Northam Farm – Rapid City, MB

Northam Farm is a fifth generation farm located outside of Rapid City, Manitoba. The Northam’s have been farming since 1889. The farm is 2080 acre of organic cropland and pasture. The land is managed with cattle, pigs, and chickens. 

Dan Northam and Crystal Johnson are brother and sister and are the fifth generation involved in managing their family’s land. Dan does the farming and Crystal does the paperwork. Their parents, grandparents and other siblings help out too. It truly is a family run operation!

As long as Dan and Crystal can remember the land has been in mixed production. Their dad switched over to organic 21 years ago. Dan said they have been implementing regenerative practices for the past 4-5 years. 

Dan and Crystal explained that they started regeneratively farming because the alternative is not sustainable. They want to regenerate their family’s land so that it will continue to produce nutritious food. Crystal says figuring out the secret to having everything thriving and connected is what they are going for by working with Mother Nature instead of against it.

Dan and his father Doug Northam took a few regenerative courses together and attended one of the Holistic Management Conferences. They both thought that holistically managing their land was something they needed to try. Dan was fortunate enough to tour Gabe Brown’s farm in North Dakota. Gabe Brown is the author of ‘Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture.” There Dan spent a week with a small group of Manitoba farmers learning the principles of regenerative farming.

Crystal explains how fortunate they are that their parents will try anything when it comes to farming. They will do little experiments on different pieces of land in order to try out something new. Their 92 year old grandfather is still very much farming with them and they say he is not stuck in his ways at all. He allows them to explore new ways of farming, and they appreciate that.

The objective is to have the farm transitioned to Dan in the near future, but in order to do that the farm has to be profitable. Their goal is to start direct marketing their products so that they can increase profits. 

Dan says they farm for food security and because they want to know where their food comes from. Crystal says farming is important to them because it’s a piece of them all that they get to leave behind.

“If the land is managed well, you get to leave a legacy forever” says Crystal.

Dan and Crystal are passionate about nutritious food. They explained how they conducted a Brix experiment where they tested the sugar levels of some store bought produce. They were horrified to see that most of the produce had no measurement at all. The organic produce had only slightly higher sugar levels. This is why it’s important for them to be involved in growing food and making sure it’s coming from living soil so that it is nutrient rich.

For Crystal, having small children has opened her eyes up to how nutrient rich food can make a huge difference. “You notice the relationship between them eating bad food and having bad attitudes. They are directly connected” says Crystal. 

In 2021, Holistic Management Canada received funding from the Manitoba Heritage Habitat Corporation Conservation Trust for a project called the Regenerative Accelerator. The project set out to work alongside 5 farms in Manitoba, to provide expertise and financial support to implement regenerative practices. The Northam Farm was one of the 5 farms involved in the project.

Some challenges that the Northam’s were facing prior to this project was needing a second watering system at their wintering site. They were working with one watering system on the west side of their property up until now, and having to move green manure off of that site each spring and roll it out on the other side of the quarter. Dan and Crystal decided to use their project funds to build another watering system on the east side of the property. 

In 2019, the Northam Farm received 18 inches of water in two days and their land was flooded. They saw the potential of further improving soil health and water infiltration in order to become resilient to these big weather events. 

Dan and Crystal were excited to have the EOV Monitoring done on the farm as a part of the project. They want to actually see the difference that their farming practices are making. Having a scientifically-based benchmark to work from each year as they improve the land is important to them. Both Dan and Crystal participated in the monitoring and look forward to doing it again next year. 

“Once you look at something tangible. You can see that this actually isn’t that bad. But when you just glance at it while you’re driving by, you’re like that field looks bad. But when you actually break it down and look at it, there’s lots of good going on. In some of the bushes we were in, the buzzing was insane, there were so many insects and wildlife. You know, you just don’t take the time to pay attention to those things. You’re always looking at foxtail or something. But when you really broke it down, you realized it was way better than you expected” explains Crystal.

When asked what they think their competitive advantage is over conventional farming, they both said that in the long term they will have the farm that everyone wants. Crystal says that everything in-between now and then looks messy and unorthodox. Once they get to the other side she hopes other farmers will see they are on to something good and follow in their footsteps.

Crystal spoke about how difficult it is for farmers who have farmed conventionally their whole lives to step outside the box and try something new. Having a supportive network to connect with can make the world of difference.

“It’s really overwhelming, when you start to look at all the different options and ideas. You stall out because you’re overwhelmed. So knowing we have the support from Holistic Management Canada in our back pocket, I think that’s a great place to start.”

What’s next for Dan and Crystal?

They will be putting in a permaculture orchard. They will be working with Slade Doyle, owner of Heartleaf Farm, to build two mirroring food forests on each of their lands. They are going to plant roughly 250 – 300 meters of fruit trees and fruit bushes in a swale system. The plan is to have their animals graze in-between the swales. The goal is to be more self-sufficient with their grocery needs but also to improve the diversity on their land. Dan explains the swale system as being “sort of like a ditch that goes down slope and holds water above the fruit trees. This way the fruit trees always have water, even in a dry year.” With one rainfall there will be a slow seepage of water that irrigates the food forest. Crystal called it “Mothers Nature’s irrigation system.” They decided to put the food forest on a portion of pasture that has lots of bare ground and is not doing all that well right now. They think it’s a great place for it, because they will be able to see if the diversity of plants and the grazing of the animals will truly rejuvenate the land.