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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My Food Story

In October, I, along with my sister Sarah, was invited to join in Sask Ag & Food’s “Ag Month” campaign. The idea was for us, as well as others in the agriculture and food industry, to tell our food story. I think this was an interesting concept, and I was honoured to be asked to be apart of it. You can find out more about it here.

Since then, I have thought a lot about this idea, and what it truly means. As farmers, we typically think of our products as a commodity, and we forget sometimes that we are at the front line of producing the food on your table. That may be your loaf of bread (our wheat), your plate of spaghetti noodles (our durum), the cooking oil you use for frying up a chicken breast (our canola), or maybe your lentil soup (I think you can guess this one). It may also, indirectly, be the steak you enjoy (cattle have to eat something!), or the beer you have with your friends.

All of these things come directly from my fields, raised with my soil, my input purchases, my expertise. The problem is that once my crop gets unloaded at the elevator or processor, I don’t get to see what happens to it. The farmer’s share of your dollar spent on food is very small: that loaf of bread you bought? My share of that $2.50 is only $0.09!

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I couldn’t find a similar display of a loonie… But I think it’s close enough!

Even though my share of the dollar is relatively small and I have little control over what happens to my food after I sell it, I still have tremendous interest in producing good quality, nutritious food. It matters to me that the food I produce is healthy, because I know that my family could end up eating it too.

I had the opportunity to attend the GrowCanada conference in Ottawa this week, where I was able to listen to a variety of speakers address several different topics. One that really stood out for me was the idea that when our grain, pulse and oilseed crops leave our bins, they are healthy and nutritious. All the building blocks are there. Whether it remains that way is totally up to the processing industry, post farm-gate.

Often, farmers get a lot of blame for a lot of the health problems facing the developed world right now. Obesity is a major issue in Canada and much of the developed world. But what influence do we actually have as farmers? When my durum leaves my farm, there is nothing intrinsically unhealthy about it. In fact, there is a plethora of data out there showing that the nutrition profile of our wheat today is very little changed from a century ago – despite what many non-Celiac gluten-free dieters may claim. All the ingredients are there to combine with other foods for a balanced, healthy meal.

However, I believe pointing figures and passing blame is not the right approach (unless a food safety issue arises, of course), and we should instead talk about how to eat a more balanced diet. Everything works in moderation. The point, I think, is that the food farmers produce is intrinsically nutritious.

At the busiest times of the year, we all come together as a family to plant, grow and harvest the best quality, highest yielding crop we can. This farm, like so many others out there, is owned and operated by a family, along with some great employees that have families of their own. I will never grow a crop that I wouldn’t feel safe about feeding to my own son.

Farmers care about the food they produce, and they care about the people that eat it. If we farmers feel safe growing GMOs and using pesticides and fertilizers, that means we believe our own children are safe eating it. While I don’t presume to be an expert on all things food, I do believe that millions of farmers, each one growing and using these products, is a strong testament to the safety of our food.

My food story is growing safe, healthy and nutritious food, and having fun while doing it. Farming is a wonderful way of life, and I feel so proud to be a part of it. To everyone who enjoys food, thank you. You make it possible for me and my family to do what we love – growing your food.

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Photo credit: Vanessa Lanktree Photography

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.

The Harvest of a Lifetime

If I could sum up the 2013 growing season in one word, it would be this: rollercoaster. As I look back to my very first blog post on April 18 of this year, it’s hard to believe what came from such a crazy start to this growing season. We had snow until late May, heavy, pounding rains that disrupted seeding and caused severe flooding in our crops, and we had the constant threat of storms and frost hanging over our heads for the entire summer. This season has been so full of ups and downs and twists and turns that it still makes my head spin. Despite all of the hardship, frustration, devastation, anxiety and fear I have experienced over the past 7 months, and the very real risk of severe economic trauma to this farm and my family, we may just have harvested our biggest and most profitable crop ever.

A Spring from Hell

I took this picture on the second of May. Usually we have started seeding by then. Seeding looked very far away at that time.

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Yet, somehow, it all melted, and we were in the field in only 11 days after this photo. During seeding, heavy rains pounded our fields, delaying us and damaging already seeded crops. Despite this, we got the entire crop in, just as we thought we would fail, and leave vast tracts unseeded once more. As the crop grew, more rains pooled water into small lakes in already saturated fields, choking our crops to the point of death.

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A Summer of Stress

The crop managed to recover from the less than ideal spring surprisingly well. The weather improved drastically once July rolled around, with warm (but not too hot), sunny days becoming the norm. A stressed, damaged crop was coming around very well; so well in fact, I began to see real potential develop in our fields. However, the crop was a long, long way from the bin yet.

Severe summer storms pummeled crops south, east, west and north of us, seemingly on our doorstep every day. Apocalyptic hail storms stripped bark off of trees and killed birds right out of the sky – but not here. Somehow, we slipped between seemingly every storm that rolled through, which desecrated farmers not so far from here. But even as that threat began to fade, another took its place. Cold days and near-freezing nights came oh-so-close to devastating the Prairies, keeping me and every other farmer on edge. But the early frost I feared so greatly never came.

“Bumper” Doesn’t Quite Cover It

There is a saying in agriculture for good crops. The best ones are referred to as “bumper crops”. To quote the infamous Western Producer, for this year, “bumper” doesn’t quite cover it.

Two days ago, we completed harvest on our farm. It was a long process, interrupted by rains and cloudy weather that damaged our sensitive durum crops. Indeed, it was 50 days ago today that we started swathing canola. It seems like a lifetime ago.

Today, every single bin we have, good and bad, along with every grain bag we could find are all packed full of the largest crop we have ever grown. It is not an exaggeration to say that this may very well be the biggest crop ever produced in Saskatchewan. This has of course reduced the price for them, but nonetheless we are looking at record profits. The woes and hurts we went through over the last decade have finally been put to rest by two consecutive years of record-smashing profits. We still have a long way to go; our farm is still tight on cash, and this winter will be a cash-flow challenge. We are only just now getting close to the place I want our farm to be at, which has been a goal now for a few years.

Farming truly is an incredible business to be in. You can start off a growing season prepared for disaster, only to wind up with a financial windfall. Don’t worry, the opposite is true too, which we have also experienced not so long ago. The pendulum can swing so far from one extreme to the other, in weather, markets, and emotions. Dealing with the stress of it all is a difficult thing to master, but it is a necessity if you are to survive the ups and downs. This year was one of our greatest ever. But next year could be a disaster. All we can do is plant the next crop and hope for the best. After all, who are farmers if not eternal optimists?

Harvest: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Another summer has flown by. Days are shorter, nights are longer, and days at the beach (few as they tend to be!) have all but ended for 2013 for Prairie farmers. The countryside brims with potential; with heavy, thick crops maturing into beautiful golden-brown landscapes, crops look better than they have in years. The end of August looms ahead, and with it brings the beginning of harvest.

We have been busy preparing our equipment for the long road ahead. Tuning up the combines, fixing the headers, cleaning bins and organizing tools and people has been keeping us busy for the last couple of weeks. Getting ready for harvest is a monumental task. The amount of machinery involved is staggering; multiple trucks and semis, combines with sensitive mapping software and sophisticated threshing and separating components, swathers for cutting canola, bins, tractors, grain carts and augers. Not to mention that throughout all of this, the sprayer continues to run on a semi-ongoing basis, spraying out low spots to prepare them for next year, spraying crops to finish them off for easier harvesting, and constant monitoring for insect threats. Even after harvest begins, we must be ready to seed winter wheat. Indeed, harvest is an operation that brings everything to the table; all the employees, equipment and the entire family must come together to make this happen.

We have started some preliminary fieldwork, such as swathing this field of canola:

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It looks awesome!

We have also preharvested all of our peas, which means we have sprayed them to help finish the plants off. Peas, like some other plants, will just keep growing as long as conditions allow. Glyphosate plus saflufenacil works very well to kill the crop and weeds quickly and completely. Diquat (Reglone) is faster but doesn’t really kill the weeds. They will grow back. Worried about residues in the seeds? Don’t be. The plant no longer has the ability to push much chemical into the seeds. Besides, maximum residue limits are established for all products, and they are extremely strict.

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Field peas ready for a Reglone application to assist crop drydown. Harvest should be ready to commence in 5-8 days.

Although all this preparation may sound a lot like work, the reality is that excitement brews in all of us. The crop looks nothing short of phenomenal, and early harvest results from our neighbors look fantastic. True to farmer fashion, I will not put a yield number on our crop until we get into it, but suffice to say that if it comes off as anticipated, we will make a great deal of financial progress. We are all excited to dig into this crop and see what is out there.

Harvest is the culmination of everything we do all year; all the planning and preparation during the winter months, agonizing over cropping decisions and chemical and fertilizer plans; the marathon of planting that brings us to the edge of sanity; the constant scouting for weeds, disease, insects and nutrient deficiencies throughout the season, desperately trying to avoid a spraying error; and finally, the preparation of all the harvest equipment to ensure the crop comes off on time. Every decision and every error we make throughout the year shows up in the fields as we combine them. Every mistake can now be quantified from our yield maps as we roll through each field. All of our marketing choices can either burn us or gratify us as we determine not only the size of our crop, but the size of the North American crop as well.

Yes, harvest is a season like no other, with equal parts excitement, hope, fear and stress all coming into play. Many things can still go wrong: a strong wind could come through all blow away our swathed canola, heavy rains could downgrade the quality of our wheat and durum, and severely damage the yield at the same time, and, lest we forget, the final factor that has been on all of our minds since that cold night in July; frost (read about that here).

The threat of an early frost still hangs over my head like a heavy black cloud, a fear in the back of my mind that haunts my dreams and darkens the brightest days. While the forecast looks hot and wonderful, and while we know that we will get at least half the crop mature in that forecast period, a great deal of crop is still very green and very late. We need the 20th of September without a frost to gather this crop as it stands. Even if our early crops are record-breaking, freezing out the remaining half would still lead to a losing year. We are not out of the woods yet.

But, these are things that are out of our control. Right now, all we can do is prepare our equipment and do the best damn job we can to harvest this crop in a timely and efficient manner to capture the most yield we can on whatever we can. Tomorrow we will take the first bite out of the first crop we seeded- canola. Will it be ready? It was swathed a week ago today, which may be borderline for readiness. We will try it anyway and see what happens.

We have put a lot of time, money, blood, sweat and tears (literally) into the 2013 crop of canola, durum, peas, hard red spring wheat, and soybeans. I cannot wait to see what it will yield, and I pray that the cold weather will hold off just one more month. This is an exciting crop, and I will be dancing in the streets if we can get it (that’s not really a joke- I’m serious about that). Wish us luck!

Follow Your Dreams

Have you ever had a dream?

I don’t mean a dream as in the one you see in your sleep and soon forget. I mean something that inspired you, or moved you, or gave you a goal to strive for. Perhaps it was to build something, invent something; whether just a childhood Lego creation or a skyscraper. Maybe it was to fly a plane, or to go to space, or to find the cure for Alzheimer’s. 

Did you pursue it? Did you make it a part of your life? Or did you let it fall away, accepting that it was impossible or impractical? Sometimes life hits you harder than you can withstand, and your dream falls away from your consciousness. 

My dream is something I do every day. My dream is growth.

The excitement I feel each and every spring is because once again I have an opportunity to continue my dream. Planting fragile seeds into a harsh, dangerous and unforgiving soil, full of parasites and predators, with little more than hope to work with, is a major risk. Mother Nature doesn’t have to be kind. She can be a bitch. But somehow, I still go out and risk my future every spring on the hope that maybe, just maybe, she will be generous. 

Farming is more than just laying seeds on the ground and hoping that they will grow. Growing the crops is only one part of the dream of growth. I also dream of growing the farm, seeding more acres and having more crops to discover and learn about. Growing the business is the other half of my dream. Creating a secure operation with money to spare to invest in new opportunities and new ventures is what I dream of every day. Sometimes, Mother Nature smites these dreams with a punishing torrent of rain, or hail, or a crushing frost, or a devastating drought. Yet I push on, because this business, this life, is the dream all we farmers endeavour for. Some have no dream of expansion, while others want to farm the world. But as long as we can survive, as long as we can go into the next year and plant another crop, our dreams continue.

Some people may respond with a callous “so what? Farmers have it easy. They are born into their dreams, I have to search for mine!” True enough, maybe. Let me share my experience with you on this.

I graduated high school in June of 2006. At that time, farming was not my intention. In this part of the world, farming was tough- very tough. We had had a rough go for the last few years: 2003 was a drought, 2004 was a devastating early frost, and prices were so low in those years  that despite a good crop in 2005, we still lost money. The world had lots of food, and farmers were largely ignored, if not forgotten. I could not foresee how I could ever make a living farming. So I considered other options, such as engineering, but ended up going into agriculture with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. I don’t know to this day what my father thought of this. I do know he was close to calling it quits after 2005. But then something happened- something fundamentally changed in the world of agriculture, something that had not happened in 30 years.

The world ran out of grain. Between farmers leaving the industry, a couple years of lower production and the advent of using grains for fuel, stocks had suddenly become low. In late 2007, prices exploded for all types of commodities, creating unprecedented returns. Suddenly, agriculture was front page news on business magazines and talked about on major news stations on television. Farmers found themselves in the spotlight. It was in late 2006 to early 2007 that I decided not to become a vet and to farm instead. And that has been my course ever since. It hasn’t been easy. Indeed, if you were to read some of my blog posts from spring you would see that even with high prices, 2010-2011 were tough years for us. But we press on, pushing to become better at what we do, to grow our business and become more sustainable. Life is like a boxing match against an unbeatable opponent; at some point, you will lose the fight. But you can give it one hell of a fight before you go down. Persistence and ambition, the drive to reach your dreams, no matter how impossible they may seem, is the way I have chosen to live my life.

Maybe this is all too hardcore, talking about drive and ambition and dreams. This is a part of who I am, and how I think, and it will always be a part of my blog. I think within all of us is the power to do anything. It is us who limit ourselves. Perhaps I limit myself too, sometimes, putting too much focus on the farm and missing other opportunities. I don’t know what path life has laid out for me. All I know is that if I work hard and think things through carefully, opportunities will come. I feel that farming is a great analogy to anyone struggling to accomplish their dreams, because sometimes things happen that are out of your control. Sometimes, simple bad luck can knock you on your face. But you have to get up and keep going. 

My dream is growth. Growth of my crops, my business, and my relationships with the ones I hold most dear. What is yours? And, are you fighting for it?

The Farm Life is a Wonderful Life

If you have read my previous post (The Marathon Concludes… For Now), you know that seeding has been completed and we are well into in-crop spraying. This is a fascinating and exciting time of the year, in which we get to watch the crops we so carefully tried to plant come to life. Each field has its own personality; a visual depiction of the clay, sand and silt that is visible to the naked eye, and the incredible myriad of the microbiological ecosystems that thrive beyond our sight. Every crop, every field and every plant all provide clues with which to diagnose and analyze the sometimes confusing, but always interesting world of plant and microbiological life, and the relationships contained therein. The incredible diversity of the living things present in our soils becomes visible in every plant we grow.

Perhaps this all sounds a little over the top, maybe even a little on the nerdy side. But I have found in my life thus far that if you do not have something that you are so passionate about that you can go on about it the way that I have been, you are missing something vital to your happiness. It doesn’t have to be something as possibly obscure as plant life. Perhaps it is machinery, engines and things that move; perhaps it is books and stories of great and terrible deeds; maybe it is music and the creation of it; or maybe it is something much greater, like the love of another human being; a wife, a husband, a son, a daughter, a mother, or quite fittingly on this day, a father. Life is a wonderful thing, and if you are bored with it, you insult all that was given to you. Find your passion and let it consume you, whatever it may be. Just always remember that the first love must always be the things that truly matter. On that note, happy Father’s Day to my dad, the best man I have ever known, who taught me the difference between right and wrong, and that every action has a consequence that you must always be prepared for. I will never forget the life lessons he taught me.

Maybe this is all a little to deep for a post about a year in the life of a farmer, but if you believe that then maybe you don’t know farmers as well as you should. We get to walk out our front doors every morning and see the beauty of the world unfold in front of our eyes. We know what true silence sounds like, often on those nights so black you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Or sometimes when the sky is lit up like a brilliant mosaic of colours and light, with every star like a shot of brightness in the darkest night. Perhaps it may be on the night that the flickering arms of the Northern Lights reach across the sky, fingers outstretched as if reaching for something out there in the atmosphere that is just out of its reach, so close and yet so far from its brilliant green fingertips. Like I did the other night, when we were on our daunting and exhausting marathon. I had been up for 20 hours, running on only 3 hours of sleep and knowing that the following night would be just as short. I was loading the liquid fertilizer truck with nitrogen and sulfur in the pitch black of the night. When you load up with liquid fertilizer, it takes time as the pump has to deliver nearly 6,000 gallons of product up onto a trailer; it just is not that fast. As I waited for it to load, I saw the most brilliant Northern Lights show I had seen in years. When you have seen these things, and when you can just sit and watch them, sometimes you have a moment of clarity, a brief handful of seconds in which you see that we are indeed so very, very small.

As farmers, we get to experience incredible views like this frequently, and yet we still so often do not truly appreciate the majesty of what we are seeing. For instance, the sunrises and sunsets in Saskatchewan are truly a beautiful thing to watch, quite likely the most colorful in the world. And yet, most days I do not notice it. Sometimes you have to force yourself to just take a minute and watch; but in our busy lives, this can be difficult to do.

I hadn’t really intended to write about this subject today. In fact, I have a whole other subject to discuss. However, for today, maybe this will be enough. Funny how the mind goes off on a tangent. If you let it, you might be amazed where it will take you.

Going forward, I will continue to update you on our progress. We have had windy, wet weather for most days since my last post, so spraying has not advanced much. This will be a busy spraying week, in which we intend to spray the rest of our durum, our peas, and likely our soybeans again. We need to accomplish all of this before Farm Progress Show on Thursday (that is the day we are going to go). Hopefully the weather cooperates!

Furthermore, I hope that you will have interest in the posts that will come specifically about each crop. I am enjoying writing this blog, and maybe you will derive something of interest for you from it. Thank you for reading so far! One stage of the crop year is over, and another has begun.