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Field Notes – One trip, two questions, no answers

My wife and I found ourselves with the best part of a day with nothing scripted to do on a recent visit to Saskatchewan, so we left our host’s farm, a few miles southwest of Saskatoon, and headed north. Our goal was to visit the home of once-famed wheat breeder Seager Wheeler, near Rosthern, but we had no inclination to get there via paved roads. So we headed cross-country on gravel and dirt roads, enjoying perfect weather, the grass growing in the center of the lane making a lovely swishing sound on the underbelly of the rented VW Golf.

For a province that gets billed as largely flat (hey, that’s better than being from BC, where we are billed as largely gooned) there was not only a lot of variation in the landscape, but the landscape changed remarkably quickly. Within a few miles we moved from slough-heavy pasture to flat cropland to grassland thick with copses of poplar and aspen. In one area air seeders were still at work, pulled by new 600 plus horsepower Case/IH or John Deere tractors, all speaking of prosperity while just down the road were abandoned combines on dogpatch homesteads that shouted: social assistance!

But the farmland! As we passed field after field I couldn’t help but wonder about all the effort we put into growing grains on our rocky, new soils on southern Vancouver Island and if the whole endeavor wasn’t, well, stupid. I, and this publication, are supporters of local food production. But seeing those rich fields made me question some assumptions. There might be a render-unto-Caesar alternative: let farmers in Saskatchewan (or similarly suited places) grow the grains and cattle; let those of us working land better suited to other things raise sheep or kelp or whatever.

 

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There was a time when almost every Canadian knew who Seager Wheeler was and what he did: a Horatio Alger character; world class wheat breeder, responsible for developing varieties that yielded more, matured sooner, that helped western Canadian grain farmers prosper. During the 1910s, 20s and 30s, his place, not far from Rosthern, was the center of a vibrant research community.

The only grain grown on the farm now is on land leased by a neighbour. The main house is a mélange of mid-1900 architecture and 1980s era renovations. As Vio and I walked around (we were the only visitors for much of the time) it was clear that grounds and outbuildings were giving way to weeds and the effects of weather. It was Seager Wheeler’s place, but there wasn’t much of what made Seager Wheeler important in it.

Over coffee, the volunteers who staff the site explained the situation: no government money, a short visitor season (June, July, August), off-season vandalism. . . To their comments I could add my own: who, anymore, except for a few of us, really cares about a wheat breeder? Wheat breeders were to the early 1900s what app developers are to the population today—celebrities of sorts, important, relevant.

As I watched an outdated video (yes, video, with tape!) on Wheeler’s life in the top floor of his house, I wondered what the future could hold for this place, and this kind of place. I was reminded of the farm machinery ads you see in the “vintage” section of farm papers and on websites—some old-timer selling a complete collection of (fill in the blank) Cleatrac bulldozers, Viking fanning mills, Minneapolis-Moline row crop tractors. . .

Who on earth is going to keep this stuff going when the current caretakers are unable? Who is this stuff relevant to?

I’m sorry if this is a bit maudlin but I am haunted by a request I had years ago to help a fellow save a collection of double-decker buses that were on rented land: I didn’t help; the landlord wanted them gone; they went to the wreckers.

Despite being a keen amateur historian, I am hard-headed enough to recognize that we can only keep so much stuff,, and preserve the homes of only so many influential? people, like Wheeler. The tougher question is this: for how long does this commitment to preserve go on?

But let me be clear: if I am ever entrusted with the care of a collection, I won’t be the one calling the scrap yard.