Why I Write

Why does anybody write? Is it some compulsion to make oneself heard? To leave something behind? We all want the world to remember us when we leave it. A page, a book, even a blog, is something that stays around forever (well, as long as humans are around and we don’t forget how to read, that is). But is that really the entire reason? Are we really so melodramatic that all we care about is for some random person to read our written words years after we are dead and forgotten?

I don’t think that’s true. Or, at least, not the entire truth. My reason for starting this blog probably includes those things, sure. I think anyone who has written anything would be lying not to believe that at some level, there is a conceitedness to putting words to a page that describe your life, or parts of it. But the point here is the main reason I write at all. I don’t have any illusions about how many people may read what I have written in my fledgling blog, A Year in the Life of a Farmer. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur here.

I started this blog because nobody really knows what the life of a farmer is really like. Unless you’ve lived it, and I mean really lived it, you don’t know who the people are that produce your food. Everybody wants to know where their food comes from. Everybody wants to know if it’s GMO, or laden with pesticides, or what its carbon footprint might be. But these are all just numbers and words. If you really want to know how your food is produced, you need to know the person producing it.

I am a farmer. I live out on a farm with my wife and our dog, and our yard sprawls over many acres of trees and grass and, well, slough bottom. Our trees are kind of ugly, with deadfall and cursed caraganas sprawling through the uneven rows that complement the newly-seeded grass that has yet to even cover the ground enough to keep weeds down. Hard to believe I can grow crops but I can’t make our stubborn grass grow. Anyway, whatever our yard is, it is our own, as is the land around it. This is the life we have chosen to live. This is the life we will raise children in. This is the life I am so happy to live everyday.

We farm with my older sister and my mom and dad. We are a family farm. Sure, there is the complex and sometimes frustrating structure of partnerships and corporations, and yes, you could call us a corporate farm. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is our family who run it.

This is a blog about a farmer. This is a blog about a family farm. But beyond that, this blog is really about the day to day life of farming; the joys and the frustrations, the despair and the hope, and the trials and tribulations that encompass what we do. I am not afraid to tell you we grow GMO crops. In fact, I am proud to say that we do. We use pesticides, where they are needed and at the rate required for the job. We take care of our land, whether owned or rented, and try to grow the crops that will sustain our farm for the long run, environmentally and economically. If you have a problem with this, buy organic. I make no apologies for what we do to feed a growing world.

If you want to get to know the person behind the food you eat, if you want to understand what it takes to produce the wheat in your bread, or the barley in your beer, or the canola in your cooking oil, read this blog. You may find what you were looking for all along; someone growing your food that genuinely cares about the future of this planet, and its people. My name is Jake Leguee, and I am a farmer and an agvocate. Thanks for reading.

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The Cinderella Crop of the Prairies

Rapeseed. The crop with quite possibly the worst imaginable name to try and market as a health food source. A plant with undesirable components, such as erucic acid and glucosinolates, and lacks many necessary attributes to be successful in today’s marketplace.

Everything changed when several Saskatchewan scientists decided to take this cool-season crop, relatively well adapted to life on the prairies, and convert it into something amazing; we now call it canola.

In the Canadian Prairies, we generally do not receive enough heat in a growing season to successfully grow corn or soybeans on a large scale (although that is changing with new varieties- a topic for another day). Traditionally, we are known as wheat growers, and for good reason. We export a pile of wheat from our farms, and we always have. Canola is relatively new, but it has been a godsend for us.

Rapeseed, the origin plant for canola, was grown in Asia for thousands of years for cooking and lamp oil. With the introduction of the steam engine in the eighteenth century, rapeseed oil was proven to be a very useful oil, and was grown extensively in Asia and Eastern Europe before the Second World War. During the war, rapeseed supplies were short in Canada, and it became a cropping option for many farmers. But, prices weakened after the war, and acres slumped.

Saskatoon was the birthplace of rapeseed research on the prairies, and after 25 years of work by many brilliant scientists and technicians, a new crop was developed. Indeed, this plant was so different from the rapeseed it came from that it needed a new name to differentiate it. In 1978, “canola” was coined from “Canada” and “oil”. Since this incredible innovation, canola has overtaken wheat as the primary crop of choice for prairie producers, with over 20 million acres grown in 2012. It is now grown in many areas of the world, including Australia, Brazil, Europe and the United States.

Yes, this crop is genetically modified. No, it is not a Monsanto product. There are a few different companies that produce canola genetics large-scale, including BASF, Monsanto and Bayer CropScience. Bayer has been immensely successful with its InVigor line of canola, which is our farm’s genetics of choice. Try not to look at the GM crop as “evil”, as these varieties have saved us from having to use much more toxic chemicals to control weeds in this crop. Glyphosate and glufosinate tolerant canola has allowed us to prevent the overuse of many chemicals that are prone to cause weed resistance, despite what you hear about glyphosate resistance. We would be in trouble without these chemical options, which would damage not only our economy here, but it would limit access to one of the world’s healthiest options for cooking oil. Canola has an excellent mix of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated oils, which have been linked to a reduction in cholesterol levels, among other benefits.

Growing canola has its challenges, but it is one of the easier crops to grow, thanks to its competitive nature. We seed canola as shallow as we can, or it may not come up at all. That is why we use precision air drills, such as this one:

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Once the little seed germinates, it is slow to get going. The plant starts out very small, and adverse weather can really wreak havoc on it. Excess moisture, a late frost, or insects called flea beetles can be very damaging. Here is a young seedling that is still only about 1-2 inches tall:

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Once canola gets a couple of leaves developed, it quickly becomes a formidable plant. The root system delves into the soil while the leaves gather energy for its fight against its opponents. This next plant is a couple of weeks older, and is far more competitive:

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It is at or before this stage that we try to apply a weed control product, which for this variety is glufosinate (Liberty) and clethodim (Centurion). Since canola is genetically resistant to glufosinate, and because clethodim is a product that works only on grassy weeds, the canola will not be injured (unless excessive rates are applied, in which case injury can occur). In the next photo, you will see canola reach a stage that will make any farmer excited- rosette stage.

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This is where the hybrid vigour of canola really hits hard. These leaves are six inches in length, allowing them to gather a great deal of sunlight energy. The ground is now essentially covered, preventing germination and growth of weed competition. Again, this is another benefit of these powerful varieties. In other crops, the ground is not covered as quickly, and more chemicals therefore are needed to control weeds. Once canola reaches this stage, weeds are no longer a concern.

These plants are using a huge amount of nutrients at this point, consuming lots of nitrogen and sulphur every day. For a crop like this, synthetic fertilizers are a necessity. There is no way organic farming can provide enough nitrogen, sulphur and phosphate to allow this crop to reach its potential. For this reason, we apply nitrogen, phosphate and sulphur at seeding time.

In the next photo, you can see canola push past rosette stage into stem elongation, or “bolting”. Farmers refer to this stage as bolting because of how quickly the stem grows up from the base of the plant. While it usually takes a month to reach rosette stage, bolting happens within a week.

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The tinge of yellow you can see atop these plants are the flowers. At rosette stage, buds are formed at the base of the growing point. When bolting occurs, the buds are pushed upwards, with yellow flowers opening as they move upwards. Very soon, as the flowers continue to unfold, summer on the prairies begins with the magnificent beauty of bright, yellow fields of canola:

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In the Prairies, the striking beauty of these fields now is a common sight. As the flowers unfold, pollinate, and eventually fall to the ground, more flowers continue to develop in a seemingly never-ending loop. Generally speaking, the longer this crop flowers, the better the yield. Hot weather, especially above 30 degrees Celsius, is very damaging to these flowers, causing them to “blast”. The flowers will simply dry up and pop off the stem. Consecutive days of weather like that is very damaging to yield. This crop uses a lot of moisture, and rain at this time of the year always puts a smile on farmers’ faces.

There are a few dangers at this time of the year. Weeds are no longer a concern, but disease and insects are. Sclerotinia sclerotiorum is the primary disease of concern (Sclerotinia Stem Rot, or just Sclerotinia). The flowers are littered with spores released from little mushroom-like organisms that live on the soil surface, and as they fall, they land on leaves and stems. The disease moves into the plant and chokes off the flow of nutrients from the root system to the flowers and pods. Fungicides control this disease, which are usually a worthwhile investment in warm, wet summers.

Insects such as grasshoppers, lygus bugs, diamondback moth larvae and Bertha armyworms can induce severe damage to canola during flowering and into podding, chewing on stems, leaves and pods. We determine whether we need to spray for these insects by way of economic thresholds, which are developed by agronomists with government agencies. These economic thresholds are calculated from a number of factors: insect numbers, cost of application, value of the crop and number of predatory insects that will feed on the negative ones. We always try to spray in evenings and early mornings, as bees tend to forage in the heat of the day. Spraying insecticides is not fun, and it is very expensive to do. We avoid it as much as we can, but sometimes we must spray to save our crops from utter destruction.

As flowering finishes up, generally after 2-4 weeks, the fields lose their yellow colour and pods are the dominant feature. Each pod contains many little seeds of canola, which slowly mature over a period of 20-30 days after flowering has finished.

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Once flowering is completed, the countdown to harvest begins. Our canola is in a variety of stages, with some still yellow and some just like the picture shown (obviously; that is where the picture came from!). Swathing occurs about 20-30 days after flowering ends, with harvesting occuring 10-18 days later. We are excited for this time period to come.

Hopefully this has given you some information of value on our most economically important crop. Canola has been a wonderful experience for us, and it will be a part of our rotation for the foreseeable future. If you want to know more about crop diseases, insects, and other parts of crop production, check out some of my other posts. Now you know where your cooking oil comes from!

Why Do We Spray?

There was a time, not too long ago, that June and July were relatively quiet months on the farm. Once in-crop weed spraying was finished, work in the fields was essentially completed. Farmers were able to spend their summers getting ready for harvest, taking care of unseeded low-lying areas in their fields, and attend weddings and other social events.

Summer this year has been a whirlwind so far. In-crop spraying was completed about two weeks ago (mostly), but fungicide season has only just gotten started. Every sprayer is rolling full out on whatever fields are ready to spray, and farmers are busy checking the rest of the fields to see if they are ready. It is not unheard of to spray 40,000 acres per season, per sprayer.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by “in-crop spraying”. After seeding is complete in late May to mid-June, crops must all be sprayed to kill weeds. Make no mistake, this is a critical application, as a crop left to fight weeds on its own can be quickly overwhelmed by competition. Thanks to genetic modification, many of our crops are easy to deal with, such as corn, soybeans and canola. Some are also very competitive, like wheat and barley. However, crops like peas and lentils, even with proper herbicide application, can easily be outcompeted by difficult weeds like kochia, wild buckwheat, wild oats, etc. Spraying these crops is a big project and it takes many hours on the sprayer; but it is not the final application of the year.

As soon as the weeds are taken care of, crops are carefully monitored for disease and insects. Most diseases need wet, humid air and warm temperatures for optimum growth and infection. These diseases are mostly fungi, with a wide variety of species infecting each crop. In wheat, tan spot can be very damaging to the leaves, removing photosynthetic area and replacing it with tan-coloured spots. In canola, white mould can devastate yield potential, choking off the stem and starving the plant. In other crops such as lentils, some diseases can virtually kill an entire field in a matter of days (e.g. Anthracnose).

From the outside looking in on agriculture, you may wonder why we spray so many chemicals on our crops. We would not spray fungicides if we didn’t need to. These are expensive products that require many hours on the sprayer to apply, and many of them have extremely tight application windows. Also, during the summer months, I can guarantee you every farmer would rather be at the lake than spraying non-stop.

Take Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) for example, caused by Fusarium graminearum. This disease, if left unchecked, infects the seeds of durum, wheat and barley, elevating levels of a vomitoxin called deoxynivalenol (DON). As the name suggests, this toxin induces vomiting and can be dangerous if consumed in high enough levels. Therefore, if our grain is infected with FHB, it will be worth a lot less to try and sell. Would you want to eat bread or pastries or drink beer infected with this? It is a difficult disease to control, and we check our durum daily to try and catch the optimal window for fungicide application, which is about a two-day opportunity while the head is flowering. A wheat head that has completed flowering, and therefore moved past its application window, is shown below:

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We sprayed this crop to protect it from FHB, as climatic conditions are perfect for its development. Unfortunately, we also had to apply a product that everyone hates: chlorpyrifos, also known by its brand name, Lorsban. This product is an insecticide, and yes it is somewhat hazardous. We applied it to protect our crop from the dreaded grasshopper. These verocious insects can eat a lot of material very quickly. To compound the problem, we also found some of these bugs:

 

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This little bug on the wheat head is called the orange blossom wheat midge, a nasty little insect that lays its eggs in the florets of wheat and durum, which hatch later on and chew on the developing kernel. Like FHB-damaged kernels, this also causes grade loss.

Spraying insecticides is not a fun job, but sometimes it is necessary to protect the massive investment we put into our crops every year. We avoid spraying them as much as we can, but you do not have to worry about their safety. There is no kernel, or any form of it, in that wheat head yet. Lorsban has a residual of about 7 days. This plant is at least 40 days from harvest. All of our insecticides, indeed all of our chemicals, have a regulated pre-harvest interval to ensure no residue remains at harvest. Furthermore, scientists have developed economic thresholds to determine when it is worth spraying insecticides to prevent unnecessary spraying. Believe me, if I didn’t believe this our food was safe after spraying with insecticides, would I really be out there spraying it? Would I eat it with my family?

The reason I have covered this in such detail isn’t to tell you how tough farming is. I love farming, and I couldn’t think of a career I could enjoy more. I tell you this so that you may know why we do the things we do. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t smother our crops with pesticides; we target herbicides (kills weeds), fungicides (kills fungi) and insecticides (kills bugs) to specific fields that require them. Someday, maybe we will have better tools that allow us to reduce pesticide use (genetic engineering is by far the best path forward for this), but for now, these are the best options we have. And the reality is, for the most part, they have been proven safe by journal article after peer-reviewed journal article.

That’s my rant for today. Hopefully I can get back on this blog more often in the future, as fungicide season will only last another week or so. I am looking forward to its conclusion. It has been a busy spray season!

Oh, one more point, in case you were wondering how the “summer of storms” has progressed since my last post about it. Immediately after that post, some fields got 3 inches of rain. Yeah. Not good. But things have improved since, and because of near ideal weather in the past two weeks, we are now looking at the potential for a very nice crop. Our fingers are crossed!

If you disagree with me about pesticides and their safety, please comment, and I’ll be happy to discuss it with you. This is a subject I take very seriously, and I have done a great deal of research on it.