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Band Farms: Blessing Or Boondoggle

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      FEBRUARY 1979      v09 n02 p14  
A thousand acres of grain waving in the breeze; three hundred cows grazing contentedly; a Band using its own land, providing employment, revenues, pride ... these are the promises. Band Farms are indeed promoted by some as the economic salvation of some Reserves. This article proposes to examine Band Farms, particularly those in the Touchwood-File Hills-Fort Qu'Appelle District, as seen through the eyes of an Ag. Rep. who has worked for them.

At some point in time, and each in his own way, Chiefs Alec Bellegarde, Harvey Desjarlais, Irvin Starr and Art Walker sat down with their councilors and spoke about an idea that had been forming in their minds; a Farm, owned and operated by the Band, for the benefit of the entire Band. Talks ensued, with the Ag. Rep. office and with the funding agencies, DREE, SIAP and Manpower. There was lots of criticism and wrangling back and forth. Proposals were submitted and rejected. Discussions became acrimonious. Proposals were trimmed down, tightened up and the applicants sharpened their arguments.

Eventually things fell into place. The Little Black Bear Band Farm, under the capable management of Chief Alec Bellegarde, operates some 3300 cultivated acres plus a 40-cow beef herd. His is the oldest operating Band Farm in the District, and perhaps the most successful one. Last year they planted 750 acres and have some 2200 acres of clean land ready to go for this year. They also negotiated a major loan through the Regina branch of the Bank of Nova Scotia for half the costs of a new line of machinery. Little Black Bear is a small Reserve, and most of the men living on the Reserve work for the Band Farm. Tractors are frequently seen parked in front of the Band Office and inside, one hears a lot of talk about rapeseed prices and grain storage problems. Chief-Manager Bellegarde is definite about wanting to expand the operation, increase revenue and diversify.

A feedlot on the Starblanket Reserve
Band farm worker

A feedlot on the Starblanket Reserve

Band farm worker lays on some winter fodder

The Star Blanket Band Farm commenced in 1976 under the management of Gerry Starr. They started with a small herd of some 65 cows, rode out the period of bad prices, and made some good deals early in 1978 to expand their herd just before cow prices started going through the roof. They now operate a 300-cow herd and are slowly diversifying into grain production as well. They planted 250 acres of wheat in 1978 and will be cultivating some 2000 acres in 1981, when land that has been leased to Off-Reserve farmers comes back into the hands of the Band. The Star Blanket haying crew is proud of the effort they made last summer, putting up some 40,000 bales of hay to carry the herd through the winter.

The Okanese Band under Chief Art Walker has just hired a contractor to clear a section of bush. This will mark the beginning of the Okanese Band Farm. The Band will get to try out their machinery and men this year. They have contracted to do the workdowns on the land after the bulldozers finish clearing the bush. Okanese will also be taking over a large chunk of land that was under long-term lease to off-Reserve farmers. Chief Walker and Councillors John Dumont and Ernest and Remie Tuckanow have been active in the planning process and are anxious now to test their farming and management skills once the Farm is in operation.

Muskowekwan Reserve recently came into possession of 6200 acres of pasture land that had been part of the PFRA Touchwood Pasture. Chief Harvey Desjarlais made a major decision: rather than re-leasing, this land was to come back to the Band to be used by the Band. Again after several submissions and heated discussions, funding was obtained and as of this writing sheds and fences are up and some 60 head of cows are being wintered. The Muskowekwan Band counts only two farmers, so there was no one to draw on for the job of Farm Manager. In view of this, the Band made a realistic decision; hire an outside manager for the critical first year and assign him the duty of preparing an Indian trainee. Accordingly, they selected Peter Breti of Lestock as Manager and Johnny Wolfe of Muskowekwan as Manager-Trainee.

Band Farms: Blessing Or Boondoggle

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      FEBRUARY 1979      v09 n02 p15  

Saskatchewan Indian Agricultural Employees
Saskatchewan Indian Agricultural Employees
Left to right: Martin Ferguson, Loans Officer, Ft. Qu'Appelle Office; Gilbert F. Bellegarde, Extention Worker, Ft. Qu'Appelle Office; Wil Davies, Manager of SIAP Program, Regina.

So those are the success stories. There are other stories, not so pleasant, of failed Band Farms. Running through the case histories of these, one finds that the failures were due mainly to poor management and over-financing. Other factors may enter in, such as over-employment, crop failure and poor product prices. The two major funding agencies, Sask. Indian Agriculture Program and the Dept. of Regional Economic Expansion (Special ARDA) have become much more critical of submissions for Band Farm funding. Band Farms and individual Indian farmers are competing for the same funding dollars. The funding agencies must weigh the Band Farm request in the light of what the same amount of money might do for several individual farmers. It is frequently a tough decision to make. Obtaining outside funding, as the Little Black Bear and Star Blanket Farms have, is easing the problem somewhat.

Some Reserves in the District see Band Farms as a solution to the land revenue problem. There has been a great deal of land leased to outside farmers in the District. On some Reserves outside leases account for half of all the cultivated land, but the revenues from these leases allow the Band to provide social programs and employment for their members. Many individual Reserve farmers would like to takeover this land as the leases come up for renewal, but they are unwilling to pay a crop share in order to use the land. Quite rightly they consider free access to Band land as a right. So a potential solution to this land-versus-revenue problem is to create a Band Farm on the leased land as the leases expire.

When good, tough Indian management is in place, along with sound farming practices and lots of plain hard work, Band Farms are a positive and exciting asset. Certainly they represent a return to the true Indian spirit of working together and sharing the wealth of the land with all the people of the Band.