When a small farm came up for sale east of town in 2012 Paul and Larissa Koshel jumped at the chance to buy it.
The couple was living in the town of Neepawa at the time, having moved down from The Pas in 2006 for Paul’s job as a school teacher at Gladstone and Larrisa’s as a registered nurse.
But the pair wanted to raise their three young daughters in an environment more like where they’d grown up themselves — and the 125-acre location two miles out of town with an already established saskatoon U-pick and other orchard trees was perfect.
“We were lucky to find this,” says Paul who had good memories of the U-pick/market garden his father had established in the 1970s up north.
The couple has since established their own one-acre market garden and now sells vegetables and fruits at local farmers’ markets and to restaurants in Neepawa.
Having this piece of land has also fulfilled another of Paul’s aspirations. His father has observed declines in birds, butterflies and pollinators over time in northern Manitoba, and he wanted to do something about it.
A year after their move here they began planting more orchard trees, short rows of windbreaks and something else the gently rolling slopes of this small acreage hasn’t had growing on it for some time — prairie crocus, little bluestem grasses, milkweed and other native plant species.
“Native prairies have always intrigued me,” said Paul, who shortly after arriving here began reading and researching how to re-establish them around their new home too.
Since 2014 they’ve put in a quarter acre of natural prairie, collecting grasses and forbs from sites within a 30-mile radius to produce seed for plots Paul is establishing to create seed mixes for planting.
It’s as labour intensive and painstaking as it sounds. He’s learned a lot of how-tos from friends near Franklin, who’ve already converted an entire quarter section back to prairie.
“There’s ways to do it and ways not to, and I’ve made mistakes,” he said. “The problem in our soil is there’s so many exotic weeds from Europe. You have to start small and seed plots are the best way to go.”
Their long-term goal is to have native prairie plots covering as much as possible of their entire acreage. That kind of pollinator habitat will benefit their U-pick business, and also restore a small portion of the natural world Paul’s father has been watching diminish over his own lifetime. That’s important to him on a personal level, said Koshel.
“Prairies are the rarest ecosystems,” he said, adding the trends don’t look good for what little remains with the compounded impact of climate change and pressure to convert to farmland intensifying.
“The Prairies have been around for 10,000 years. If I put in a prairie, it should still be here for another 10,000 years.”
The other major undertaking to improve the farm for wildlife has been to convert a seasonal drainage area that flows into the Whitemud River into a three-acre wetland.
As a first step, the Koshels completed an Environmental Farm Plan in 2014 — no small feat given how little they initially knew about it, notes the couple.
Where they had help was from staff with the Whitemud Watershed Conservation District, who also worked with them on the wetland construction which was completed this year. Ahead is more natural rehabilitation work around the new marsh to eliminate existing non-native species and establish more native grasses, flowers and sedges, says the couple.
Meanwhile, they continue a winter feeding program for the abundant birdlife on the farm and plan to add more sites to the dozen birdhouses built along a bluebird trail established just south of the farm.
For now, their immediate commitment is teaching their daughters how to respect the land and feel connected to it, growing food for their own table, running a viable fruit and vegetable operation and living a lifestyle that supports a smaller scale of agriculture.
There aren’t many smaller farms around and very little support for families to live rurally, says the couple.
“We’re just trying to fill a void in agriculture so it doesn’t disappear,” said Paul.
The Koshels were awarded the Whitemud Watershed Conservation District’s 2017 Conservation Award at the Manitoba Conservation Districts Association 42nd annual convention last month.