A Miniota-area couple who began to farm “from scratch” in the early 1990s is the 2018 Farm Family of the Year, named by the Red River Exhibition Association (RREA).
Brian Greaves and Karen Hill, who have two children Mark and Alison, were presented with the award during the Hall of Fame banquet in Winnipeg last week.
It’s a great honour, says the couple, who took over the farm on Hill’s family’s side in 1993, naming it Silver Bend Ranch.
A school teacher, Hill met Greaves in New Zealand while visiting there to do some travelling and teaching.
Greaves brought with him over 20 years’ experience in the sheep sector when he came to Canada.
The two and a quarter sections they began to farm included land Karen’s grandparents had homesteaded, plus land acquired by uncles and her father over time.
Her father bought his parcel with pay from his service in the Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, but pursued a career as an agricultural representative in Dauphin instead of going back to farm.
Hill and Greaves stepped up as farm successors after her bachelor uncles had no immediate family to carry on behind them.
They then became both sheep and cattle farmers and have exemplified adaptation, innovation and environmental stewardship in their farm operation.
Over a relatively short period of time, they made many changes and improvements to it, the most significant being switching all its cropland over to perennial pasture.
They re-established hay land, added shelterbelts, enabled rotational grazing, and restored a nearby wetland, fencing it to keep out livestock. They also began to deploy innovative farming practices like no-till seeding, polycropping, and winter bale grazing.
All of this was done to ensure their farm’s long-term sustainability, said Hill.
Theirs is very light and sandy soil, which had eroded and become depleted from earlier conventional practices used there.
“We knew if we were going to be a success on the farm, job one was to restore the health of the soil,” she said.
The wetland restoration was undertaken in a partnership with Upper Assiniboine Conservation District. The area had been drained in the 1950s when Hwy. 83 was constructed, but was never a productive site and they wanted to see its role protecting the watershed resume, said Hill.
“We have wonderful groundwater here and it’s really important to us to maintain that underground water supply.”
They also worked with the Upper Assiniboine Conservation District and Prairie View Municipality to create an easement on 95 acres of land along the Assiniboine River for the development of publicly accessible hiking trails and riparian forest, and Hill was involved with a local committee that had interpretive signage placed on it acknowledging the presence of Aboriginal people once residing in the surrounding Assiniboine River Valley.
Their artifacts dating back 1,000 years have been found in the river valley below their farm, notes Hill.
The couple has 120 head of cattle but are also the first sheep producers to be honoured with the RREA award.
They currently have 60 breeding ewes and about 140 lambs and Greaves’ experiments with crossbreeding their sheep flock have produced a composite breed featuring maximum carcass growth, increased fertility and significantly higher-quality wool.
They took the view that if you have to shear wool, it should generate income, said Hill. Lower-quality wool can cost more to have it sheared than it’s worth.
“Our sheep now produce 10 to 12 lbs. of wool per sheep and we’re now into the levels of what’s considered finer wool, so we’re looking at $2 to $2.40 per pound for it,” she said.
Greaves has served in numerous leadership roles with groups and boards such as the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers, Manitoba Sheep Association, served as a mentor to other sheep producers, and as a wool and sheep judge in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Karen’s been a volunteer board member and staff with Agriculture in the Classroom–MB and a 4-H leader while also serving on the executive of local sports and culture groups.
Their devotion to agricultural life has evidently rubbed off on the next generation too.
Their son Mark has recently signalled his intent and interest to carry on the farm and is now enrolled to study animal science in September. Their daughter Alison is completing her final year of study in veterinary medicine in New Zealand.
The farm family’s name has been added to a distinguished list of 52 other farm families recognized by the RREA since the award’s inception in 1966.
“The Greaves Hill family is deserving of this award because they embody what it means to live in rural Manitoba,” said Eleanor Cassels, chair of the Farm Family committee and president of the Red River Exhibition Association.
“They engage with their community, are exemplary stewards of the environment and have built a farm business that is progressive, diverse and a welcome place to work and visit.”
This article was originally published in the June 28 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator.