Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: farming

An answered prayer

We had talked over our situation that night, prayed for direction and believed we had been shown a direction that we should pursue. There still remained the question of whether Dennis would need or want my help.

It didn’t take long for the answer to come. The phone rang the next morning before we had time to eat breakfast. It was Dennis. He started out as he always does: “How are you doing? How is Chris? How is Michelle?” Then he started talking about the ranch land that he and Ted were buying south of Moose Jaw and wondered if I wanted to come in as a partner. Well, maybe I wanted, but we had no money laying around for such an investment.

Then he said that looking after the pasture land would give him even less time for field work and wondered if I was available for that. “And the house on the half section is empty. It would make a nice little house for the three of you if you were interested.”

We were definitely interested. And so it happened that the spring of 1973 found us on our way back to Moose Jaw. We settled into the house and soon I was putting in long hours helping to get the machinery ready and then seeding.  Later in summer there was work like tilling the summerfallow and hauling grain to the elevator.

The main farm was 2½ sections, a mile wide and 2½ miles long, 1600 acres. The soil  started out light and stoney on the south end and got heavier as we went north. The north half section, where we lived, was Regina Plains heavy clay gumbo. There was another ¼ section a few miles further north and ½ section of cultivated land with the ranch land, 2,080 acres in total. At that time the practice was to seed 2/3 of the land each year. That meant seeding 1,380 acres, with older, smaller equipment.

To give an idea of how heavy clay gumbo soil behaves I’ll describe how we drove away from our home when it rained. Field work stopped when it was wet, so we would want to go into Moose Jaw. The east-west road south of our yard was not gravelled, therefore impassible when wet. The road north was gravelled, yet there was a slight uphill grade. As soon as we ventured up that incline the tires became coated with greasy clay. The road was greasy, despite the gravel, and it was impossible to steer in a straight line. I would let Chris drive and I would walk beside to push the car straight when it began to slip sideways. The road was that greasy that it didn’t take a lot of effort. Once we got to level ground we were OK.

The yard should have been a great place for our almost two year old daughter to play. But by midsummer we were plagued with grasshoppers. We found them annoying, Michelle found them terrifying. The grasshoppers became more than annoying when they harvested Chris’s garden.

As soon as we moved back to Saskatchewan we began to attend the one church in Moose Jaw that called itself Mennonite. I don’t wish to name any of the churches we attended over the first years of our marriage, nor their pastors or other people in the churches. I hold no animosity towards them and don’t wish to hold them up to ridicule. We met a lot of fine people and enjoyed the time we spent with them, but we were looking for a genuine Anabaptist-Mennonite church and weren’t finding it in any of these places.

I eventually began to understand what was going on. When the apostle Paul wrote: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), his intention was that we would follow him in acquiring the same faith that he had.

A true living faith will cause us to live a life that is patterned after Christ, not after the zeitgeist of the era in which we live. There is an ever present danger that Christian faith will grow lukewarm, or even cold, yet a lifestyle pattern has been established that people will follow without comprehending that this lifestyle pattern is not the faith. It is faith that creates a lifestyle, but a lifestyle has no power to create faith.

This seems to have happened to many Mennonites in past generations. The faith gradually died out, yet the lifestyle was maintained for a time, sometimes a long time. Eventually their descendants became alarmed and sought a renewing of faith, but instead of returning to the faith of their forefathers, which by now was unknown to them, they turned to pietistic protestantism. Some of them gained a genuine saving faith, but now there was no reason to retain the old patterns and they began to run as hard as they could to avoid any hint that they were living by some external rule.

Then the pietistic faith itself became a pattern that their descendants tried to maintain. By now many of the current generation has little idea of what constitutes genuine Christianity. This was where we came in and it wasn’t at all what we were looking for.

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Disappointments

Pastor Harvey* was immediately hired by another congregation of the same denomination. The young people followed and so did we. This church was the same distance from our home, but out in the country on gravel roads. Before long there was a baptism service for several of the youth and for Chris and me.

Now we were officially Mennonites.  It wasn’t long before I began to wonder how Mennonite these people really were. There were copies of the Martyrs Mirror and The Complete Writings of Menno Simons in the church library. It wasn’t clear to me why, as no one seemed familiar with them, or even mildly interested in becoming familiar. No one seemed concerned whether this church still held to the faith described in those books.

Business at the grain elevator had increased substantially over the past couple years, more and mre farmers were switching their grain deliveries to my elevator. My decision to just stick it out had been vindicated. But now I was spending more and more time in the grain dust while unloading trucks and loading grain cars. And my respiratory allergies were becoming more and more of a problem.

Finally, I decided I couldn’t keep on and began casting about for another way to make a living. There was an opportunity to become a life insurance agent, so I resigned my job with United Grain Growers and signed on with Mutual Life of Canada.

This involved a move from the company owned house to an apartment in Carman. Then I went through the training sessions, wrote the exam and passed it.

About this time we took a trip back to Moose Jaw for a few days. Michelle was an active and happy little girl, walking and beginning to say a few words. Grandma was happy to have her spend a littlke time with them.

One evening Chris and I went bowling  with my cousins Dennis and Ted and their wives. My cousins freely shared their convictions that term life insurance was the only type worth having. Whole life insurance plans, the type that includes a savings portion and pays the largest commission to the one selling them, were just a scam according to them.

Well, that really gave me something to think about. I had done a good job as a salesman at the grain elevator, selling farm input products. But I knew that I would never be able to sell something if I was not fully convinced that it was a good deal for the buyer. Maybe I wasn’t the type of person who could succeed at selling life insurance. What should I do?

I didn’t have long to wonder. A fefw days after we got home there was a meeting at the Mutual Life of Canada office in Winnipeg. The meeting was brief and to the point: the district manager who had hired me was being fired. Along with him went the last two people he had hired. That included me. What now?

Chris got a job as a waitress at the restaurant a block from our apartment, but that wasn’t going to keep us going. We spent an evening talking over our situation and considering if there were any options to find our way out of this bind.

I knew that Dennis was farming around 2,000 acres and it would soon be seeding time. As far as I knew he didn’t have any help lined up. I also knew that the house on one farm that he had bought was now empty. That seemed like a possibility worth pursuing. By that time it was late and we went to bed planning to call him the next morning.

Spiritual drought

About this time every year farmers here on the dry Canadian prairies can be heard worrying about whether there will be enough moisture to produce a crop. This year we a are midway through the fourth month of winter with no end in sight according to the long range forecast. There is not a lot of snow on the ground and that causes stress in the farming community.

I suppose I would be stressed, too, if I was a farmer with the level of investment that is required by modern grain farming.

I will be 76 before the snow is gone and have seen that the rolling of the seasons plays out in a different fashion every year. I have seen springs with abundant moisture and ideal seeding conditions where the rains stopped in early summer. The grain grew tall and thick, but the kernels were few and shrivelled.

I have seen dry springs with barely enough moisture a few inches down to germinate the seeds. Yet rains came at the right time and there was an abundant crop. There have been years of drought and years of excessive moisture where some crops were flooded out. Even an overly long winter can be a boon to agriculture because it prevents the soil from drying out.

Anything is possible in Saskatchewan. Farmers have no control over moisture conditions. What about Christians? Many of us seem to go throught the same kind of cycles of scarcity and abundance of spiritual power. Some seem to live in a perpetual drought, trying to conserve the little bit of grace that they have.

Is that how Christian life is supposed to be? I think there are two possible problems when we are experiencing a spiritual drought.

One happens when Jesus fills our cup and we are so fearful of losing the precious spiritual water that we dare not share it with anyone else. And the water in our cup just evaporates. Jesus wants us to let that water flow, and as it flows out more will flow in.

The other possibility could be a misunderstanding of “never thirst again.” When the Holy Spirit comes into our heart, He becomes an inexhaustible source of living water and we never again need to seek desperately for that refreshment.

Yet it seems that we still need to feel a thirst, a longing for that refreshing water. It is too easy to slip into a pattern that seems Christian and spiritual, yet lacks the power that is readily available to us.

Elisha Hoffman describe that thirst like this:

Lord, I am fondly, earnestly longing,
Into thy holy likeness to grow;
Thirsting for more and deeper communion,
Yearning thy love more fully to know.

-from Open the wells of salvation by Elisha Hoffman.

Revival becomes possible when we have that kind of thirst. If we feel dry and parched, it is not that the Lord is withholding the showers from us. It just might be that we are not thirsty enough.

Dennis to the rescue

During the time I had been away in Toronto my folks had sold the little farm at Craik and bought an older two storey house in Moose Jaw. It wasn’t hard getting used to living in Moose Jaw, it was where I was born, we had family in the city and had made frequent trips there all during my growing up years. Uncle Art and Aunt Katherine, Dad’s brother and Mom’s sister, had moved into the city years ago already. Dad turned 72 in the summer of 1963, his eyesight was getting worse and he could no longer drive, so the move was a sensible one for them.

To get to the nearest Anglican church all my parents had to do was walk out to the back alley, go half a block east and half a block north. It was a distance my mother could easily walk. I never accompanied them to church.

Dad might not have seen well enough to drive, but he could still walk. He got up early in the morning and went for a walk, then took another walk or two later in the day, doing about six miles a day. He couldn’t see to read much anymore; Mom would gladly have read to him, but he could not bring himself to let her do it. That would have been to admit that he was handicapped.

But what was I to do? I was a walker like my Dad and walked all over the city with that question spinning around in my mind. I had lost all my excess weight in Toronto and was down to 60 kilos. I hadn’t done any physical work during those years that would have bulked me up, but I wasn’t weak or malnourished. I think it was just the unending questions about my future that made my head spin. One afternoon I came home from a walk, walked into the living room, blacked out for a moment and fell.

I got right back up on my feet, but Mom was scared. She got me in to see her doctor and he prescribed some little white pills for me. I got the impression that there was some malfunction in my heart and these pills would regulate it.

My cousin Dennis came to my rescue. He needed help on the farm and I was available. The farm was only a few miles out of Moose Jaw; I spent Monday to Saturday with Dennis and Harlene at the farm and Sunday at home with Mom and Dad in Moose Jaw. I helped with the field work and whatever else needed doing around the farm. Occasionally I would babysit Wendy, Jana and Jeffrey, their three young children.

Dennis had a few head of cattle, Harlene kept a few ducks and geese. It was getting dark one evening during harvest when I pulled into the yard with a load of grain to unload into the granary. The geese were not yet shut up for the night and here comes the gander running towards the truck, neck stretched out, wings flapping, honking for all he was worth to save the other geese from this monster. A fully loaded truck does not stop on a dime. Mom was out to visit Harlene and the two of them spent the rest of the evening plucking and eviscerating the would-be hero.

I helped at the farm on occasion during the winter and in spring began putting in long hours in the fields again. Then in late summer I landed a temporary job at the United Grain Growers grain elevator in Moose Jaw.

The Day I Had to Bully My Father

Two years later we had a very dry summer. About the only things that flourished were the Russian thistles. Then they would dry up, break off at ground level and blow across the prairie landscape. Often they would collect in great masses along fence lines, becoming fire hazards. Dad liked to collect them in a pile and burn them.

One day in late summer, Dad came into the house with a big hole burned in the back of his coveralls and the shirt beneath. He told me to go across the dam and see if he had got the fire completely out. I saw that his Russian Thistle fire had gotten away on him. There was a large blackened area in the grass and here and there small flames still flickering. When I was sure had stamped them all out I returned to the house.

Dad’s back was badly burned; Mom and I knew he had to go to the hospital. He refused. “Who will milk the cows? Who will do my janitor chores?”

I told him I would do all that, but still he refused. Finally I raised my voice to a bellow and manhandled my father out to the truck and drove him to the hospital. Mom had called Doctor McCaw and he was there to admit Dad and take charge.

The chores at home I knew how to do. The responsibilities of the hospital janitor I did not know. But those were simpler times. It helped that my cousin Ron was on the hospital board and the hospital matron, in charge of housekeeping, was Barb Hunter, a friend of the family from Mossbank days. With Barb coaching me I tried to do everything that Dad had done. I stopped in to see him each day and to see how his back was healing. I think Dad spent ten days in the hospital. His work got done and he got his full pay cheque.

At home I fed the chickens, gathered the eggs and milked the cows morning and evening. I cranked out the cream on the cream separator and did all the chores that needed doing. As far as I can remember Dad never did say thank you, but I think knowing that I had taken care of things eased some of the tension between us.

[This is part of chapter 10 of my memoir. I have done a thorough re-write and rearranging of the material I have previously posted and am ready to start on the next section)

Minimum Requirements For Farming

  1. A wide-brimmed hat, one pair of blue jeans and $20 boots from the discount store.
  2. At least two head of livestock, preferably cattle, one male and one female.
  3. A new air-conditioned pickup with automatic transmission, power steering and a trailer hitch.
  4. A dog to ride in the bed of the pickup.
  5. A gooseneck trailer small enough to park in front of a cafe.
  6. A little place to keep the cows on land too poor to grow crops on.
  7. A spool of barbed wire, three cedar fence posts and a bale of hay to haul around in the truck.
  8. Credit at the credit union.
  9. Credit at the bank.
  10. Credit from your father-in-law.
  11. A good pocket knife, suitable for whittling to pass away time.
  12. A good wife who won’t get upset when you walk across the living room floor with manure on your boots.
  13. A good wife with a full time job.

[Author unknown, published 1985 in the Craik history book (my home town)]

Chapter 1 – Why couldn’t I be the healthy one?

My cousin Dennis has often been a friend in time of need, knowing just when to show up. He came over the morning after my father’s funeral and we sat around a table with my mother, reliving bygone days with the help of her old photographs. There were photos of my father breaking land, of my father when he attended auto mechanics school in Tennessee, of my mother in her younger years, of me as a baby, of my cousins.

Then we came to a photo from when I was in Grade 2, all the students and the teacher grouped in front of our one-room school. There were two little boys in the front row, one bright-eyed, smiling and healthy-looking, the other wearing a heavy sweater and making a feeble attempt at a smile. Impulsively, I pointed at the healthy looking boy and said “That was me!” Dennis glanced up, his brow furrowed, and said, “No, that was David Harlton.” Then pointing to the sickly-looking boy he said, “This is you over here.”

He said no more about my mistake, just carried on talking about school days. I carried on too, hoping the pain inside me was not visible to others. I knew he was right, but why couldn’t I believe for just one moment that I was the healthy one? I guess a true friend helps keep you real.

I had frequent bouts of colds and flu as a child and was well-acquainted with Buckley’s White Rub and other home remedies. I am a genuine phlegmatic; it’s not often that I don’t have some nasal congestion and a frog in my throat. This affects my inner ear, causing vertigo and a poor sense of balance. When I was four my parents took me to the fair and put me on a merry-go-round, expecting I would be thrilled at the ride. My head began to whirl, my stomach to churn and I cried to be rescued.

I had frequent outbreaks of hives as a child. Eventually we figured out that they always happened when I had oatmeal porridge for breakfast two days in a row. Later in life I realized that the cold and flu symptoms were usually allergic reactions to dust, pollens and other stuff in the air. These reactions often led into sinus infections and recovery times were a matter of several weeks.

My mother told me that I was raised with cow’s milk formula because my father thought that was more modern and sanitary than breast feeding. I had an allergic reaction at the beginning that caused my face to puff up until my eyes all but disappeared. The cure was to give me only water for awhile, then gradually reintroduce the milk. Perhaps that is where my allergies began. Or it may have happened at birth. Doctors today have linked birth by cesarean section to allergy problems in the child. The doctor had opted for cesarean when I was born because of my mother’s hip dysplasia. In the end it doesn’t matter, it won’t make me healthier to find someone to blame for my poor health.

When I was in my twenties I discovered antihistamines and they have helped me cope with life. A little pill once or twice a day, a corticosteroid puff in each nostril once a day, a saline nasal spray plus a decongestant when needed, keep me going – most of the time. But I can’t always escape those times when allergy symptoms leave me feeling wiped out. Those episodes can hit any time of the year but spring and fall seem the worst.

I have learned by experience that some occupations are best avoided. I’m just not the robust type who thrives on outdoor activities. It isn’t that I’m always sick, but when I do get sick it takes several weeks to recover to where I can breathe freely and my body doesn’t ache.

But maybe that’s alright. My frequent sicknesses kept me indoors more than most other children and facilitated my love for reading, and writing. Perhaps God has allowed these circumstances to steer me in the direction He wanted me to go. In any case, here I am, with all the things I have experienced, observed and learned in life, and I want to use them all to His honour.

[All comments and critiques are welcome. Please help me improve this writing.]

The parable of the train-chasing dog

Many years ago, in the time of small farms, one such farm was located beside a railway that connected several of the big cities of the area. The farm consisted of a number of small fields, cultivated by a small tractor, and a pasture containing a few cows and their calves. There was a little valley running across one corner of this pasture with a creek where the cows could drink.

In this bucolic setting there lived a farmer with his wife, their three children, and a dog. Now this was a noble dog, whose heart was set to protect the farmer and his family from all dangerous intruders. And he proved this determination eight times a day when a great growling and howling creature approached on the railroad tracks. The dog immediately began to bark and to run towards this oncoming threat, reaching the tracks just as the last car of the train passed by. The dog continued to bark and to follow until he was satisfied that it was gone, then returned home.

There was in the same neighbourhood a person whose motives were not as noble as those of the dog. He observed that the farmer and his family grew accustomed to the barking of the dog and took no notice. This person began to walk by the pasture at odd hours, always bringing with him some treat for the dog, who soon came to regard him as a friend. Thus when this person came one night with a truck and loaded up some of the calves, the dog made no barking, for was not this his friend?

It occurs to me that I have known in my time several persons who resembled this dog. They fancied themselves to be watchmen of Zion, and began to bray loudly at the approach of any innovation that they regarded as a threat. People learned to ignore them, for were they not always braying? And did not the imagined threats always pass by harmlessly?

Yet these same self-appointed watchmen were prone to become intrigued by a speaker or a book that professed to uphold the faith, yet contained some unorthodox line of thought. As these watchmen considered and digested these ideas, they spoke of them often to others. The result was that a few others found the new way of looking at things so captivating that they left the fold to follow the errant doctrine. And no one quite knew what had happened.


A short while ago I published an item in this space entitled The Millionaire and the Scrublady, having no knowledge of who had written it.  A reader informed me that it came from Parables of a Country Parson by William E Barton. I have since obtained a copy of the book. Therein is the story of The Dog and the Limited, wherein the writer observes a dog futilely attempting to catch a passenger train. It seemed to me that the dog was not trying to catch the train but to chase it away. And in this he succeeded, as far as he could understand. Those thoughts led to the writing above.

The half-converted farmer

Years ago, there was a farmer in our neighbourhood who lived a simple life. He had no need of electricity, running water or a lawn mower. He didn’t seem to have a need for a wife either, though it was rumoured that once long ago there had been a lady of the house. Perhaps the rustic simplicity of the homestead soon lost its charm.

This rustic farmer had a simple approach to farming as well. In the spring he seeded his wheat and in the fall he harvested his wheat — as much as his equipment could capture. For you see, the fields produced a much greater crop of weeds than of wheat, in such a manner that the wheat that did grow was short in stature. What is more, there were many prominent rocks throughout the fields that needed to be avoided in seeding and in harvesting. As we passed by his fields after harvest we saw much wheat still standing, waiting to be gleaned by the birds, mice and gophers. The proximity of these heads of wheat to the rocks or to the surface of the ground had made them inaccessible to the harvesting machinery.

Then came a day when the farmer announced that he had seen the light, from henceforth things were going to be different. He purchased top quality seed and fertilizer, enough for all his fields. Nevertheless, he chose not to attempt to remove the rocks and the weeds. The good new seed, he said, with the help of the fertilizer, would produce such vigorous plants that they would choke out the weeds and grow so high the rocks would not be a problem.

Unfortunately, the bad seeds far outnumbered the good. With the help of the fertilizer, they grew taller that year than ever before. The wild mustard plants did indeed resemble small trees. I did not ascertain if the birds of the air built their nests in these great shrubs , but I did observe them flitting joyfully from branch to branch.

Harvest that year was neither better nor worse than in previous years. Whereupon the farmer declared that scientific farming was a fraud designed to separate gullible farmers from their money. He would never again believe a word of it. And the latter end of that farmer was worse than the first.

I have observed people who approached Christian life in like manner. They are convicted of the futility of their old ways and resolve to follow the way of Jesus. They begin to read the Bible and attend church, and verily their countenances are changed. They have hope.

Still, there are all the hurtful things they have said and done in the past, and perhaps dishonest things as well. These are great rocks in their life and the problem of removing them seems insurmountable. The cost and effort of confession and restitution is higher than they are willing to pay. Thus the rocks remain, ever a hindrance  to the trust they desire from others.

Worse yet, their tendencies to hurt feelings and flare ups of temper still remain and get in the way of the good they try to do. An apology would be too humiliating, better to wait and hope people forget. They are keenly aware of other people’s faults, and quite blind to their own. Such thorns in their personalities choke out their good intentions. After a time, they conclude that Christianity was only an illusion and return to their old ways.

It need not be that way. But too many well-meaning evangelists neglect to explain that one cannot live a fruitful and fulfilling Christian life without removing the rocks and the thorns.

One kernel of wheat

How many people can be fed with one kernel of wheat?  David Fife fed millions.

The Fife family came to Canada from Scotland in 1820 when David was 15.  They settled in Otanabee township, east of Peterborough, Ontario .  When David was 20, he married Jane Becket and they began to farm on their own.  Farmers in this area were growing a winter wheat variety known as Siberian.  It did survive the cold winters, but was low yielding and susceptible to rust, a fungal disease that weakened the plant.

David Fife wrote to a friend in Glasgow asking for a sample of a better wheat.  His friend found a ship in the harbour, unloading wheat that had been loaded at Danzig and had probably been grown in Ukraine.  He managed to obtain a few kernels and sent them to David Fife.

The package of wheat kernels arrived just before seeding time in 1842.  Neither David Fife nor his friend knew if they were winter wheat or spring wheat.  David Fife planted half of the seeds in spring, planning to sow the rest in fall.  It must have been winter wheat, as the spring seeded grain did not mature — except for one plant which produced three heads of ripe grain.  David Fife planted the seeds from those three heads the next spring and continued to multiply the seed, until he harvested 240 bushels in 1848.  By then he knew that he had a variety of wheat that yielded much better than Siberian, matured early and was not susceptible to rust.   In addition, it had excellent milling and baking properties.

David Fife began to make this wheat available to his neighbours and by 1860 it had supplanted all other varieties of wheat grown in Canada.  Since the kernels were red and the variety was introduced by David Fife, it was given the name of Red Fife.  By the end of the nineteenth century Red Fife wheat had the reputation of being the world’s best spring wheat.

When the prairies began to be settled the first wheat grown was Red Fife.  The Prairies growing season was a little too short, though.  Charles Saunders crossed Red Fife and Hard Red Calcutta and selected the best cultivars to develop Marquis wheat, which made the western prairies a bread basket.  These varieties have been supplanted over the years, but are now making a small comeback, for reasons I will discuss in my next post.

It all started with a single kernel of wheat.  No one knows if that kernel of wheat came from a naturally occurring variant of the other wheat on that shipload, or if there were mixed varieties in that load.  Because of David Fife’s careful work in multiplying the wheat grown from that single kernel, that kernel has provided nourishment to millions of people.

Never think that the little bit that you have to offer is too insignificant to bother with.  ” For who hath despised the day of small beginnings?”  (Zechariah4:10, as it is in French translations of the Bible).

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