One Storm Can Change Everything

One of the driest springs in decades finally ended two nights ago, with a rain we have been waiting for what feels like an eternity. Seven weeks passed with virtually no rain, and an unceasing wind drove what moisture we had into the air. It was beginning to look like we were entering what may have been a devastating drought. All that changed on Wednesday.

As of Wednesday night, anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain fell across our farm. Only 20170615_075256 a few years ago this kind of rain would have been a serious problem, with saturated soils unable to absorb it; this time, our parched ground soaked up almost all of it, with only a small amount pooling in low-land.

This post is a recurring one on my blog, but this may be the first time I have written it in a positive sense. Usually the “one storm that changes everything” is a torrential rain that causes all sorts of problems. This time, this one rainfall event saved our crops from certain failure.

When you talk to farmers like my dad, who started farming in the late 70’s, it seems they are always afraid of the next drought. I started farming in 2009, in one of the wettest cycles this area of the Prairies has seen in centuries, so my first concern is always too much rain. This is the first time I have seen what the beginning of a real drought looks like, and we had the benefit of high subsoil moisture to carry us through to the rain. Farmers that farmed in the 1980’s know very well what a drought looks like.

Dad often talks about the 80’s, about the summers hauling water for the cattle from any source he could find. They would run pipe for miles from a random deep slough that just happened to have water, just to get enough to keep the cattle going. The crops, in several years, were near write-offs, wilting and dying before they could even produce a single seed.

The worst of them all was 1988. Scorching heat and wind in early June, with temperatures regularly in the mid-30’s, obliterated a crop that was already struggling to get out of the ground. That is a year many farmers will remember for the rest of their lives. It didn’t help that grain prices were poor and interest rates were ridiculously high. Many farms didn’t survive this terrible time, and I am glad I have no memories of those days (I was born in 1988).

So, when we get a dry period like we had, that is the mindset farmers of that generation go to. There are few things in farming more terrifying than a drought. It is a dark reminder of the exposure we all have to the whims of Mother Nature.

This rain was a tremendous blessing, and saved the year for this farm. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky, and many areas are still in desperate need of rain. Maybe this storm will move us into a wetter cycle. For now though (as soon as it dries up), we will be very busy out in the fields, applying fertilizer, killing weeds, and protecting what is now a crop with real promise. This is what farmers like me live for – raising crops to their full potential.

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It Hasn’t Rained In 42 Days

6 weeks. That’s how much time has passed since the last significant rainfall came to us. That is the longest stretch without rain (at this time of the year) I have seen in my time on the farm. In fact, according to historical data (click here), this has been the driest May in the Weyburn area in nearly two decades – and a whopping 46 years for the Regina area.

It’s dry. No question about it. The wind certainly hasn’t been helping matters either; yesterday, it was gusting up to 60 km/hr, just like it has so many other days this spring. I honestly don’t remember a spring this incessantly windy. It is actually extremely aggravating doing anything outside in wind like we’ve had. Just look at the graph below – it’s from one of our weather stations. That is a lot of windy days! And, that is only from the last month – April was very windy as well.

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The wind has been stripping what little moisture we had in our topsoil out, contributing to what amounts to a rather patchy crop. The good news is that we got a nice rain right at the start of seeding, and our soil was right full of water going coming out of winter. That left us with a nice buffer, and there is still a lot of moisture in our soil profile. Things aren’t desperate, not yet.

For the most part this spring, we actually had very nice seeding conditions. The soil was moist, planting conditions were perfect, and it wasn’t too hot. We really couldn’t have asked for better seeding conditions, and the majority of our crop shows it – our earlier seeded crop looks fantastic.

The last third of the crop we planted really needs a rain. Only about half to three-quarters of that later seeded crop has emerged so far, with the rest of it still sitting in the ground, waiting for moisture. The result is a patchy crop that is going to be all over the place for maturity.

The one crop suffering more than anything else is our winter wheat. The extensive soil 20170605_123530moisture reserves the other crops are enjoying are long gone for this fall-seeded crop, and it is hurting. We probably have a week to get a rain on this crop before it truly begins to fail. Crops just can’t survive that long without water. Six weeks of dry, windy weather is a lot to ask of any plant.

It has been a long time since our farm experienced a drought. In the last 10 years, we have been far more worried about excess moisture than being short of it. in 2011, we had 17 inches of rain between April and August; and we were saturated to begin with. This year, we have had a half inch of rain since March. Undoubtedly, that is a better situation to be in; there are a lot of farmers up north that are desperate for the dry weather we have been having. Being too wet brings all sorts of problems that we are all too familiar with.

It is too early to give up on this crop. It has a lot of things going for it, especially the early seeded acres. But we are running out of time for the rain to start. If we haven’t seen significant rainfall by the end of the next two weeks, we will be in trouble. Simply put, we need rain and we need it now. If only Mother Nature cared!

 

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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