Prairie Dreamers

New co-op project at Sunrise Farm a template for farmland transitions.

A sense of abundance enfolds Sunrise Farm in east central Alberta, the fruit of 20 years of working in harmony with creation. Since shifting to holistic management and certifying as organic, Don and Marie Ruzicka have created a “7-11 convenience store” for a growing diversity of species by adding thousands of trees and berry bushes and keeping their grass-fed cows, pigs and chickens away from wetlands and stream banks. They have welcomed researchers, students and customers for tours and studies and meals. Even the hog shelters move around each day to keep occupants happy and avoid undue stress on the land. 

Now the farm is about to undergo a huge shift as the Ruzickas contemplate retirement. Their children are busy in other careers, so the farm will pass out of the family after 100 years. Knowing how easily the land could be swallowed up by a larger, less environmentally conscious enterprise, the couple sought to put some of their 600 acres into a land trust. But no existing trust had capacity or mandate to take them on. Undeterred, Don persuaded the nearby town of County of Flagstaff, which had partnered with Sunrise Farm in tree-planting and other ventures, to form a trust and help steward their land. 

Discovering that the value of the farm would drop dramatically if much of it was monitored by a trust, the Ruzickas limited the trust to 45 acres of shelter belt, wetlands and watersides and searched for a buyer who would carefully steward the entire farm. Several young agrarians expressed interest but lacked the finances and/or skill to follow through. Conventional farmers could not promise to keep the farm’s 250 acres of tree-studded native prairie free from overgrazing. The Ruzickas feared for the future of the oasis they had painstakingly created.

COOPERATIVE WORK
Then Raj Rathnavalu came berry picking and, over one of Marie’s fine meals, asked who was buying the farm. “You are,” Don replied. That invitation planted a seed that is germinating new hope for continuing abundance at Sunrise Farm. 

Rathnavalu initially visited the farm as coordinator of Spirit of the Land, a course at Augustana University in Camrose, Alberta that takes students (including community members) outside the classroom to wrestle with what he terms “the underlying spiritual and cultural foundations that lead us to engage in practices that produce results nobody wants.” Sunrise Farm is a regular destination. “Having living examples of people like Don and Marie who really ask those deeper questions and try to shape their daily lives accordingly provides the best models for the class,” he says. 

Spirit of the Land has already spawned Newo Global Energy (newo.energy), a social enterprise with Rathnavalu as cofounder and president. Taking over Sunrise Farm, he says, is a perfect next step – a chance to extract the farm from an escalating property market that “puts a lot of pressure on the land to maximize production.” But with an already full plate that also includes post-graduate studies, Rathnavalu couldn’t tackle the transition alone. 

Thankfully, kindred spirits emerged. A cooperative that had hoped to launch a similar project near Sunrise Farm offered its entire structure, plus some board members, to this new enterprise. Others came aboard, and a major rancher assured them the capital they need sits in the hands of the thousands of farmers across the prairies who are retiring, selling their land and seeking to invest the proceeds. A potential manager surfaced, one of the many would-be-farmers who cannot find affordable land to fulfill their calling. A filmmaker created an evocative video (“Prairie Dreaming Pitch” on YouTube) championing the group’s plans to “preserve both the land and the way it has been consciously stewarded.” 

The Sunrise Farm Cooperative Project now meets weekly, with the goal of creating a model for stewarding Sunrise Farm that could serve as a template for other land transitions as well. The energy is growing, and the timing is critical: half of Canada’s farmland is due to change hands in the next decade, according to Food Secure Canada. “The prairies will go through a transition,” says Rathnavalu, who chairs the group, “and as it stands now, it seems the larger operations are the only ones that can afford the farms.”

Reopening the door to more small farms offers hope not only for would-be farmers and the land they tend, but for surrounding communities, which are losing schools, doctors, churches and other essential services as farms consolidate. It also provides opportunity for reconciliation, says Rathnavalu, whose grandfather was Cree. “Ultimately this land is treaty land, and the treaties were seen as sharing of gifts. What does it mean to be treaty peoples and honour the gifts of the land? We want to step out of this speculative cycle and begin to nurture an economy related to gifts and sharing and notions of enough and more than enough.”

As the Ruzickas can attest, sharing the land with an expanding array of life invites abundance far more satisfying than tools and toys. “We have redefined wealth as caring for the ecosystem,” Don says. “And we are really blessed.”  

  • Cheryl is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who worships at Fellowship Christian Reformed Church.

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