“In this together” says Interlaker

Faces of Ag: Like many operations in the area, the Abas family farm began with the “homesteaders” act

The Abas farmhouse sits beside a branch of the Fisher River several miles north of the town of Fisher Branch.

As pelicans cruise over the water, Gus the farm cat snoozes below a bench on the porch. Grapevines cling to a trellis, which bisects a large vegetable garden beside the house. Nearby, orange and yellow marigolds spell out the word “HOPE.”

Boyd Abas grew up on this tidy yard, and he and his wife Ghaliya (Holly) raised six kids here, not far from the original homestead.

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Like many Canadian farms, the Abas family farm began with the Dominion Lands Act — sometimes called the “homesteader’s act.” To encourage people to settle the Canadian Prairie, the government offered cheap land to anyone over age 18 who would farm the land, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Abas’ grandfather left what is now Lebanon (then called Syria) for New York. He settled in the Crookston, Minnesota area where he worked as a travelling salesperson.

Around that time, there was a community of immigrants from the Middle East in that area.

“They didn’t come to North America to farm. It was generally commerce,” Abas said. However, he said they had some farming experience. “Back then everybody farmed, they had to farm to live.”

Abas’s grandfather returned to Lebanon to get married and returned to the Crookston area to start a family.

There, they learned about land available for cheap in Canada. Abas’ grandmother told her husband she wanted to go there.

Land prices in southern Manitoba had risen beyond the reach of new immigrants at the time, according to the Manitoba Historical Society. MHS records that around 1903, land in the Interlake was available for $10 per quarter section.

Perhaps for that reason, the Abas family pushed northward toward the marshy land and rocky soil of the Fisher Branch area.

Abas said they arrived in the closest town of Arborg, and likely had to walk to their homestead with all their worldly goods.

“That’s a long hike,” he said.

The railway would arrive in the area the next year according to MHS, which adds that it was a full day’s oxcart trek from Arborg.

They had no topographical map, and Abas’s grandfather couldn’t read English, he said. This is likely why they set up their original homestead in a swamp.

“But they made do,” he said.

Abas said without the neighboring Ross and Sinclair families, his family may not have survived that first while as they hewed a home and farm out of the bush, swamp and ridges.

“You know the slogan they use today? We’re in this together. I think back then that was sort of the mentality.”

The family set to clearing the land by hand and by horse until they had enough space for their cattle and sheep, and to plant for grain.

A few other Middle-Eastern families would move to the area, but the Fisher Branch area was mainly settled by Ukrainian, Polish and a few Metis families accord- ing to MHS. Despite this, the Abas family maintained their Muslim faith and cultural heritage. Other locals seemed to respect this, Abas said.

Though the postal system was slow, they communicated with friends and family via letter. Later, when they finally had a truck, they visited friends and relatives in the U.S.

In the Dirty Thirties, hardship hit the family and Grandpa Abas “rode the rails” — jumping aboard a train and riding to Portage la Prairie to work on a threshing team. Nevertheless, the farm expanded. They added more land and built innovations like running water and electricity, both powered by a windmill.

Abas doesn’t live on the original homestead, though his uncle does. His land was added on later as the farm expanded.

His dad was part of a large family who all worked together on the farm. His mother raised broiler chickens and laying hens to sell eggs. They milked cattle and sold cream to the local creamery.

They’d plant half an acre of potatoes every year to save money.

“That was a word used a lot, you know, to save,” Abas said. “It’s a I think it’s a method of survival and also to save.”

Straight out of high school, Abas decided to farm. His parents didn’t tell him he had to farm. He wanted to continue what his parents had done, and the idea of feeding people with what he grew appealed to him. He also had ideas to improve the farm.

The Canadian Dairy Commission had recently been formed and dairy regulations were changing the face of family farming. Small-town creameries were closing, and the Abas family realized they’d have to phase out their dairy cattle.

Abas began to build himself a beef herd, starting with a few heifers and building slowly. Aided by his parents, he bought some land.

At the time, calving was “like the wild west,” Abas said. They didn’t have proper facilities, so he designed a new calving barn that would allow him to help cows calve on his own.

He went on to calve 235 cows by himself for a few years. “I will never try that again,” he said.

Today Abas calves 155 cows and raises some crops. He’s a municipal councillor, and he’s a journeyman electrician and plumber. His neighbours know that if their furnace conks out when it’s 40 below he’ll be there to get it going.

There have been a few rough years. In the early 2000s, Abas recalled, they were in a wet season when BSE hit.

“It was a double whammy. It wasn’t just excessive moisture,” he said.

Like many cattle farmers, he held onto his cattle instead of selling them for a few dollars and culled aggressively.

But the farm is still here.

The enjoyment of working outside in the fields and forest has been one motivation. “It is a very healthy air, or just the experience is always a good experience every year,” he said.

“I think, I think every farmer can say that when you do something from scratch, and it ends up, you know, either food for people or a crop you grew and its growing nice, I think those appreciations make a person carry on.”

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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