Perspective: Going back home again

Toban Dyck on his return to his energy-intensive, DIY roots at his family farm in Manitoba

By Toban Dyck
Manitoba farmer Toban Dyck has a deep relationship with energy as he operates his 450-hectare farm through bitter prairie winters. Photograph for Canadian Energy Centre

We heat our workshop with a waste-oil furnace my father invented and patented when I was quite young.  Our farm had livestock then. It ran more machines. We generated a healthy sum of used oil ourselves and it didn’t take more than asking to get more from others. Back then, that boiler furnace provided heat to the workshop and the farmhouse, through a series of underground lines my parents had trenched in.

He sold plans for his invention online. I remember the website. I would call it up on my family’s Pentium 386. The site was rudimentary, the URL was self-explanatory, and it featured flashing text on the homepage to inch the casual web surfer ever closer to a sale.

My father would later tell me that those plans paid for many of our family vacations.

The furnace is still there. He is able to maintain it. I can’t. I never bought the plans and they never appeared in my Christmas stocking. We still use it, sparingly, and only to heat our shop. Today, we rely on electric furnaces to heat our house.

Farming and rural life hadn’t yet gripped me – hadn’t yet gripped us. It would be more than a decade until I would fully appreciate the creativity and brainpower the creation of that furnace signaled. And it would take just as long for me to realize how largely misunderstood and underappreciated farming had become.

My wife and I moved back to the family farm, about an hour south of Winnipeg, in 2012, to begin the process of taking over a business that my ancestors started in the late 1800s. From our Palmerston Avenue rental in Toronto, we purchased a mobile home listed on the classifieds and had it moved to my family’s farmyard and placed on a patch of grass a few hundred feet west of my childhood home, the home in which my parents still lived at the time.

I grew up around machines. We’ve had a three-wheeler on the farm since I was small and I’m not sure if we’ve ever been without a snowmobile. I would climb on our cultivator with friends, scaling up the shanks and square steel of its lifted wings.

The industrial elements of farm life were something I paid little attention to. It was just how things were. I was accustomed to machinery and getting my hands oily. Starting a tractor and driving it were acts I was able to perform at a young age and without much pageantry.

I am conscious now of what I wasn’t then. Amid plummeting temperatures, a whiteout snowstorm, and situated four kilometres from the nearest town, my wife and I during our first winters back on the farm would routinely come face to face with just how dependent our lives had become on machines and energy.

If our electricity would go out, it wouldn’t take long in -30C conditions for the house to freeze. If our tractor wouldn’t start, we wouldn’t be able to clear the snow from our 800-metre lane.

I drive to work every day, because I have to. My wife does the same.

Manitoba farmer Toban Dyck works on a waste-oil furnace invented by his father. Photograph for Canadian Energy Centre

Energy means a lot to my 450-hectare farm. It is the lens through which I see both my farm’s infrastructure and its operations. During those first years back on the farm, I was both getting used to rural life and becoming reacquainted with operating a slate of machines that had changed since I was last there.

Our combine can consume nearly $1,000 worth of fuel a day. And then there’s all the other equipment. It takes energy to make steel. It takes energy to make that steel into the hefty implements needed to till our soils, the precise implements needed to plant our crops, and the complex equipment needed to harvest them.

Without machines, my farm would not be able to operate as it currently does.  We would not be able to plant the crops we grow – wheat, soybeans, canola – tend to them throughout the growing season or deliver them to market.

Personally, I am keeping a close eye on what’s going in with battery technology. I’m not opposed to the technology. But, like many other farmers, I feel batteries have a way to go before they can match the required energy outputs of a fully functioning farming operation.

There’s an old house on our property. It was built around 1900. My ancestors built it. They moved into that two-storey, wood structure from a sod house. There is still an indentation in our small apple orchard where that sod house sat. It’s unclear the wood house ever had electricity. We think about this often, especially during inclement weather we experience here on the open Prairies.

Prairie winters don’t suffer fools. It is our ability to harness and expend energy in various forms that allows us to live where we live and do what we do. I don’t take the energy this farm enjoys, uses and needs for granted. We’re thankful for it, every winter and every growing season.

It’s been cold here lately. Tomorrow, I will see if I can get that oil furnace going.

Toban Dyck and his wife Jamie moved from Toronto to his family’s farm near Winkler, Manitoba in 2012.