When our great grandchildren look back they will be grateful that there were pioneers of sustainability looking to protect the future. One such pioneer was Elmer Laird who died in July at Davidson. Elmer was born in Neville Saskatchewan in 1924 and his meaningful life stands as an example to us all. Elmer’s formal education, in a one-room country school, went to grade 8, but he became a life-long learner. As Tara de Ryk said in the Davidson Leader, he “valued research, study and policy.” Through self-study he became a community educator and “avid correspondent”; for 20 years he wrote a column for Davidson’s paper.
He had vast experience to draw on. After leaving the family farm near Wymark he worked as a farmhand, then in logging camps and saw mills in British Columbia. In 1942 he joined the Canadian Air Force, and after returning from the war was employed as a switchman for the CPR. In 1947, still a young man, he bought land near Davidson with a small Veteran’s grant.
Elmer hit the land running. By 1952 he was the director of District 10 for the Saskatchewan Farmer’s Union (SFU) and in 1969, when the National Farmers Union (NFU) formed in Winnipeg, he was there. For Elmer life was about land and community. He pioneered affordable housing for seniors, in 1958 spearheading the Arm River Housing Corporation which he chaired for 15 years. This grew into the Davidson and District Health Centre, where Elmer lived his last years and died.
EMBRACING ORGANIC FARMING
Elmer‘s shift to organic farming came in 1969 when he wanted to reduce his input costs during the global market glut and decided to go without chemicals. Then he met Gladys McKay, the love of his life, who brought her skills as a provincial librarian to the Davidson farm. Gladys and Elmer began to make the links between chemical agriculture and ill-health. Elmer sold his sprayer and they never looked back.
The combination of farmer and librarian made a mighty team. In 1973 they formed Back to the Farm Research Foundation to encourage people to go back on the land to farm organically. Gladys acted as “research director”, Elmer as correspondent and publicist. Elmer worked the phone like my generation uses email; he was regularly on CBC radio’s noon phone-in show. In 1983 the Foundation sponsored the first certified organic co-op housed at Girvin, which milled and marketed grains and oilseeds for North America and Europe. Elmer once told me that had the Romanow government given them a small loan guarantee the co-op likely would have survived to help propel Saskatchewan into sustainable agriculture.
After 30 years together Gladys died in 1999 and Elmer struggled with his loneliness from then on. He retired in 2001, leasing his land to the Foundation. In 2008 Elmer became the first organic producer to be inducted into the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame.
HONOURING ELMER LAIRD
The memorial celebrating Elmer’s life was held at Davidson’s Town Hall on August 7th. Friends and colleagues attended and the local Legion came in full regalia. But many city people also came, for Elmer has a reputation far beyond his community. I’ve heard stories of Europeans driving to Davidson looking for Elmer’s highway sign “Welcome to the 1st Certified Organic Research and Demonstration Farm in Canada.” They’d drive in and Elmer would give them the tour of his beloved plots. Before they’d gone on their way they would have learned why organic farmers seed later, which companion cropping best controls certain weeds and what weeds could tell us about soil condition.
Those who spoke at the memorial had met Elmer through the NFU, the Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES), and the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC). There were some who knew him from the Canadian Organic Growers (COG), the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, and even the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Board. It was my first experience where environmentalists and veterans attended the same event. And it was my first time participating in a Legion ceremony honouring a fallen comrade. Even after his death Elmer was challenging me to expand my horizons.
Elmer was always on a learning curve. He once invited me to participate in a water-witching event. We gathered in his kitchen on a late October Saturday. After introductions we headed out to where Elmer wanted to start an orchard. One man with wire, one with a willow branch and another with a crow-bar wandered around the field in strange patterns. It started snowing, and they seemed to speed up, and move closer together. Then, after some negotiation, they announced where water was, just below the surface. The snow thickened and temperature dropped so we rushed back to Elmer’s kitchen for “de-briefing”, with a bottle of rum. In the spring I phoned Elmer to see what had happened and he matter-of-factly said “There was no water there.” Later I realized that finding water was not the important thing that day; the witching had brought together a new mix of people and we’d had great conversation.
LOVE OF THE LAND
Elmer came to oppose chemical farming and fought for chemical-free food. He challenged the Crop Insurance Board for a decade until it finally gave organic farmers equitable coverage. He helped build organizations that made knowledge of organic farming more available. There are now 1200 organic farmers in Saskatchewan, 40% of the Canadian Organic Producers, working 1.2 million acres. And what some now call “natural systems farming” is becoming a path to sustainable agriculture.
Elmer’s legacy runs wide and deep. He advised my father how to transform a chemically-farmed field into organic alfalfa without weeds; it worked. He imagined a buffer of such chemical-free fields along the top of the Qu’Appelle Valley, where we live, protecting the lakes below, and this is starting to catch on. His love of putting learning into practice touched thousands. He was a welcoming host, always ready to sit down, visit and talk, as can sometimes best happen in a farm kitchen.
But what made this modest, influential man tick? As he aged he became more concerned about getting young people to learn about the land. He was concerned about food security and envisaged a resurgence of community gardens. He talked of pre-fabricated root cellars and straw-bale greenhouses so that more people could grow and store better food. Elmer once even proposed harvesting grass-hoppers for insect protein. I once helped him haul his “chicken coop on sleds” to another location so that the chickens had fresh land to feed on. “The eggs are better and the chickens are happier” he said, his round face beaming.
Elmer was a practical man, wanting to find simple ways to improve the health of all. But above all Elmer loved the land. The farm where he had lived most of his life had been degraded by erosion during the dirty thirties and by poor practices. As the Davidson Leader said, “Laird spent decades tending this land, returning the soil’s health, making it suitable to crow crops”, which is something we all have to contemplate if we are going to move towards a sustainable society. We often talk of all the agricultural resources that are produced in Saskatchewan. But Saskatchewan also produces people like Elmer Laird, who are our greatest resource. We’re going to need a lot of “Elmer’s” in the coming years.
Contact he Foundation at Box 69, Davidson, SK, SOG 1AO. Some of Elmer’s writings are at: saskorganic.com
Next time I’ll look at the campaign to ban nuclear wastes coming into Saskatchewan from Ontario.