It might be hard to find a business, event or organization that hasn’t been affected by the pandemic, but while many faced shutdowns or cancellations, farming kept on going, including a local project that is dedicated to feeding the hungry around the world.
On 160 acres of land northeast of Outlook, a group of dedicated volunteers have again successfully harvested a crop for the River Plains Growing Project. For those involved, its continuance was never in doubt. Michele Derdall remarked, “In fact, the project is perhaps more important than ever as food security has been even more of an issue around the world due to pandemic related factors. At risk populations are even more vulnerable.” She said the nature of the work meant it could proceed safely. “As with all farming, we work in isolation or family bubbles”, so the project went ahead as planned.
The River Plains Growing Project was initiated in 2008 by a group of people committed to using their skills and experience to seed and harvest a crop whose yield is given away in an effort to alleviate hunger. Many people have been with it since the beginning, including Derdall and her family. “This kind of project is a great way for a relatively small group of people to make a huge impact,” she said. “We have at our disposal, the time, resources, skill and equipment necessary to do this.”
The crop that is harvested is donated to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an organization that works in partnership with other agencies to meet immediate food needs, reduce malnutrition and strive for sustainable food security in 34 countries around the world. With the support of the Canadian Government, the Foodgrains Bank is able to leverage donations on a 4:1 basis, meaning the dollars can multiply quickly.
Rick and Jacqui Block, Saskatchewan Representatives with the Foodgrains Bank, know the great work being done with the local project. “River Plains is a group that has a wealth of practical and professional experience in the ag sector,” Rick said. “They also have key partnerships and support from people and businesses in the surrounding community.” He added it’s clear how much this group believes in what they are doing. “I see the joy that resonates from the members of this group as they work together each year to plan, grow and sell a crop, and speak of the reasons why they take part in this project.”
River Plains is one of 33 registered Growing Projects in Saskatchewan whose efforts are necessary not only because of current needs, but also to respond to increasing food shortages. Rick Block explained, “COVID-19 has certainly exasperated hunger in many developing nations, particularly for the populations that may not have work, and rely on daily or weekly income for their sustenance.” But he is hopeful that the additional spotlight on the issue these past months will highlight the importance of agriculture. “It seems it has also stirred people’s realization of our dependence on a food system that functions, and highlights our connection back to agriculture and those that steward the land.”
The World Food Programme warns that we may be facing the worst humanitarian food crisis since the Second World War. But according to the Director of International Programs for Foodgrains Bank, the organization is well-suited to be at the forefront of the response. “What gives me hope right now,” remarked Barbara Macdonald, “is our staff, members and partners. They are proving themselves to be committed, proactive, flexible and creative as they respond to this crisis. The Foodgrains Bank has an enormous network of experienced people all around the world ready to meet this challenge.”
On August 31 the River Plains crop of hard red spring wheat was harvested; a harvest close to 8500 bushels, for a yield of about 53 bushes per acre. With the work of two combines and two trucks it took 6 1/2 hours to complete the harvest of the good quality crop by the team that included volunteers of all ages. Arlo Larson, the 97-year old farmer who donates the quarter of land each year checked in on the progress, while 10-year old Simon Lustig diligently gathered the grain samples as the trucks unloaded.
Hannah Erlandson, combine operator, was extremely happy when Murray Kasper arrived with his combine to help, and truck drivers Richard Mathewson and Gerry Gross were kept busy, as was grain auger operator Ken Haugen. Glen Erlandson, Garth Weiterman and Richard Tomacek were there to jump in where needed. There was also a good turnout of spectators to encourage the work being carried out.
No matter their role, all are committed to doing their part in providing food where it is needed in an efficient manner. Michelle Derdall commented, “By being part of an organization like Canadian Foodgrains Bank, all the administration is looked after and the networks and connections are there through our church partners to easily disperse our donation to where we choose, but also with the assurance that it is done appropriately through the established channels who are working in local communities.” The crops grown over the last 11 years have produced an average of $35,000 each year, matched by that 4:1 formula by the federal government. That is a tremendous amount of food aid generated by this local team. With the inputs donated by individuals, families and businesses, this project is poised for a strong future.
Those donations include a municipal land tax abatement from the RM of Rudy; 500 litres of fuel from Riverbend Co-op; hail insurance from Donna Smith and Greg Ballek; glyphosate and burn-off spraying by Glen Erlandson; seed from Glen Erlandson with seeding done by Jesse Erlandson and Hannah Erlandson operating Glen’s equipment; and in-crop spraying by Glen and Jesse Erlandson. Combines were donated by Murray Kasper and Glen Erlandson and were operated by Murray Kasper and Hannah Erlandson. Trucks were provided by Glen Erlandson and driven by Richard Mathewson and Gerry Gross. The auger was donated by Glen and operated by Ken Haugen.
Other donations for inputs came from Bayer Crop Science, Linda and Dennis Fuglerud, Robert, Richard and Fiona Tomacek, Lyall Campbell, Garth and Maureen Weiterman, Gerry and Gail Gross, Dennis and Joanne Pederson, and of course the quarter section of land from Arlo Larson. Additional fuel was provided by those offering their equipment, and the project itself purchased spray and fertilizer.
As we see food insecurities increase around the world it might be easy to feel overwhelmed and wonder what can be done. The River Plains Growing Project is providing a consistent and important response. For more information contact Rick Block at firstname.lastname@example.org or speak with one of the volunteers involved with the local project including Garth Weiterman, Glen Erlandson or Michele Derdall.
Although the group was disappointed they were unable to hold their annual potluck to celebrate the harvest, they know that their efforts mean food on tables for many who face shortages. With another harvest behind them it won’t be long before thoughts turn to next year, and the invitation for others to be involved--even those with no previous agriculture experience. Michelle Derdall remarked, “Even if you don’t actively farm, there are many ways you can contribute or be involved.”