An Unwelcome Frost

Frost. The only good time for this word to be thrown around is at the end of harvest; when the growing season is all but over, our time in the field is winding down, and we look ahead to the coming winter with contentment. When it comes in the middle of May, and when it hits as hard as it did last week, it is far from welcome.

We were on our last day of seeding last Thursday, and we were excited for the end. It isn’t often that we get a run like we did this year. It rained right at the start of seeding, and then it stayed dry right through to the end. We never stopped once, despite numerous forecasts for rain throughout our planting season. The incorrect forecasts were unfortunate, as we pushed hard through all the way through, continually expecting what seemed to be an inevitable rain delay. The result? We were exhausted, mentally and physically, and seriously needed a break. It was time for the end.

My excitement Thursday morning was sharply dampened by the extreme cold. Forecasts had initially been calling for a low of -2 Celsius, which wouldn’t have been a problem at all. At this time of the year, crops are tough, and mild freezing temperatures are rarely a problem. But, later on Wednesday afternoon, the low was suddenly changed to -4. Thursday morning, I realized it was much worse: it had dropped to a low of -7 C. That is a frigid temperature for May.

At that point, I had no idea what the damage might be. All we could do was go out and finish seeding and hope for the best.

On Monday, the severity of the damage was apparent. The winter wheat had been hit hard, with a number of browned-off leaves and severe damage in any low-lying areas. The early-seeded durum and lentils were injured as well, which is very rare – these crops are tough in the spring. The frost must be substantial to injure spring cereals and lentils.

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I’ve never seen winter wheat damaged this badly by frost. Notice the brown leaves. It will recover with probably zero yield loss, but it will take time, and good conditions.

It was the canola that I was most concerned about. Unlike cereal crops like wheat and durum, canola’s growing point comes out of the ground pretty much at emergence. If that growing point dies, the plant is dead. And canola is not a crop that tolerates extreme cold.

After an entire morning on my ATV, taking plant counts and carefully examining the plants, I knew there was only one thing we could do. We had to reseed.

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Those little brown things in the photo are canola plants. That is not the colour they should be.

There are few things more frustrating than seeding into perfect conditions, far enough into May to not really be concerned about frost, and establishing a near-perfect stand of canola, all to have to go back in 3 weeks later and do it all again. Now, we are seeding into dust, praying for a rain to get the crop out of the ground. It is not a fun experience.

One of the most challenging things about making the reseed decision is that it is rarely black and white. A frost will almost never completely wipe a field clean. In both of the fields we had to reseed, and in one that we decided not to, we really didn’t know what the right decision was. Sometimes, if conditions are absolutely perfect, you can get away with a very small number of surviving plants. We just don’t know.

The bottom line of all this is that we need rain and we need it pretty soon. Yes, there are always parts of the season where we get too much or not enough precipitation, and it truly is rare for everything to be perfect, but you still have to get that initial rainfall to get the crop out of the ground. Imagine planting your garden, or flowers, or anything like that and not being able to water it. You have to hope that the rain will come.

Farming is unpredictable, and despite all our technological and genetic advancements, Mother Nature still holds all the cards. All we can do is the best job possible out in the field and hope the weather is favourable.

What I’ve Learned From 4 Years of Writing About Agriculture

Today marks 4 years since I started this blog. I’ve written about GMOs, glyphosate, carbon taxation, and, more than anything else, weather (among many other things). I’ve talked to so many different people with so many different viewpoints; some agree, some disagree, and others think I secretly work for Monsanto.

In the 4 years that have passed since I started this blog, our farm has changed dramatically. We were on the edge of survival when I started this, which is why I wrote more rants about the weather in my first year than I have since. We were coming off a period of extreme moisture conditions that looked like it would never end.

But it did.

Since then, it has been too dry, too wet, too cold, too hot, and more variations of that than you can imagine. We have seen fall frosts that came too early, hail damage, torrential rains, extreme heat, and even a summer of forest fire smoke. We have dealt with equipment problems of every kind, from monitors that won’t communicate to combine headers that just don’t work.

We have tried cover crops, invested in weather stations, tried straight-cutting canola, and targeted yields that even 5 years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed possible. We have brought in new people, and had to let go of others.

Our farm has changed so much over the past 4 years; I’m not even sure I could’ve imagined we would be where we are today. It really did feel like we were one bad storm away from the end of our farm. The night is darkest just before the dawn; when one storm changes everything, sometime it’s hard to imagine how you’ll get through. But you do.

Agriculture has been attacked from every angle, with constant pressure on genetic engineering, and the disappointing popularity of non-GMO products. Glyphosate (Roundup) has been labelled a probable carcinogen with questionable methodology, and came very close to being banned in Europe. Seed treatments are currently under attack, with regulations on the way.

Farmers have been criticized for nutrient runoff into lakes and streams, for using more pesticides than ever (which is incorrect), and for generally being uncaring of the environment around them. A tax on our emissions is likely on its way, with still-unknown implications.

Despite all this, I have never been more optimistic for our industry. I believe we are making a difference, that our message is getting through. I believe most people do genuinely believe farmers try to do what’s right for the environment. There are more farmer bloggers out there every day, telling their story. Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, have provided farmers with a voice. People are listening.

We need to keep telling our story, because it’s a great one. It’s a story of families, of generational farms. It’s a story of people, doing what they love, and looking after the land their grandparents farmed. It’s a story of food, of providing nutrition to the world. It’s a story of doing more with less, of producing more food for a hungry world, while preserving more of our world than any time in modern history.

Everything changes. And then, everything changes again. People are questioning what we are doing because they care; they want to know where their food is coming from. They want to know its story. This should not be taken for granted.

I have learned so much since starting this blog, and not just about agriculture. Nearly a year and a half ago, when my son was born, I realized what my parents have known for a long time – that we truly are growing a legacy. I realized that this farm isn’t just about our generation; it’s about the next one.

I’ve met some truly fascinating people in my time writing this blog. I can honestly say that I’ve learned something from almost all of them, and from some, I’ve learned a lot. Writing this blog has been an incredible experience, and I don’t intend to leave it behind anytime soon. Thank you to everyone who has read and supported A Year in the Life of a Farmer for these amazing four years.

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An Open Letter To Justin Trudeau

October 18, 2016

Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, P.C., M.P. Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A2

Dear Prime Minister,

My name is Jake Leguee, and I am a farmer in Saskatchewan. I am writing this letter to express my tremendous concern with your plan to impose a carbon tax on my province. I chose to publish this as an open letter so the rest of this nation has an opportunity to understand what a carbon tax could mean to other farmers like myself.

While I recognize you have environmental goals you wish to pursue, understand that the consequences of a carbon tax may be severe for my farm. Mr. Trudeau, you may not have much experience with agriculture, but let me tell you, it is an amazing career. Not only do I get to run my own business, but I get to run one that is also a way of life. I get to farm alongside my father; my mentor, business partner and friend. My sister and I are the next generation of this business, and our whole family comes together at planting and harvest to get the crop in the ground, and to put it in the bin. My son was born a year ago, and I hope someday he may have the opportunity to farm alongside me, just as I do with my father.

Farming is, at times, a difficult business. One bad weather event – one storm, one cold night, one windy day – can devastate us. If we don’t get a crop, our bills still have to be paid. And nature does not care one way or the other.

Not only do we rely on the vagarious disposition of Mother Nature, we are also exposed to the volatility of the markets and – indeed, the point of this letter – politicians.

A carbon tax has the ability to drastically increase my costs, without creating an incentive to reduce my emissions. In fact, I already have such incentives. Our farm’s move to no-till started in the late 1980’s, as many other Prairie farmers did, to reduce risk of soil erosion, increase soil organic matter, and, ultimately, increase yields. No-till (essentially means that tillage is avoided if at all possible) has been a boon for our farm, and it allows the storage of massive quantities of carbon dioxide.

As equipment changes and my farm grows, there will be a continuous need to upgrade to newer machinery. Due to the emissions laws already in place, our newer equipment has lower emissions; but that came at a cost. Emissions equipment on our tractors is faulty, unreliable, and expensive to fix. If my tractor’s emissions system has a plugged filter, it can shut down my seeding operation for hours, even days. When you have only two weeks to get your crop in the ground, this is hardly acceptable.

Adding a carbon tax to my farm’s cost of production will make it less profitable, and ultimately less competitive with my neighbours to the south and across the oceans. I can only take what price is offered to me; I cannot pass along a carbon tax to my customers. I cannot switch to electric tractors, or run all new equipment to have the latest in emissions technologies. Sometimes my field needs to be blackened to clean up sloughs from excess moisture, or to deal with high residue crops. That tillage pass already represents a cost to me, and I don’t need a tax to encourage me to avoid it.

So, let’s exempt farmers, right? Make it revenue-neutral? While that may seem a simple solution, how will you go about that? I still have to purchase fertilizer, crop protection products, fuel, machinery, and so on. If those industries are paying a carbon tax, you can bet they will pass along that cost. What about my grain buyers? If a craft beer manufacturer has to pay a carbon tax, they may have to reduce what they pay for their malt barley. That also costs my family farm.

If a carbon tax drives up my farm’s costs without creating an incentive for me to reduce emissions, why have one at all? It does not achieve the required goal of reducing emissions, and hurts my family in the process. I thought your government was going to help the middle class?

Mr. Trudeau, please reconsider your plans to impose a carbon tax on my province. You speak about working together as Canadians, of uniting us as a country. Your proposed carbon tax will be divisive, ineffective, and detrimental to Canadian agriculture. Your carbon tax will hurt my family’s ability to make a living doing what we love to do – feeding the world.

Sincerely,

 

Jake Leguee

Do Farmers Harvest 24-7?

This is a question I’ve been asked on several occasions: during harvest, are we running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get the crop in the bin? The answer to that is unequivocally no.

While harvest is an extremely busy and stressful time of the year, and getting the crop off as quickly as possible is our primary goal, there are limits to what we can do. There are actually a number of reasons why we cannot harvest all day and night.

  1. Weather conditions – Essentially, combines thresh and separate grain from straw. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. The header collects the crop in front of the combine, and it is pulled inside, where it is smashed against steel concaves that allow grain to fall through. To be able to do this, the crop cannot be wet; how would you break it apart if it isn’t dry? As the sun falls beyond the horizon, humidity goes up and temperatures usually go down. As this happens, the crop becomes “tough” and simply will not go through the combine. As the evening wears on, the straw usually becomes more and more difficult to process, until combining becomes all but impossible. Now, this doesn’t always happen, as a windy, dry night does pop up now and then, and you could actually go right through the night. So what do we do in those situations?dsc_0392
  2. Human limits – We all need sleep. There is no getting around that fact. No matter how hard you push yourself; no matter how determined you are to stay awake all night; if your body decides you need to sleep, you’re done. It’s as simple as that. You may run late a night or two and battle through with 3 or 4 hours of sleep, but that will catch up to you in a hurry. And besides, it’s not just you out there.
  3. Employee needs – Just like us, our employees need sleep too. They didn’t sign up to go a month without sleep! It’s one thing to have a tired manager; it’s another to have a tired crew. And that leads to…
  4. Safety – When you’re tired, your brain just doesn’t function the way it should. You think slower, you react slower, and you don’t notice things you should. Sure, you can run on limited sleep for awhile… but what’s the risk? Harvest involves a lot of heavy, dangerous equipment in the field and semi trucks on busy roads. Pushing too hard doesn’t just risk your life – it can impact the lives of many others.

No matter how much you want to, harvesting all day and night simply cannot (and should not) be done. It’s dangerous, it’s very hard on equipment, and all it takes is one mistake to ruin a life (or many lives) forever. Harvest is a long, busy and stressful operation, but overdoing the hours does more harm than good.

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Another Wet Harvest

There are few things more frustrating to a farmer than having a crop out in the field, ready to harvest, and not being able to go get it. At this point, all the inputs are in. All the dollars are spent. The equipment is ready, the bank account is empty, and it is time to harvest everything you have worked for for more than a year – but you just can’t get out there and get it done. That, my friends, is why farmers complain so much about the weather!

This was supposed to be a dry year. Winter was absent, spring came in March, and we started seeding in mid-April. All the forecasts I read had the Canadian Prairies in a drier bias this year, with the general gist being that whatever rain we got, we should be happy to see! That has not turned out to be the case, with some of our fields seeing substantial rainfall throughout the growing season, challenging the survival of some of our crops.

Despite the excessive rainfall, most of our crops fared well – just not our lentils. Lentils do not like wet feet, and persistent rainfall took a hefty toll on them this year. Unfortunately, mature lentils also don’t handle water well; severe losses can result from quality declines.

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Waiting for another shower to pass so I can finish pre-harvesting a field of lentils. Weeds, flooded out acres and variable staging make timing difficult.

We have now been harvesting for about 3 weeks, and it has been a struggle. The winter wheat came off fantastically well, with a nice dry stretch to harvest it and tremendous yields. It was when we started the peas that the metaphorical wheels fell off. It took us nearly two weeks to grind through a crop that should have been in the bin in five days. Shower after shower rolled through, plus a hurtful little shot of hail that peeled some yield off. Peas like to pod very low to the ground, and the ones that don’t pod low just tip over and lay the pods on the ground anyway. Suffice to say, you need the header on the ground. While combine headers today are marvels of engineering, even they struggle with mud.

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It may be hard to see from the photo, but these lentils are flat on the ground. These MacDon flex headers are amazing – they shave the ground with no human input.

Nevertheless, we fought through them and pounded through as many lentils as we could before the next rainy spell arrived (which happened to be today). So, we sit again.

Here’s the thing: while this harvest has thus far been frustrating, it is nothing compared to the extremely wet conditions we saw in 2014. We sat for weeks that year, waiting and waiting for things to dry up. And, unfortunately, it seems that some other areas are experiencing those very conditions this year. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

One thing I’ve learned over my farming career is that moderately dry years tend to work out better than moderately wet ones. When it’s dry, harvest is quick, quality is good, and equipment sees smaller repair bills. When it’s wet, harvest is long, quality disappoints, and equipment is tortured. And, yields are never quite as good as you think they should be. One other factor: stress is much lower during dry harvests.

We farmers all know what we signed up for when we decided agriculture was the place to be. We know weather isn’t perfect, and we know the risk we take gambling on Mother Nature. In spite of this, it is still very frustrating to watch your crop downgrade from rain after rain. On a moderate-sized farm, a drop in grade on a cereal crop like durum can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and lentils can be even worse.

All we can hope for now is for the weather to change for the better so we can get back out there and get the crop in the bin. The forecast looks good – here’s hoping it verifies!

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Going From One Extreme To Another

Every year is different. Generally, you can classify years by how their weather patterns. Last year was dry, 2014 was wet, 2013 was cool and wet, 2012 was hot and wet, and so on. This year… this year doesn’t seem to fit any sort of normal pattern. We had one of the driest, warmest winters of the past couple decades, followed by an abnormally warm and dry spring. Seeding started in mid-April, earlier than ever, and we were seeding into progressively drier soil.

Day after day the wind blew dust in our faces and whipped around any unprotected soil. Vehicles and equipment were layered with a dust so fine and so thick you could hardly stand it. Forecasts were calling for a hot and dry summer, and the unceasing wind drove what moisture we had out of the ground. We were on the brink of a drought unlike anything we (in this area, that is) had seen in many, many years.

Six weeks later, I spend each day looking at the sky, hoping for just one more day without rain! What the hell happened?

Somewhere around the middle of May, something changed. A freak rainfall event, one that should never have occurred in our persistent dry pattern, gave us a much needed rainfall, one that got our crop out of the ground. Ever since then, we just keep getting more and more and more rain. Over the last month, we have gotten more rainfall than we got in the entire 2015 growing season.

Is this an improvement? Unquestionably, yes. We were getting close to a pretty dire situation. If the crop didn’t get rain soon, it was going to be in real trouble. Our canola desperately needed moisture to get out of the ground. The crop emerged, the dust settled, and we have the makings of a large crop; unlike anything we’ve seen since 2013, a record year.

So what exactly am I complaining about then? Well, sometimes too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. One of the problems with such a dry winter and spring, combined with a forecast for a hot and dry summer, is that you tend to strategize for that type of weather. It’s hard to change gears once the year has already started, and pretty much impossible to change your cropping mix once it is already planted.

Wet weather like this is rough on dry-season crops like lentils and peas. While peas are fairly resilient and will likely bounce back from some early-season excess moisture stress, lentils simply cannot. Once they start to become water-logged, they really don’t recover well, even if the weather turns around. And, once they reach what is now a very fragile state, all it takes is a little push to sent them over the brink.

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Although it might be hard to see in the photo, that yellow spot up ahead is in very bad shape. As the roots become infected with pathogens, they quickly begin to fail and will not recover. A substantial number of our lentil acres look like this.

One more big rain. That’s all it will take to destroy an enormous amount of our lentils. They are already under tremendous stress, with pathogens attacking their roots and their leaves, and they just can’t take much more. One storm can change everything.

For the past week we have been anxiously watching the skies and the forecasts, awaiting the near-certainty of heavy rains. Forecast maps published by numerous meteorologists painted a grim picture of the weather ahead.

But, despite all the forecasts and all the doom and gloom, the rains didn’t come. Each storm system that was supposed to hammer us with inches of rain didn’t materialize. They moved south, they moved east, and they just kept missing us (on that note, some areas did see that forecast verified – and it is not a good situation for them).

We just might have made it. The 7-day forecast is for nothing but sun and heat, perfect weather to set up a recovery. Don’t get me wrong; the lentils still stand upon the edge of a knife, but if the forecast verifies, they might still turn out alright.

And, in all honesty, these are a lot better problems to have than if the rains never did come. By now, the crop may well have been written off, dried up to nothing and wilting in the fields. Instead, we have a crop of wheat and canola unlike anything we’ve seen in years, one that looks absolutely remarkable. Bad weather for lentils is perfect weather for wheat and canola; and that is why you always keep different crops in the rotation around here. You just never know what kind of weather you’re going to get.

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It is rare for canola to be flowering like this in June, but with such an early start, it is well advanced and enjoying all the moisture.

The fact is that extreme weather is what we tend to get. Dad has been farming for the better part of forty years and he has yet to see a year where the perfect amount of rain and sunshine grew a crop limited only by its own genetics. And besides, how boring would that be anyway? It’s the stresses and challenges that make farming truly exhilarating.