Canada,” said David.
They have seen major changes in agriculture during their time in Canada. One of them is the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board, which David does not feel was beneficial in terms of pricing.
The other changes that he sees as being positive ones are a steady increase in crop yields, genetic improvements in seed varieties, and all the technological advancements such as GPS systems, precision seeding and variable rate fertilizer and seed applications.
“Our last Canadian harvest was a mixed bag; the cereal yields were excellent, and the hay was a decent crop, but too concentrated a rainfall at a crucial time for the emerging crop punished the soybeans and canola, making for the lowest yields we have had in 25 years farming here,” reported David, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday.
“It reminded me of 1995 when we were selling Southcairn and we had one of the best summers ever, Jean said to me, ‘do you think Scotland is trying to tell us something?’” laughed David. However, with new crop futures pricing being at an all-time high, it is putting confidence into the land market, which he says “suits him just fine.”
Much like the signs they had to buy the farm at Kenton in the first place, perhaps the universe is telling them it is a good time to get out of the game, too.
The Caldwells, along with their son, Donald, have sold their combined 2,400-acre land package, still considered a large transaction for the area, to a local family, and were thrilled with the outcome. Their son Douglas will continue to raise cattle, carrying on the family farming tradition that began in Ayrshire, Scotland as far back as the early 1600s.
The family knew when they finished harvest last fall that it would be their last one together at Caldwell Farms. The decision to sell the farm had been made by then and in fact, the boys left the last swath for David to combine, officially marking the end of the last harvest and his farming tenure in Canada.
They are leaving a little part of their hearts in Canada, the friends they made and the community that embraced them and they embraced in return. They also leave a little bit of their Scottish heritage in Canada, educating and sharing their knowledge of Scottish culture; for 10 years organizing the Calendonia Games in Kenton, and being heavily involved with the Scottish pavilion of the Winter Festival held in Brandon each winter.
“It was a good way of meeting people and putting something back into the community,” said David.
With no grandchildren interested in taking over the farm in Kenton, they decided to return to Scotland for personal reasons, none of which have anything to do with this country that they have embraced for the past 25 years.
They have lifetime friendships in Scotland — people who they went to school with and who were neighbours. As well, they hope to see more of their oldest son, David, his wife Alison and their university-aged sons.
As David said, “their roots run deep” and being born, raised, and spending the better part of their lives in Scotland has affected their decision. With age comes change in values and perspective. What was once considered important to them has perhaps been trumped by different and more compelling facets of life.
They miss the vast history of the old country itself.
As they age (and particularly due to COVID-19 restrictions this past year), they predict that they will be unable to travel as much as they used to. As well, some of their Scottish friends and relatives and the four or five couples that they were really close friends with since moving to Canada are now gone.
“When you move a long distance away from your home and you make new friends (only people who have emigrated notice this), when you are in a company of people who you have only known for five or 10 years and they start talking about things that happened locally before your time, you feel kind of out of place,” David said. “I did notice at DairyScot Edinburgh in 2019 that I met around 70 people who I knew and knew me; (by comparison) if I went to the Manitoba Winter Fair, I would be lucky if I meet 10 or so.”
It’s the nature of the beast. People want to fit in to feel worthy and valued. That’s why folks tend to migrate towards other people with the same interests, values or opinions.
There are things they say they will miss about Canada.
“We’ll miss the wide-open spaces and the straight roads,” said David with a chuckle.
What they won’t miss about Canada are the long and sometimes harsh winters, although it looks like Mother Nature gave them a great send-off gift with one of the shortest and warmest winters on record.
The Caldwells, farm equipment auction was slated for April 12 and the land transfer will be complete on April 30.
Due to COVID-19, they’ve not yet seen their new home bought in December, a penthouse flat located near the sea at Turnberry between their beloved Ayrshire and Stranraer, although they’ve imagined it in their minds.
With David’s love of the sea, they chose a spot overlooking the golf course with a view of the Firth of Clyde beyond.
They’ve seen photos of it online and have been reliant on David’s cousin, Jim, to be their eyes and ears overseas.
Like the saying goes, you can take the boy/girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy/girl.