Neither one of us grew up on the farm. Both of us, growing up in cities thousands of miles away – Lydia in Winnipeg and Wian in Pretoria South Africa – dabbled as children in urban agriculture ventures. We could have hardly imagined that we were going to end up ranching on the Canadian Prairies.
Wian emigrated to Canada from South Africa at the age of 15. From a young age, he knew he wanted to farm and so pursued farm employment and land rental arrangements where he could raise pastured poultry shortly after he graduated from high school. We met in 2009 in Winnipeg while I was just starting my graduate studies at the University of Manitoba. We had mutual interests and were both drawn to farming/ranching by a desire to manage a working landscapes. We were both interested in livestock management, plant and soil biology, food production, and socially responsible, community-focused entrepreneurship.
As first generation farmers, in order to make farming work for us, we knew we had to venture into low capital enterprises. By 2011, we had moved out to southwestern Manitoba, where we leased 80 acres of land. We did not have the funds available for machinery or anything that lost value over time. But, we knew that if we worked within the laws of natural systems, used renewable resources, and invested in things that produced a yield year after year (livestock), we had a change of making it. We also knew we would need a good measure of determination and that we were going to have to work hard. Farming in North America has become a very capital and input intensive endeavour. The smaller (and even medium) sized family farm is disappearing from the landscape, but we wanted to find a way to make it work.
We wanted to raise healthy animals, produce good food, and improve the health of the soil and the land. We knew that, if we could use the sun’s energy, photosynthesis, and the potential of grazing ruminants in a multi-species grazing system, we might be able to overcome some of the challenges that exist for farmers today, namely high land, machinery, and input costs. We were interested in producing food and feeding people, not producing commodities to be traded as stocks and bonds by a handful of global multinational corporations. We felt that growing food, and/or procuring local foods was one way to foster responsible land stewardship and nurture resilient communities. We moved several times as our land needs changed and as we required more secure tenure; by 2014, we were both employed full-time on the farm with much of our income coming from direct market sales of cut and wrapped meats.
Today, we farm on several hundred acres of grazing land in southwestern Manitoba. We harvest the sun’s energy to grow grass to feed ruminants, namely cattle. We often refer to ourselves as a pasture-based livestock farm. That is the simplest way to describe what we do, but for so many who are at least a generation away from farming, the miracle that happens between grass and grazer and the ecology of or our grasslands and grazing systems has been largely forgotten.
Pasture refers to land covered with grass and other low plants suitable for grazing animals including cattle, sheep, and goats. Healthy pasture relies on the energy of the sun and the process of photosynthesis, along with various biological processes including those that occur in healthy soil such as nutrient cycling, water cycling, and carbon sequestration. Our focus is on creating healthy soil, healthy pastures, and healthy animals by promoting the growth of healthy perennial polycultures. We do this through how we manage our livestock.
We employ management intensive grazing techniques in a multi-species grazing system. Throughout the grazing season, we move our cattle to new pasture every day, focusing on long pasture recover times, essentially mimicking (in much smaller numbers) the way the bison would move over the prairie landscape. We integrate poultry and hogs into this pasture-based system to help cycle nutrients and to take advantage of the other benefits of pasturing animals, namely natural parasite control (with frequent pasture moves) and added fertility via periodic disturbance and the manure deposits on pasture.
Our major infrastructure investments in this system are electric fences, piped water, and labour. The work is enjoyable. We spend lots of time outside and are the conductors of an orchestra of diversity of life, not just that of our livestock, but by supporting the existence of a grassland agroecology that is home to many species of birds, insects, and small and large animals.
Intact grasslands and savannahs are our most threatened and greatly reduced ecosystems around the globe, as well as locally on the prairies. The extermination of this ecosystem is so complete that it is no surprise that some believe the native flora of the “prairies” are wheat and canola.
For thousands of years, grasses evolved together with grazing animals. The microbes of the rumen are the prairie’s way of cycling nutrients. The miracle of the interaction among grasses, ruminants, and rumen microbes is how the energy of the sun is used to build and maintain our prairie soils and grasslands. Photosynthesis is enhanced when animals graze growing plants, which then subsequently feed the soil life below through their roots and their exudates. Grasslands, when grazed using short graze periods and long rest periods, produce healthier plants that literally feed the soil through their root exudates. There is the potential to pump tonnes of (atmospheric) carbon per acre directly into the ground using these natural processes. We can infer that healthier plants and soils, rich in available nutrients, will make for healthier animals and thus more nutrient dense food.
Pasture-based farming takes the animals out of buildings and integrates them into an agroecological system with a more holistic approach. We are incredibly excited to be a part of this symbiosis by farming and ranching in this way.
Lydia Carpenter and Wian Prinsloo run Luna Field Farm, a multi-species grazing operation south of Belmont, Manitoba. They currently run cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry.