A Life's Story
September 18, 2021
Steward of the land
Leonard Rance was an early adopter of farming conservation
By: Laura Rance
My father once quipped near the end of his farming career that if he had waited until he could afford to farm, it never would have happened.
Farming was about much more to Leonard Rance than earning a living. It was how he lived his life. And if wealth could be measured by gratitude, he was well-endowed with riches.
It might have had something to do with the fact that his formative years were spent during a time when money as a measure of wealth didn’t seem to matter much. The oldest of seven, he was born Nov. 5, 1928, a year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. That era is also remembered as the Dirty Thirties because of the drought-like weather and low grain prices that drove many from the land.
The Rances were spared that outcome. But LeRoy and Mabelle raised their brood to be frugal, self-reliant, community-minded teetotalers who expressed their faith through everyday actions. If that sounds austere, rest assured there was no shortage of laughter and music in that farmhouse that went through popping corn by the 100-pound bag. In song, as in life, Dad was always looking for the harmony.
He took his diploma in agriculture and headed home to farm. The dashing young farmer driving a Willy’s Jeep soon hit it off with the new teacher at the local school. He married Mary Elliot in 1952, forming a partnership that lasted nearly 69 years that amplified their shared commitment to social justice.
The farm adjacent to the family homestead in the Sperling area was where they raised their own kids, fostered many more, and hosted youth through an international agricultural exchange. They engaged in community ministry, spoke up in solidarity with northern communities that lost their land to hydroelectric development, and supported global food security.
That was all while farming for 40 years on flat-as-a-pancake heavy clay soil that once formed the bottom of Lake Agassiz. When they started, their land was poorly drained and prone to salinity. Intensive tillage practices of the time had left the soil exposed and vulnerable to erosion.
Looking for ways to repair what he saw as a broken relationship between human and soil, he heard about a group calling itself the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association. He became an early convert to a conservation movement that fundamentally changed how crops are grown on the northern great plains.
The surprisingly decent yields many farmers are harvesting this year, in spite of the drought, can be traced in large part to the dramatic reduction in tillage and agroecological principles these farmers pioneered four decades ago.
Researchers documented a steady improvement in Prairie soil health, measured as organic matter, microbiological activity and its improved ability to use moisture as these practices took hold.
"ManDak" was an information-sharing network. Dad often returned home from the annual workshops, which at their peak drew upwards of a thousand farmers from several states and provinces, in awe of what he had learned. He was nominated to the board of directors and served as president in 1991, the year the group produced its first production manual designed to assist other farmers who were starting out.
"Your dad was part of something transformative," said Martin Entz, a University of Manitoba plant science professor who first attended their workshops as a PhD student. "The ManDak farmer-leaders were innovators in the true sense. They were visionaries."
Entz still uses their manuals in teaching today. "These production manuals… helped so many farmers and non-farmers develop more resilient and regenerative farming systems, and along the way they documented the evolution of thinking within the farming community," he said.
Researchers, extension workers and equipment manufacturers have said they learned more from the farmers in those early days than they could ever teach. Their role quickly became one of helping farmers understand the science behind the changes in their soils and designing equipment that could meet their needs.
"It took a little gentle arm-twisting to have him take on the role of president," recalls Robert Stevenson, an Oak Lake farmer who first met Dad on a tour of our farm. "He humbly suggested he was too small a farmer, at the end of his career, too this or too that, but we didn’t believe any of it. He stepped up and promoted what he believed in."
Operating a living lab was a struggle, however. Like many, Dad wrestled with finding equipment that could seed into standing stubble, getting seeds to germinate in cold soil and ever-changing weed dynamics, not to mention the skepticism of other farmers who said it would never work.
But his faith that if he looked after the land, it would look after him was rewarded. He observed rising levels of organic matter, a 50 per cent reduction in fuel consumption, and soil that became more sponge-like than compacted. His herbicide costs didn’t increase as much as he anticipated.
While the economics of the no-till farming system became apparent over time and led to widespread adoption, for Dad, it was a cause rooted in stewardship.
"I have a great deal of respect for the native people of our nation, who lived here many centuries before us and have created no environmental damage. When pondering an important question, they would consider how their decision might affect those several generations later. I often wonder if our generation would benefit from the same process," he said in one of his ManDak reports.
Dad left us on Father’s Day. His ashes were returned to the earth in July.