I’ve gone around and around
fields for a week
cutting winter rye and winter wheat.
Divining my thoughts are earth’s
invisible coils about my head.
From “Swather As Threshold” in Afternoon Starlight
Charles Noble, poet, in these lines is speaking about being part of a farming family. His lineage goes back 115 years to his grandfather, Charles Sherwood Noble (hereafter called C.S.), who pioneered and innovated as a farmer in southern Alberta beginning in 1902, three years before the formation of the provincial Department of Agriculture. C.S. became famous even beyond his region.
“Grandfather was a gambler. He came from nothing,” says the younger Charles. Today, C.S.’s descendants still farm land—not the same fields, but nearby—east of Barons, northeast of Nobleford and about 40 kilometres north of Lethbridge. Charles, his younger brother Bryan and other family members including Bryan’s wife, Carol, work the farm.
Back in 1902, Iowa-born C.S. came up from North Dakota and acquired a homestead at Claresholm, where he would break the soil with a team of oxen. Lore has it that he was seen in 1905 plowing a field in bare feet, with three oxen and a horse.
This land, previously inhabited by Indigenous peoples of the Blackfoot Confederacy, is in the southwestern portion of the Palliser Triangle, the semi-arid region surveyed by John Palliser between 1857 and 1860 that stretches through what is now southern Saskatchewan and Alberta. Palliser declared that the land was too dry for farming. Soon, however, the Canadian government was advertising it as good for growing wheat, and immigrants from poorer countries began flooding in.
Lore has it that C.S. Noble was seen in 1905 plowing a field in bare feet, with three oxen and a horse. By 1918 he had the biggest farm in the British Empire.
By 1907 C.S. Noble was already showing himself to be an ambitious, innovative, knowledgeable farmer and an astute businessman. “Take your soil seriously,” he said. By 1908 he was among the first to use a steam tractor to plow. In 1909 he bought 5,520 acres northwest of Lethbridge and moved the family there. The hamlet that arose nearby took the Noble name. C.S. built a general store and houses in the area. The hamlet was renamed Nobleford in 1913. C.S. combined his soil savvy with tolerance for risk, visionary scope spiced with megalomania, a dose of charisma and a penchant for “bigger.” His yields earned him championship titles—“Flax King” of Alberta in 1912, “Oat King” in 1915, and in 1916 “Wheat King” with a yield averaging 53 bushels per acre on 1,606 acres. By 1918 C.S. had the biggest farm in the British Empire, at 56 sections, or just under 36,000 acres. At one point he was running 600 horses and 61 binders. But in 1921 things took a bad turn. Drought, grasshoppers, hail, falling wheat prices, cutworms and creditors darkened the glory.
The world is falling apart
not apocalyptically apart
nor humpty-dumpty down
entropically at times
other times the King’s men
are up to the job
and a not terribly just
redistribution is born
Untitled excerpt from Mack The Naïf
C.S. lost almost everything, including the family house, but within eight years he had recovered and gone on to greater things. During the dusty devastation of the Dirty Thirties, he turned his mind and his machinery to soil integrity. He sought a method of tilling for fallow without disturbing the surface residue, to minimize soil drifting caused by rampaging winds. In 1936, at age 62, he invented a revolutionary farm implement—the Noble blade cultivator, a flat blade that cut through subsoil and disturbed the weeds but left the surface plant material bound and holding together against the winds. He fabricated a few blades for nearby farmers, and before long, demand—from down the road or as far away as Russia and Australia—became so great that he created an industry.
Up and down Alberta you travelled,
once on the railroad, on a handcar
preaching to the gathered farmers in small towns
methods of controlling the terrible soil drifting.
In the photograph you stand over six feet
in the crop up to your shoulders.
From “Big Ears In The Fields Say The Railroad Is Coming Through Till The Trains Flatten Them, or, The Devil’s CN” in Afternoon Starlight
While heading Noble Cultivators Ltd. and manufacturing other agricultural implements to keep up with changing technologies, C.S. continued to farm until his death in 1957. His son Gerald Noble was president and general manager of the manufacturing and farming enterprises. C.S. had also created the Noble Foundation to benefit his employees through profit sharing. At its operational height it had over 300 employees, and most of them referred to C.S. as “The Chief.”
“I relate to my grandfather through my father,” says Bryan Noble. “He was the main man in working for my grandfather…. He was put in charge of cleaning up the messes…. They had tremendous respect for one another but they had their battles.” Gerald, who had a degree in agriculture from the University of Alberta, was the troubleshooter and only person who would stand up to C.S. when he came up with a risky idea for expansion.
Charles elaborates: “Father was a good mechanic and welder and he used every excuse to get out of the office. He wanted to be more a farmer than a general manager of a cultivator company… there was a lot of stress… managing the company, all those employees, dealing with the bank. Dad was only 49 when he had the stroke and a heart attack at 51.” Gerald’s wife, Lillian, was also active in the businesses. Gerald Noble survived and continued his management role until the business was sold in 1978, living a year after that, to age 72.
The telephone rang as we expected it would.
I let my mother answer in her bedroom
while I sat in the big armchair in the den and waited,
hot and cold shivers electrified my back,
they did nothing but hook deeper.
A lump formed in my throat.
Finally she came into the front hall
and told me he was gone.
From “The Telephone Rang” in Afternoon Starlight
The desire to farm remained strong in the family. Bryan and Charles, as partners, with dividends from Noble Cultivators and the necessary bank loan, purchased their first land in 1981. They now farm 4,100 acres, or 6½ sections.
Bryan reflects on the knowledge milieu of his grandfather’s era: “It was a very different environment then. There was the Lethbridge research station. The door swung both ways. There was a great intellectual exchange between my grandfather and others. Now there’s been a complete erosion of that. I like to use the expression that it’s the closure of the intellectual commons, the conversation on patenting, genetics and varieties and so on. Now you see that all this public good has been transferred by governments trying to decouple from the expense of it. We have these beautiful research stations; we once had all the state-based funding for the scientists, but now their operational funds come from large agricultural firms. With the ability to patent technologies that once flowed freely from the research facilities, companies can bundle technologies primarily for their own gain. Common good is at best accidental. The landscape begins to become a reflection of these patented bundles of technology, for better or worse. Notions of research for public good, both present and future, are clouded in the process and it reshapes the countryside.”
“I have a tendency to feel like I’m under siege most of the time,” says Bryan. “Every time we would have market crashes or droughts, you would have this tremendous crush of people going out of business, and [the government’s] quick answer was… bigger farms… they’d be more economically sustainable… beginning with the Liberal federal governments from the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t publicized, but they had all sorts of policies to try and phase the smaller farms out.”
Of his poetry Charles says, “My aesthetic is digression upon digression and recapitulation trying to figure out—risking getting lost, in fact enjoying being lost.”
Nonetheless, the Nobles have shown that the “small” farm, if well and knowledgeably managed, is viable. “The moisture battle”—as Bryan calls it—is a constant challenge. Bryan is a proponent of no-till farming and continuous cropping, and he understands the science: “Each time you till a field you probably lose half an inch of moisture. You’re only getting eight, nine, ten inches of moisture in the summer season. If you till it five times you’ve lost two and a half or three inches of reserve moisture. Plus, as you break down the straw cover you lose a lot more to evaporation.” And microorganisms are depleted when tilling diminishes the plant material. On those fields left fallow you have the high cost and impact on the soil of weeding by machine, plus lost crop revenue, as compared to the expense of using herbicide and less fuel when “recropping.”
Standing in the farm
with botany, mechanics and business
clawing the air
over the frozen economy of buildings and fields.…
standing where the bank’s interest
sniffs around the fields and into the yard
like a twister …
From “Working Yourself Up” in Afternoon Starlight
Charles Noble is now semi-retired from farming and tills a different soil. He cultivates words—as an avid student of social and economic philosophy reading deeply into the heaviest tomes, and as a practising poet with 12 books to his credit. His work has appeared with publishers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Ontario.
“When I went to university [of Alberta],” he says, “I started writing poems instead of going to my physics class. I published in a little literary magazine that was inserted into the university paper.”
Charles received a BA in English and philosophy. He can readily discuss philosophers and economic and social critics from Plato to Kant, Hegel, Marx and Peirce. And poets Jon Whyte, Sid Marty, Walter Hildebrandt or Robert Kroetsch might pepper his conversation. The scope of his own poetry is as wide as the plains, and can be rural or urbane, serious or witty, referencing agriculture or modern myth, while harrowing language for its humour or authenticity.
Wheat plants rose out of the ground. I climbed up
and walked across their heads where the music faded
arousing the wind in the leaves and the dust we created.
From “2001 Monoliths” in Haywire Rainbow
The family takes pride in having a poet among them. Carol says, “I brag about it all the time, to everybody.” Bryan, who has an honours degree in English literature, continues, “It’s a source of pride, for sure. And there’s a circle of people in Lethbridge who overlap in the research and farming sectors that are aware of him.”
Charles, freer now to pursue his passions, is a fixture in two towns—Nobleford, where he occupies the grand family house, and Banff, where he’s lived part time every year since 1971 and where he can be found, evenings, reading or writing in his “office,” over two glasses of wine, at the end of the bar in the Saltlik Steakhouse.
“When I first moved here [to Banff], my mother and father were both alive and I wanted a little more freedom, rather than living in my parents’ home.… Banff was ideal… it was a nice size and I would run into these interesting artists and poets. So now I have two residences, and I like going back and forth. I like the big house [in Nobleford] with its 7,000-plus books and I like my den, that La-Z-Boy and a nice lamp.” By contrast, in Banff he’s “in a little cabin.”
Swinging down the middle lie
of Banff Avenue
at six thirty in the morning in August—
the light is visibly swelling
but is still coloured by the physical dark,
still given grey by the night psyche
From “I” in Banff/breaking
On crafting his poems Noble says, “My aesthetic is digression upon digression and recapitulation trying to figure out—risking getting lost, in fact enjoying being lost, and then recapitulation in order to find out how I got there… When I’m writing a poem I have lots of time to think.”
Now with Charles assisting just as needed, Bryan and Carol conduct the day-to-day farm operation in this area they’ve known all their lives. “I grew up in Barons,” says Carol. “Bryan played baseball with my brother. We were at parties together up at Keho Lake. That’s how we met.” Now their three children are grown and have dispersed.
“The one thing that’s most rare about our particular farm is that we’re probably the last generation that owns the bulk of their land,” says Bryan. “As land values go up it’s extremely hard to recapitalize every generation.” And few farm family offspring want to stay.
Daughter Jayne lives in Golden. Andrea lives in Nelson, but she does love to come back and help part time with the farm. She has a degree in fine arts and is reported to be terrific at maintaining a combine, not just driving one. “She sets it, fuels it, greases it,” says Bryan with a hint of pride. Michael, 32, an excellent mechanic, commutes from Lethbridge to work full time on the farm.
Bryan notes, “Michael looks at living here and I think one of the biggest holdbacks for him is that his kids would have to ride one and one half to two hours a day to go to school, likely in Picture Butte.”
Yet Michael, it seems, is the natural heir. “Michael has a good chance,” Bryan says, “by the good graces of his uncle [Charles], who is making it as easy as possible for him to take over the farm by not demanding to be bought out… If it weren’t for that and his Aunt Eleanor working out a deal for her half section it would be extremely difficult. And that’s why so many small farms disappear.”
“We’re probably the last generation that owns the bulk of their land,” says Bryan Noble. Meanwhile, few farm family offspring want to stay.
Andrea and Michael worked the 2017 fall harvest and Charles joined in for just four days. Despite an early-season drought, it was successful. “In some instances,” Bryan says, “the crops made do with what was there and in other instances because of the date of seeding they hung on long enough to catch a few showers in mid-August that made all the difference in the world.”
Their soft-wheat yield was about 115 bushels per acre—notably some of their land is irrigated. By comparison, this was just over double their grandfather’s 1916 yield of 54 bushels per acre of hard red wheat, a different strain, and on only dry land. This year the Nobles’ full harvest included spring wheat, durum wheat, canola, peas and lentils. “It was truly amazing,” Bryan says.
This farming business is a complex of unsparing factors and tests of resolve. But there are also unexpected exhilarating moments in this deep connection with nature. Carol tells of the time when Bryan came in and spoke tenderly to her about the tiny baby deer he saw lying in the open field after its mother, frightened by the tractor, had run away. Bryan jumped off his machine to pick up the fawn. Carol speaks for Bryan, who seems to be re-experiencing the emotion of that moment. “He said he held it in his arms and felt its softness, and then moved it to shelter. Bryan loves animals.”
Or there’s Charles’s story of working all night combining in the dark, spurred in anticipation of rain. “We’d finished the field and I remember driving home thinking oh, it can rain now. And the sun was coming up and I was going by the lake and it was all quite sublime. And of course it
Wheat plants warmed like sun rays
coming back at the sun,
wormed up under my eyelids
so that the tight grey drooled down
where the swather reel flapped it up dry
with the chaff particles floating
over the separate thin fingers of the field.
From “On A Clear Day Night Rounds Them Up” in Afternoon Starlight
With luck, these fields, tended with care for decades, will continue to produce in the hands of Noble generations to come.
Steven Ross Smith is a sound poet, fiction writer, arts journalist and arts activist, best known for his fluttertongue poems.