Thinking About The Future

It’s that time of the year again. As the year winds to a close, farmers of all ages and geographies look back on the year that was – and what 2016 and beyond will bring. In agriculture, everything changes so fast that merely keeping up is no small feat.

For me, the year that was 2015 changed everything. It was the year my son was born.

This past year truly will go down as one of our farm’s great successes of the decade. An above average crop coupled with excellent prices has delivered us one of the best years we have seen in some time. Unprecedented lentil prices continue to amaze farmers and grain traders alike, with difficult conditions in India and a burgeoning global market for pulses creating incredible demand for what we grow. 2016 will be another big year for lentils on the prairies – and, coincidentally, is the International Year of Pulses.

But what about beyond that? Recently, I attended the GrowCanada conference in Calgary (thanks again to CropLife Canada for that!), where I saw a group of fantastic speakers talking about the future. One that stood out for me was Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire: Canadian Forces veteran, senator, author and humanitarian. He spoke about many fascinating things, but one thread that sticks with me was his goal-oriented mindset. While everyone else talks about their 5-year plan, he is the one thinking about the 6th year and beyond.

As farmers and business people, it’s in our DNA to plan for the future. Every year is a gamble. But too rarely do we step back and look at the big picture. We face a world of change in agriculture. A revolution in how we do our every day business is already underway.

For instance, 2016 will be my first year owning a drone. What do I plan to do with it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure yet. Like our new weather station, it is probably a data-collection device without a way to process the data. But that day will come. Right now, we are collecting massive amounts of data from every crop year. It truly is amazing how much information we pull from our fields. Drones will allow us to collect even more. We will learn details about our fields that we have never really seen before.

As the popularity of drones rises, their potential uses grow. Today, you can buy a drone that sprays your crop for you. Of course, to replace our high-clearance sprayer would require dozens and dozens of them, if not hundreds, but you get the idea where our industry is going. Our days driving machinery out in the field are probably numbered. As futurist Jim Carrol said at the conference, “You will probably overestimate the change in the next two years, and underestimate the change in the next ten.”

Data is driving changes in more than just field operations. Data-managing platforms, such as Agri-Data and Farm At Hand, are some of farmers’ most-used tools today. Everything we do we can track and measure. No more missed spray applications, no more lost bins, and near-perfect cost of production numbers – if the program is properly utilized, of course.

As we drive into the future, I wonder what it will look like for my son, Asher. I believe he will see more change in his life than even my grandparents saw in theirs – and that’s saying a lot. Will he be a farmer? Who knows? His life is his own, and he will make that choice many years from now.

If he does choose to farm, what will it be like? Will he ever run equipment out in the field? By then, it may all be autonomous. He may use something like Google Glass to look at his crop and instantly know what nutrient deficiencies it may be experiencing, what stresses it faces, or whether spraying a fungicide is necessary. Someday, he might even edit his crop’s DNA to adapt it to certain fields. His entire method of managing his crops may be completely foreign to me.

However, that won’t make it wrong. If my grandfather could see how we farm today, while he might find it confusing, he would discover that the underlying principles are much the same. Just like him, I’m trying to grow healthy food for a hungry world, hopefully improving the quality of the land it’s grown on at the same time. And I’m sure I will see the same principles in place when and if my son decides to farm.

I don’t know how many people told me that having children changes everything. In fact, I kinda got tired of hearing it! But the day we brought Asher home, I realized that line is such an understatement. My whole world changed that day. But there is something so amazing about bringing a child into this world, and the light and innocence he radiates. Something about looking at him makes me realize that the future of this planet, and our own sometimes troubled human race, is so very bright. Our most basic need is food, and I am proud to grow it. The coming decades will be amazing.

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The Legacy of Years of Excess Moisture

For the first time in quite a few years, 2015 is shaping up to be a little on the drier side. We started and finished seeding earlier than most of my father’s career, and precipitation has been mercifully light. Although there is a lot of growing season ahead of us, this may be the drier year we have been waiting for.

Despite the drier bias, the effects of excess moisture still linger. Roads continue to deteriorate, with countless holes and failing sections. Fields are still full of water, with every low spot filled to the brim. Every water body is at capacity, unable to absorb any sudden precipitation event. These are problems that will not just go away, and will haunt us for years. But perhaps the most worrisome situation of all is the frightening, creeping white powder, slowly spreading across our fields, choking out any life it touches… salinity. All of this really began back in 2008.

That year, we started seeding in late April into dry soil. With no rains right through May, we finished seeding very early and seeded through every low spot we could find. As the spring came to an end, rains began to come, with a relatively cool summer to go along with them. The result was a fantastic crop by the time we reached August. It was then that things changed.

We went to the lake one weekend just before the beginning of harvest. We had winter wheat pretty much ready to go, but, seeing as how it wasn’t quite ready to combine, we took one final weekend off before the long grind of harvest began. Our last day at the lake was a beautiful, warm and sunny day, perfect for being out on the water. But as we started toward home, we saw a cloud that made me sweat.

A black, rolling wall was coming right at us, and as we finally reached home, we were hammered by a storm unlike anything we had seen in some time.

The damage? Well, there was thankfully no hail, but we received anywhere from 3.5 to 6.5 inches of moisture in that one storm. Harvest was a nightmare, with a count of over 25 stuck combine occurrences, and a crop that had pretty substantial quality loss.

Ever since that fall, we have been wet, with varying degrees of successes and failures. 2009, 2012 and 2013 were all very successful years, with lots of moisture and cool weather, but not to the point of extreme excesses. Certainly, we lost a lot of crop in those years to flooding as well, but we did quite well despite that. Conversely, 2010, 2011 and 2014 were either disasters or close to, with 2011 as the year we failed to plant much of a crop at all, with only 25% going in the ground, and most of it being lost. Indeed, for several now we have been stuck in a wet weather pattern, with hammering rains that hit like a wall of bricks seemingly every time a cloud shows up.

Finally, it seems that things are changing. We began and finished seeding very early this year, with excellent seeding conditions and lots of subsoil moisture, but very little precipitation, thankfully. While there is a lot of growing season ahead of us, it seems that 2015 is going to be a different year from the previous several.

Let’s be clear, though – there is no doubt that we are in a precarious situation. Any significant Flooding Saskatchewanmoisture event could quickly plunge us right back to a year ago. One storm could change everything. Our roads are becoming increasingly difficult, and expensive, to maintain; as pesky muskrats, emboldened by the acres of water surrounding some roads, dig their way underneath the roads. Numerous sections of roads in the area are in serious danger of becoming impassable with our heavy trucks, which we cannot go without to supply our drills and empty our combines.

But, roads are fixable, sloughs will diminish, and drier weather will return. The cycles of climate will return us to drier weather, just as they did after the 1950’s and the 1970’s, along with countless other wet cycles over the millennia. What drier weather may not fix is salinity.

The white ring around this slough is referred to as a
The white ring around this slough is referred to as a “bathtub ring”. Nothing will grow in that for decades.

Soil salinity is excess salts in the soil, generally made up of combinations of sodium and sulphates or chlorides. Plants can’t access the nutrients they need for life, as the sodium elements in the soil offset the nutrients they need. Trouble begins for plants long before the ground turns white; but once that happens, any life is strangled out. That level of salinity doesn’t just go away, either. It will linger on for my lifetime, and my children’s, and maybe even beyond that. At this time, there is no easy fix for this problem.

My father has watched salinity encroach on his land, and his neighbors’ land, off and on throughout his career. The move away from summerfallow and cultivation to continuous cropping and no-till helped enormously, stopping the growth of that creeping white death in its tracks; but it was also drier at that time, from the late 70’s through the early 90’s. Growing crops keeps water from collecting on the land. As water builds and then slowly evaporates away, it often leaves behind a salty residue. Salts also come from the parent material, pushed up by excessive groundwater. But lately, even the good land has developed salinity, which has rarely been seen before .

Lately, there has just been so much water that we can’t grow enough plant biomass to soak up the salts. As the salts build up, crops struggle even more, and it becomes a bit of a cycle. It is a common problem in irrigation areas, which just goes to show how much water we have gotten in the past few years!

Is the problem with us, the farmers? Are we working our land too hard? My estimation is that no, that is not the case, as I have seen salinity grow even in the native prairie community pasture just north of my home, choking out the mixed grasslands. This is a problem with the soil itself, with the weather patterns we are experiencing.

What can we do about it? I’m really not sure. This isn’t one of those issues with a simple answer, something that the government can come in and regulate away, or even something that we farmers are necessarily even mismanaging. What we need, I believe, is a change to drier weather. And for the next wet weather cycle that rolls through in ten, twenty or thirty years from now, we need a plan. And drainage may just have to be a part of that plan. Soil amendments may be an answer as well; applications of gypsum have helped in some scenarios. We are currently experimenting with that.

If we are moving towards a drier weather pattern, that will help remediate many of the issues we are currently facing. I want to be clear, too, that we are far from being the worst-affected area from this weather. Many farmers have lost much, with water even threatening their yards. I consider us lucky to have avoided that scenario. It could be much, much worse. Nevertheless, excess moisture has become a serious problem, and it is about time it starts to fade away.

Why I’m Not An Organic Farmer

Pesticides, GMOs, Roundup, super-weeds, evil wheat, big Ag and a hundred other buzz-words are touted as the failure of modern agriculture’s quest to feed the world.  Organic farming is proclaimed as the solution to these problems, as the future of sustainable agriculture. The reality is, as I will tell you in this post, that the opposite is true; conventional farming, not organic, is better for the environment and can sustainably and safely feed a growing world.

As an aside, I have no problem with most organic farmers. The ones that I know do it not for idealogical reasons, but for economical ones. For their farms, they believe they will make more money growing organic crops than conventional ones. There is nothing wrong with that, and I don’t want to go on an attack against farmers doing the best they can to do what they love. Furthermore, I’m not going to go on record saying that conventional agriculture is perfect. We have many improvements to make, and there are some real issues that need to be addressed – but that is a concern for another day. Also, for the purposes of this post, I want to focus in on crop production, so I’ll leave livestock out of this discussion.

Organic vs Conventional Agriculture: What’s The Difference?

First of all, I don’t want to assume everybody is as obsessed with agriculture as I am, so let’s just go through some basic differences between these two production methods.

Organic agriculture is a $2.6 billion dollar industry in Canada, with regulations stipulating what products farmers can use on their farms. Genetically modified crops are not allowed, and neither are synthetic fertilizers. Pesticides are a more complicated matter, with only “organic” chemicals allowed for use.

For a farm to be certified organic, each of its fields must be free of any prohibited substances for three years before certification by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is allowed. Are organic crops tested before they are certified? No; at least, according to this source. The CFIA disagrees, but concedes it is still more or less an honour system.

Without synthetic fertilizers and chemicals, organic farmers must use alternatives to grow their crops and kill weeds and insects. Essentially, it is a reversion to agriculture practices of 100 years ago. While some of these practices are quite effective and perhaps even have a fit in conventional agriculture, most of them were abandoned years ago with the introduction of fertilizers and pesticides. The reasons were numerous, but they really all began in the infamous “Dirty 30’s”.

Tillage and Soil Erosion

Today, we talk about four elements of weed control: cultural (crop selection), chemical (herbicides), biological (using natural enemies- still a very new and undeveloped field) and mechanical. In modern agriculture, cultural and chemical controls are our primary weapons in the war against weeds, with the real emphasis on chemicals- crops like corn and soybeans are just not that competitive. Wheat, barley, canola and other such crops are actually very competitive, but they still depend on herbicides to get established and get ahead of the weeds.

A century ago, there were no real herbicides available. With that option stripped out, and biological controls in their infancy even today, that really only left mechanical and cultural controls- exactly like organic farming today. Mechanical control essentially involves steel; DSC_0367 (640x354)using shovels, discs, rods, harrows, etc. to uproot, rip and drag weeds apart to kill them. Every second year, each field must remain idle (not seeded, or “summerfallow”) and constantly tilled up to stay ahead of difficult weeds. This kind of intensive tillage leaves the ground bare, exposed to direct sunlight and the ravages of heavy winds. Remember hearing about dust storms? That is the unfortunate end result of old-school farming. Without chemical controls, there is simply no way to consistently grow crops (especially up here in the northern climates) all year round to stay ahead of weeds. Yes, natural grassland will do that, but how will that feed 7 billion people?

In my area of the world, I have seen- and continue to see- the effects of long-term tillage on our soils. Heavy rains and winds wash precious topsoil into ditches and sloughs. Wet spots in the field stay that way for months and months, allowing salts to collect on the soil surface; eventually turning the ground a ghostly white, a sober metaphor of the inability of that soil to grow anything again for generations. The reality is that, at least in Western Canada, herbicides are our only method of controlling soil erosion; they allow us to minimize tillage.

Is tillage the only way for organic farmers to control weeds? No; there are other methods, including cover crops and precise planting timing to keep weeds in check. However, as good as some of these methods can be, they are still not the solution, with most farmers opting for the reliability of tillage instead. And, ultimately, they still do not solve the other stark reality of organic agriculture: it cannot possibly feed the world.

A Growing Population Needs All The Tools It Can Get

In 1898, a scientist by the name of Sir William Crookes, new president for the British Academy of Sciences, stated unequivocally that the world would run out of food by the 1930’s. A lack of fertilizer would cause world crop yields to plummet, and massive starvation would ensue. Current production methods of manure and saltpeter harvesting to use as fertilizer would eventually be outstripped by an exploding human population. He said the only way to prevent this famine would be to synthetically produce fertilizer. Less than 20 years later that became a reality, thanks to Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch.

Our atmosphere is nearly 80% nitrogen. It is one of the most important building blocks of life; but it is unavailable to us – and plants – in its atmospheric form. Crops require nitrogen for growth and reproduction. Before synthetic fertilizer, animal manure and bird guano were the only sources of fertilizer. Crops were carefully rotated with nitrogen producing pulse crops and forages to generate as much N as possible. Yet, inexorably, yields would eventually decrease as the soil became exhausted of nutrients. The Haber-Bosch process solved that problem by converting atmospheric nitrogen to a usable form for plants. So, essentially, so-called “synthetic” fertilizer really isn’t synthetic at all; rather, it is a natural component of the air we breathe every day. Without it, the crop yields would long ago have failed, and the world would not be what it is today.

Without synthetic fertilizer, and their natural counterpart, pesticides, crops would not be able to sustain enough growth to feed the world as it is today. Haber and Bosch are responsible for one of the greatest inventions of our history. Why go back to the problems of 100 years ago when we have already found the answer?

Organic Food: Is It Really Healthier?

The final component of this blog post concerns the misconception that organic food is somehow more nutritious than conventionally grown food. There is a belief that pesticides somehow contaminate the seed of the plant itself, finding its way directly into our food. To some degree this is true. But the reality is that the residues that find their way into our food are so abysmally tiny that in 98% of our food, there is no difference between food that is grown conventionally and food that is grown organically. What about that other 2%? It still comes in below the stringent limits set by the government (source).

But wait; isn’t organic food healthier than conventional? According to a recent Stanford Medicine study, that is simply not true. No nutritional differences of significance were found when comparing the two production methods.

Organic Farming Is Not The Future

The answer to the question of whether organic agriculture is more sustainable, better for the environment or healthier than conventional agriculture is clear. Organic farming causes greater soil erosion, is not healthier or safer for consumption and would sentence billions of people to die, most of them in developing nations. Isn’t it easy to criticize a method of producing food when you have never been hungry?

I choose to farm with pesticides, GMOs and fertilizers because I know that it is the right choice. I know that standing behind the use of these products will help feed a growing and hungry world. Yes, there are still problems with our agriculture system, but I know that farmers and researchers are savvy and brilliant individuals that will solve these problems over time. Yes, organic farming is a choice some farmers make, and I am not going to attack their choices. What I am attacking is the marketing and smearing of conventional agriculture; the misinformation that permeates this discussion and diminishes the importance of it.

During my time as a farmer, I have spent a lot of time studying this issue. As an agronomist, I have seen first-hand the consequences of organic farming, and the successes of modern conventional agriculture. As a third-generation farmer, I know how amazing our progress has been in agriculture, and I am excited about the possibilities of the future.

canola field

Any thoughts on this post? Disagree? Write a comment below.

Sources and Further Reading

California Department of Agriculture. (2007). 2007 Pesticide Residues in Fresh Produce. http://www.cdpr.ca.gov/docs/enforce/residue/rsmonmnu.htm

Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 2014. Canada Organic Regime: A Certified Choice.

Hager, T. 2008. The Alchemy of Air. New York, NY, USA: Broadway Books.

Humpreys, A. 2012. Canada’s organic food certification system ‘little more than an extortion racket,’ report says. National Post.

Smith, E.G., Knutson, R.D., Taylor, C.R., Penson, J.B. 1990. Impact of chemical use reduction on crop yields and costs. Texas A&M Univ., Dep. of Agric. Economics, Agric. and Food Policy Center, College Station.

Smith-Spangler, C. et. al. 2012. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Annals of Internal Medicine.