Saskatchewan First Nations & Agriculture: Growing Opportunities

First Nations involvement with agriculture in Saskatchewan has a complicated history. For more than a century, First Nations across the province were prevented from embracing agriculture as an economic opportunity on reserves. Treaties, policies like the Permit System and Indian Agent Pass regulations hobbled any real attempts at agricultural operations that would compete with non-Aboriginal farmers. Some changes to the Indian Act in 1951 allowed First Nations to elect their own leadership and have more of a say in their economic opportunities. However, it would take another 40 years for the change required to make farming a viable option for Saskatchewan First Nations. With the Treaty Land Entitlement in 1992, some of the land debt owed to 25 First Nations in the province was settled and First Nations were able to buy land back and manage it.

In the recent decades, much of First Nations farmland has been leased to non-aboriginal farming operations. These arrangements have not always benefited the First Nations to the fullest but some First Nations are now changing that by taking back ownership and farming their own land.

Thunderchild First Nation is one of them. Located in Turtleford, the Thunderchild First Nation knew that their land is fertile and productive. After years of leasing it to other farmers, Thunderchild First Nation decide it was time to get back into agriculture like some elders had done.

John Wozniak, a farmer from Alberta with extensive experience, was hired as the farm manager for the first growing season in 2017. The farmed land was 6,300 acres in size and on it canola, wheat and barley were planted. The first year was successful. “Yes, we had a pretty darn good year,” Wozniak says. “Yields were good and there is sufficient moisture for a successful start on the 2018 growing season.” The farm employs people of all ages strictly from Thunderchild First Nation. “We employed up to 11 people between the age of 20-64,” Wozniak explains. “The boys put in good positive efforts and really want to contribute.”

For 2018 the same crop will be planted but to the farmed area will expand to 8,000 acres. There are plans to expand the farm to 10,000 acres in the future and there has been talks about raising livestock. Wozniak says he is very impressed with the way Thunderchild First Nation is approaching agriculture. “All equipment is state-of-the-art. No corners are cut and I’ve never worked on a farm from scratch building it to where this farm is now,” he says.

Head almost 500 kilometres northeast from Turtleford into the central northern part of the province, and farming becomes a little bit different. Instead of using machinery with tires and wheels, harvest of the main crop is done from boats.

Wild rice, a type of aquatic grass was first introduced in the northern parts of Saskatchewan in the 1930’s as food for muskrats to support the trapping business in the area. It is a crop that has been of great importance to First Nations for generations. Today, northern Saskatchewan produces the majority of wild rice in Canada. The rice grows wild and self-seeds in shallow lakes and rivers. Harvest areas are leased from the government and the majority of harvesters in the area are members of First Nations. The production supports the local economy and provides job opportunities.

A Polish man, Kaz Parada, developed much of the wild rice production in the La Ronge area. Parada married a woman from Lac La Ronge Indian Band and was an integral part of setting up the La Ronge Wild Rice corporation which is one of two wild rice processing plants in the province. “It was identified as necessary because of the wild rice production in northern Saskatchewan,” Lynn Riese, the current secretary-treasurer for La Ronge Wild Rice corporation and an expert on wild rice who also owns a marketing and distribution company for the rice, explains via email. “The federal government invested in the wild rice plant through the Indian Bands,” says Riese. Before the local processing plant, the rice would get shipped to Manitoba or the U.S. for processing.

Today, the plant is owned by several stakeholders with Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Meadow Lake Tribal Council and Peter Ballantyne Developments being the three largest. The success of the La Ronge Wild Rice Corporation and the First Nations producers is evident in “the training and encouragement to harvest properly [in order to] improve the quality of the yield,” says Riese. The future opportunities lie in the continuation of training and supporting harvesting methods in order to provide top quality wild rice.

Miles Ratt, a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and a long-time rice producer has been working on the lakes harvesting rice for over 50 years. “I started harvesting when I was about 12,” he says. “I learned from my dad. We used canoes and paddled when harvesting. Nowadays we use airboats with blades like on a road grader,” he continues. Ratt explains that he has his lease through the Lac La Ronge Indian Band for harvesting two lakes and that the band currently pays for the lease. For many years he used to rent the harvesting equipment from the band but he now owns it. Once the rice is brought to the processing plant, it is weighed and the producers are paid by the raw weight. “Some of us do pretty good. But 2017 was a bad year since the wild rice is sensitive to wind, storms and water fluctuations and the rain and high water impacted the crop,” Ratt says.

The majority of the First Nations producers harvest the rice and then sell it to independent marketers such as Riese’s Canadian Lake Wild Rice which exports rice all over the world. The Lac La Ronge Indian Band also started a marketing and distribution company for the rice, Northern Lights Foods which was sold to Can Am Construction a few years ago. Can Am Construction also hold shares in the processing plant.

The wild rice production in the north and farming operations in the south are examples of how aboriginal involvement in farming and harvesting benefit not only aboriginal people, but the local economy, future generations and the community as a whole. “I see great opportunities for the younger generations to continue with farming,” John Wozniak says about the farm at Thunderchild First Nation. “I’m very excited about the future.”