In addition to a century of farming without chemicals, Larry and Sue Black can also lay claim to having the first certified dairy operation in Manitoba
The Deloraine couple has asked around in the province’s organic community, but no one knows of anyone else who can make that claim.
“There could be other producers out there in a similar situation. We just don’t know of them,” says Larry.
The farm being recognized this weekend belongs to Larry and Sue, son David and his wife Ashley, and is comprised of 1,050 acres (including 410 rented acres) in the Lake Metigoshe area. It’s the home quarter of Thomas Black, Larry’s grandfather, who homesteaded here in 1913, that’s earned them their century farm status. His father, Bill, took over the farm after Thomas died in 1951 and he never adopted conventional production methods. With a small land base and mixed farm operation, he was always able to maintain soil fertility without synthetic inputs.
“My dad was never an innovator,” says Larry. “So he just never moved in that direction.”
In all these years, Larry is aware of just one time in the mid-1980s when his father ever attempted to spray.
“The situation was that my dad felt the wild millet was threatening the crop and he decided to spray it. I think it was either 1984 or 1985.”
Notably, it didn’t work, he adds.
“He worked the crop up anyways, which probably would be a deterrent to doing it again.”
Back to the land
Larry and Sue have farmed here since 1978. They bought 320 acres of their own that year, trying to farm a small mixed farm just like David’s parents.
But after struggling awhile, they knew they needed a new game plan.
“I guess we were here probably about a year and a half emulating what my dad was doing, when I could see it wasn’t going to pay the bills,” says Larry.
That’s when they began to look seriously at dairy farming. Larry renovated an old barn in 1980, adding cement floors and gutters and a milk house. They started with 18 cows and now milk 70.
Farming without chemicals, they obtained organic certification in 1996 to add value to the cash crops they were, by then, growing on additional land rented from Larry’s mother.
They built a new barn for their cows in 2003 and two years later moved the dairy to organic when Guelph-based co-op Organic Meadow came west looking for organic milk producers. They became the first certified dairy operation in Manitoba in 2007 and helped develop the Manitoba Organic Milk Co-operative.
It was a natural fit, says Larry.
“Cropping and milking go hand in hand very well,” he says. “We’re able to produce almost all of our own feed, which is very beneficial. I think we’ve got a good combination of synergies working for us as long as there is a premium for organic.”
The farm also provides the quality of life they sought from the start. Neither Larry nor Sue, nor their son and daughter-in-law, work off farm.
Challenges loom, however. Disease pressures and weather events are mounting and there is the spectre of genetically modified alfalfa to worry about.
“Growing organic crops has become more challenging,” says Sue. “And we don’t have the tools available to us that a lot of the conventional people have to combat some of these things.”
It might be different if organic got its share of research dollars, the couple says.
“If we had a tenth as many dollars, who knows where the industry would be today?” says Larry.
But the next generation is just as determined to make this work.
“We want to have a sustainable farm for our family and their kids to come,” said David, a 33-year-old father of four.
“I’m encouraged by the system that we have. There’s always threats involved for our industry to continue. But I don’t think we would ever change the way we farm our land.”
The Blacks hosted a party and on-farm tours Aug. 4 to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary and recognition as a century farm by the Manitoba Historical Society and Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.