Author: 800 CHAB NEWS/ Sask Ag and Food
If the Chern family has landed near Stockholm, Saskatchewan, it is probably because of a mixture of good luck, intuitive decision-making, and the simple attractiveness of the destination for agricultural endeavours.
"We are a family with four kids," says Bruce Chern. "The youngest is five and the oldest is 12. We moved here in 2003. We used to run a business in Alberta, building self-loading and self-unloading round bale trucks. But we didn't want to run that business forever. We wanted to go more into ranching.
"We are from Smoky Lake, Alberta, an hour northeast of Edmonton. We were ranching there and ran about 300 cows. We found it was really tough to connect land-to block it. There wasn't much land for sale there, and what was for sale was overpriced for its production capability."
In 1998, Chern had to deliver a bale truck to Theodore, about 20 minutes northwest of Yorkton.
"It was late August. This was for a couple of producers who didn't have any kids and for whom succession would be an issue. They wanted to show me their land. I thought that I'd entertain that, so we went out and we toured the land. I just could not believe the topography. The rolling hills, the sloughs and the willow bluffs and the trees. I saw the black soil in between all of it and I thought 'Wow, this is cow topography with grain soil. What a perfect combination.'
"When I saw what that land produced, I thought this was a place that I was going to keep in the back of my mind."
In 2002, Bruce Chern found himself coming back again to the region, while in the process of selling the rights to his round bale truck business to a Manitoba company.
"I had to work at the Western Canada Farm Progress Show in June. Meanwhile, it was pretty much big time drought in Alberta already. We were looking around, and I went inside and all the real estate agents were lined up there. From my experience with bale trucks, usually the guys who buy these trucks are new to the market and are the real forward-thinking guys, and what they were telling me was if you can find land within a 45-minute radius of Yorkton, your chances of being very consistent as far as rainfall or soil and all that were good.
"I went to a real estate agent and I asked what they had for sale within a 45-minute radius of Yorkton. This is pre-BSE. They asked what kind of land I was looking for: grain land or ranch land. I said 'ranch land.' Well, they pulled up what they had available."
Chern was looking for 15 quarters at least, and closer to 20 if at all possible.
"There was nothing with anything near that. There was maybe something with old grass and worn out old fence, but everything was primarily grain soil. Some had grass. Being pre-BSE, there were too many zeros on the end of the price tag. I knew that if this stuff was being cropped right now, then it was ready to be seeded into grass. We would just fence it and manage it properly.
"I asked: 'what do you have for grain land? We need all that in a block.' They had a couple of blocks within that 45-minute radius. And 10 days later, I convinced my wife to make a little trip with me."
Together, Bruce and Patty Chern ran the math and budgeted how much it would cost to seed and fence the land.
"We drove out and looked at it and we were very satisfied with both packages. But one was much closer to a good school bus route and a lot of amenities, while the other was sort of right in the middle of three major centres and 40 kilometres from any of them. The choice was easy. We took the place that was closest for the bus ride.
"We drove home, talked some more. The economy was still strong on the grain side and the ranching side then. There was some pressure on this land we were interested in from other potential buyers. We came out a second time and we brought a couple of friends of ours. One had a plane and flew us out."
In the back of their minds, the Cherns figured there was no better way to make a decision about buying cropland than to take two people who had farmed all their lives, let them kick it around and see what they had to say about it.
"So they looked at it and they thought it was very adequate soil, which made our decision a little easier. We made a deposit on the land. We put our place up for sale in Alberta and there was a transition period of eight months. What was on the land was in its own growing season. It would soon be April and we'd take possession then."
This would give the family enough time to prepare for the big move to Saskatchewan.
The journey of moving from one cattle operation in Alberta to establishing a new one from scratch in Saskatchewan can be strewn with obstacles. For the Chern family, it seems, good fortune was a reliable companion. Bruce Chern explains how their new ranch near Stockholm took shape.
"We sold our land in Alberta; bought the land here and we ended up putting in a lot of grass in 2003. It was a dry year and the catch wasn't as good as we had hoped for. There were grasshoppers. But, I am a very positive-minded person so I was not going to pout about it.
"One thing I did, because all the sloughs had dried up, is take advantage of the low rain situation to put in a fence. It is much easier to do when you can drive right through the sloughs. We got here in August and we fenced about 24 miles-a four-wire barbed wire perimeter fence that year."
The Cherns had sold their cows in December of 2002. They knew they were moving to a place with no fence or grass.
"We sold our entire cow herd, luckily before BSE, and we sold all our yearlings two weeks before BSE. So we were sitting out here building fences and seeding grass with no cows and money to buy cows. The cattle buyers in Alberta knew that, so they wouldn't stop phoning us with hot deals on cows when BSE hit. Every time we said no, the deals got sweeter. So we ended up buying back 600 cows during the course of BSE. They probably cost us what we got for the 300 that we sold in Alberta.
"It was just dumb luck. We paid the price in some ways, but we gained in other ways, so it all kind of washes. We have our own little block and we have 25 quarters here, and we are running 550 cows at the moment. We retain ownership of all our calves right through to slaughter, and we belong to a group called Prairie Heritage Producers. We mainly direct-market right now to one grocery store chain on Vancouver Island, and we're just coming on with more marketing avenues all the time."
So, what do the folks the Cherns know back in Alberta think of all this?
"People ask us all the time: 'What is it like in Saskatchewan?' We answer: 'People are very friendly; the land does what we want it to do and more; and the climate is fine.' Remember that we came from northeast of Edmonton, so it is the same as here. Everybody thinks that people move in from southern Alberta, where the Chinook belt prevails. The rainfall is good here and the people are good.
"We try to be good community participants. Kids have adjusted to school and become involved in sports. The way we see Saskatchewan-and people tell us how they have shipped all their kids out-we say: 'if you can't make it ranching in Saskatchewan, you can't make it ranching anywhere else in the world, because where else can you buy grain-quality land with cow topography for cow-land prices that produces like this?' Growing conditions are great. The groundwater is incredible; the price of land and the availability is unparalleled."
To help them stay on top of things, Bruce Chern confides the family has linked up with other nearby producers.
"We make our own feed and we are engaged in holistic grazing. We are connected with positively minded people who want to move forward, challenge each other, and work together to make things better."
Chern shares that, just recently, a huge block of land sold just north of his place.
"A ranching group out of Alberta bought it, and they hired me to do the complete set up of that ranch as far as the grass establishment, the water system and the fencing; and it has been very good for us.
"We have water pipelines running throughout our entire ranch, and we seeded all the grass. A lot of people out of Alberta come around and tour out here. We show them what we have done, and some of the other guys show them what they have done, and they are absolutely impressed with this countryside and the horsepower of the growing conditions here, especially if we use legumes in our grazing stands. We are just sucking up the nitrogen out of the atmosphere and plugging it into the ground. Our cows are grazing alfalfa there. It has just supercharged the land, and the cows are just smoking on it. No government in the world has figured out how to tax that nitrogen bill yet. We are just jamming it in. If that isn't sustainable, I don't know what is."
Chern makes no bones about the future he envisions for agriculture on the Prairies.
"There are huge synergies going on here. The momentum had been absolutely negative. It is now shifting to absolutely positive. It is all on the verge of taking off. With the coming of ethanol and biodiesel, it creates a feeding industry, which will grow the slaughter industry, and that all will lead to value-added agriculture.
"Everybody looks at the price of oil as being a negative. I look at it as good because it is making everybody think. It is creating options. If you always hauled every load of wheat to the elevator, your options were limited. Sure, the boys in the '70s had it good, and the wheat prices were high when you were hauling it to the elevator, but that time is gone, and now is the time to move on. That is the way I look at it."