Dear Elder Farmer,
When raised the question what we as youth or new farmers need from our elders—the experienced, the weathered—the answer is complex in details, but simple in theory.
My name is Ian Griebel. I was born and raised on a small farm outside of Castor, Alta. But like most of the young people today, once high school was finished, I left the nest and flew to an urban centre, where I developed my skills at carpentry, learned of night clubs, traffic, and the constant hustle of a busy city. When the that became too much, when the constant buzz of airplanes, cars, and buses became overwhelming , I was pushed back to my roots; back to where I felt truly at home: the prairies.
It wasn’t too long after I began transitioning back home to farm that my family was crumbled with devastating news: my mentor, my teacher, my father, was diagnosed with cancer. For three years he struggled, prevailed, dealt with intolerable pain, and ultimately died in the same bedroom he grew up in as a child. It was his struggle, and his realizations of facing death, that I believe carry true power, and are very applicable to all aspects of life—including farming. I would like to share these with you and as my father’s views and death have so impacted my life, may his wisdom help mold yours.
After dad died, I was suddenly, well, farming. One day, I had a manager with 40 years of farming experience—a man that new every dip in the land and all the tricks to keep our old farm machinery running, who had a vast library of knowledge, and who was a rock for our family. The next day, he was gone. There I was, running a cattle ranch with very little experience, and the whole thing was on my shoulders. It was terrifying and overwhelming. I don’t know how many times I cried into my hydraulic oil soaked shirt. Another breakdown? How do I fix this? Nothing is going right. What the hell am I doing? I’ve made poor decisions, lost money, wrecked equipment , and learned the hard way.
Looking back, though, my dad’s death offered a unique opportunity. In the four years since, I’ve learned more about this operation, and about agriculture in general, than I would have if I was farming with, and relying on, my father. I’ve read books, asked neighbours, sought out mentors, and developed my own systems and ways of doing things that are different from what he would have done. I have to give a lot of the credit to my mother—the freedom I was given is unprecedented. If I was interested in something I did it—successfully or not. I changed the breed of cattle we ran, our management strategy, the way we marketed the meat, our brand, our wintering program—the list goes on. A proverbial fire was under my ass, and because of that, my passion for agriculture was able to fully bloom.
It was my father’s last gift to me: Freedom.
So here is my message to old farmers, retiring farmers, and land owners: Please don’t feel you have to die to give the next generation freedom. It will be difficult to see things done differently; to watch someone fail. But this is what builds confidence, maturity, and learning in youth. Be a supporter, not a dictator. Teach, preach, and educate. Listen, learn, and understand.
We live in a changing world with an uncertain future, but the next generation is full of hope. We will be the ones responsible for the land and the creatures on it. Allow us this responsibility, and support us through it. We will need it.
It’s time for change. Things need to be, and will be, different. Change can be good, and it can be powerful. How things have been done in the past will likely be done completely different in the future, and that has to be okay. We need your knowledge, your experiences, your years of being on the land so we can grow more quickly and create change faster. We need ears to listen, a brain to understand, a hand on our shoulder, and a light kick in the ass.
Lastly, as we experience all this talk of succession, and land exchange, and as the next generation takes over we need to care for one thing. Right before my father passed away, I asked him what he believed was the meaning of life. Weeks of radiation had withered my once robust, vibrant father into a skinny, pale, shadow of the man he once was. Yet, when he shared the greatest secret to life I’ve heard to date, his smile was the same.
“What is life all about? In my experience of 63 years living on this planet, life comes down to this: Relationships. Cherish and care for all of your relationships, for this is all that really matters. Your wife, your children, your family, the community. Your land, the soil, the plants, animals and this planet. Care for these and you will live a great life.”
So, let’s not lose our relationships over a farm. Let’s open new doors and opportunities to new farmers. Let’s communicate, share, and figure out this journey together. Let’s care for our earth, so our grandchildren and their children look back and say: Thank you, elder farmer.
A Young Farmer
Ian Griebel runs RedTail Farms with his wife Dana, his two sons, Cohen and Fynn, and his mother, Kathleen, under the motto: “Three generations. Looking seven generations forward.” Located in east-central Alberta, the 34-year-old raises grass-finished beef and pastured pork, and says one of the main reasons he farms is “the ability to express creativity and try new things.”