'It's pride': Farming on Cowessess First Nation
How an agricultural venture turned into the revival of farming on a Saskatchewan First Nation
WRITTEN BY CALLY NICHOLL | PHOTOS BY MICHAEL BELL
Black Angus cattle roam the land on Cowessess First Nation. These cattle came to this piece of land in the fall of 2007. A herd that started as 25 cows and one bull has grown to more than 130 head and will continue to increase with each calving season.
This herd belongs to 4C Farms Ltd., whose name originated from “Cowessess Community Cattle Company.” But this growing herd of cattle means more to Cowessess First Nation than just a future in agriculture.
“It’s pride,” Chief of Cowessess First Nation, Cadmus Delorme said. “It’s to know that our Nation has created something that our ancestors envisioned when they signed the treaty. It’s also food sovereignty to make sure that we, as a First Nation and community have our own food source if the world were to pause, or something was to happen. It’s also a job opportunity for our next generation to prepare them for the long-term sustainable growth agriculture offers.”
It takes a somebody
On December 13, 2021, the staff of 4C Farms, along with the help of some community members and the 4C team are pregnancy-checking the herd.
Ranch Manager Terry Lerat cannot help but express his excitement about the results. Of 133 cows, 131 are pregnant, and a few late calvers. “It’s a good day,” Lerat said.
Lerat has always lived on Cowessess and grew up farming with his father.
“I grew up milking a cow before breakfast, and after school there were chores,” Lerat said. “It was a good life.”
Lerat is happy to pass on the skills and lifestyle of farming to his son and now his grandson.
“We all learned how to work from mom and dad who were hard workers,” Lerat said. “If you’re given the reins to do what you love, that’s all you want to do. Farming is a lifestyle, and it’s just a really good way to raise kids. To give them that work experience of looking after cattle, chickens, and pigs. Give them responsibility. And then they become responsible people themselves. That’s how I grew up. I had my chores to do after school. And if I didn’t do it, I had to answer to someone.”
Lerat has a small farm but has spent most of his career working for other farmers near Cowessess. But he always wanted his First Nation to venture into the agricultural sector. Lerat is one of very few folks at Cowessess who actively farm. Lerat said his family was the last farming family on Cowessess First Nation for many years. In 2007, he felt he knew how Cowessess could start its own farming operation.
“I made a deal with the Chief and Council to give me enough money to buy 25 cows and one bull because I wanted to build this up to 300 cows for the community,” Lerat said. Once the herd of 26 was established, Terry left 4C Farms for some years to work on a pure-bred cattle farm near Cowessess. Terry said that pure-bred farm gave him the knowledge he would need to manage 4C Farms in the future. He also learned the value of genetics.
“It just opened up a world of different knowledge and the opportunities of raising good quality cattle over quantity,” Lerat said.
Making a plan
Cowessess First Nation’s original reserve sits on 28,000 acres of land on the south side of Crooked Lake, including 17,000 acres of suitable agricultural land. In the 1990’s, after settling its Treaty Land Entitlement claim in 1996, the First Nation purchased 110,000 acres of land in southern Saskatchewan. The land is spread out from Preeceville to Regina and down to the Wood Mountain area. Most of the land is rented to non-Indigenous farmers through short-term permits. Lerat said after speaking to successful producers in Saskatchewan, he kept getting the same advice.
"I was exploring all kinds of different opportunities to get more added value out of our land. I kept hearing, 'you guys should farm your own land. That's where you will reap the most benefits.'"
-Terry Lerat, Ranch Manager, 4C Farms
Cowessess Chief and Council as a leadership group also believe farming has huge potential. While there is considerable risk in farming, there is an upside reward beyond simply collecting rent from the permits. Council invested in a grain farm business plan and engaged with their Director of Economic Development to map out a plan and assemble the resources needed to embark on a large-scale farming operation. In 2021, 4C Farms was fortunate to attract funding from the Indigenous Agriculture Food Systems Initiative through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. This was really the kickstart that 4C Farms needed to invest in some equipment and get the financing necessary for crop production.
“It’s about getting the best return on our lands,” Delorme said. “As a First Nation, we want to make sure that we utilize our land for our opportunities.”
In 2018 and 2019, Cowessess decided to break some pasture lands and start grain farming on the north side of the Qu’Appelle Valley in the RM of Grayson. It is rocky, bushy land, better suited to the cattle operation. After a couple of tough years grain farming that land in the RM of Grayson, 4C Farms set its sights on better land south of the Qu’Appelle Valley on the original home reserve. In 2020, 4C Farms seeded 1,350 acres, and in 2021 expanded the operation to 4,500 acres.
As permits with neighboring non-Indigenous farmers expired, 4C Farms started using those lands internally. The Chief and Council made it a priority for 4C Farms to farm the Nation’s best lands on the home reserve. In the short term, all the profit from 4C Farms’ cattle and grain operations are re-invested back into the business to purchase more equipment and grow the farm. Down the road, the goal for 4C Farms is to be able to generate enough economic return from farming their own land to reinvest back into community programs and other underfunded areas.
Voices at the table
At the 2021 Canadian Western Agribition show, Chief Delorme presented at the Indigenous Agricultural Summit. His presentation focused on 4C Farms, its growth, and Indigenous voices being part of Saskatchewan’s agricultural future. “As a First Nation, we want to be a part of the growth in this province and this country,” Delorme said. “We understand we have some disadvantages, but we inherited this. We’re asking for our leadership to be a part of the policy change tables, to be a part of the economic planning tables, so that when Saskatchewan is being marketed out in the world, that it’s not just Saskatchewan, its Indigenous people and Saskatchewan, that are going to be a part of the growth in the future.”
"As a First Nation, we want to be a part of the growth in this province and this country." - Chief Cadmus Delorme
4C Farms has a hybrid team consisting of two full-time employees who are Cowessess citizens: Terry Lerat, who focuses on the cattle side of the operation as the Ranch Manager, plus a full-time Ranch Hand. They focus on the cattle side in the winter and support the grain side of the operation in the spring and fall.
4C Farms calls on community members to help on a casual basis throughout the year for things like vaccination days, sorting days, building fences, seeding and harvest as needed. 4C Farms relies on contracted resources as well. Jessica Nixon, the Director of Economic Development for Cowessess First Nation, has a strong agricultural background and operates a mixed cattle and grain farm with her husband. Jessica oversees the business and financial management of 4C Farms and lends a hand on processing days at the ranch. Reid Piller, a young neighboring farmer is contracted to support 4C Farms with managing the grain side of the operation. This includes using his equipment on a contract basis for seeding, spraying, and harvest, in addition to providing his agrology expertise.
The team is diverse, but everyone learns something from one another. Significant mentorship needs to happen from the seasoned veterans like Lerat down to the next generation to ensure the success of 4C Farms. Lerat says he sees himself as a mentor to the younger employees and hopes to instill knowledge of agriculture that was lost over the last century.
“We’re a generation away from the last generation who lost their farming abilities,” Lerat said. “There was no farming left on the reserve…. We’re behind the eight ball here, and we’ve got to work hard to catch up.”
Lerat adds “4C will farm the same 4,500 acres in 2022 because we had much success with it and want to work out the kinks.”
“Once we fine-tune our operation, we hope to expand our grain acres in 2023. As for the cattle side of the operation, we will grow slowly within our means.”