Grain Bags in January – What Could Be More Fun?

20140104_131641 (1)January. The first true month of winter, a time to see the spectacular views of lovely, snow covered streets and roads; a time to enjoy a hot chocolate on a horse-drawn sleigh; a time to enjoy the wonderful season that we call winter on the prairies.

Yeah, right.

Maybe instead, January is a month of cold and snow, a month to avoid the outdoors wherever possible, instead hiding inside to avoid the frigid temperatures and brutal winds; indeed, January is a month to try and spend indoors, praying that the furnace doesn’t fail and water pipes don’t freeze.

As I write this, the temperature outside is a chilling -32 degrees Celsius. However, add in the so-called “wind chill” of a 44 km/hr wind, and it feels like a brutal -52 degrees outside. Fortunately, today is Sunday, so there is no compelling reason to leave the house.

First, I might point out that today is not an anomaly; it has been an exceptionally cold start to winter (which began in mid-November), with December being a dreadfully cold month, and January proving to be no better so far. We have a fair amount of snow, although I don’t believe it is abnormal by any means. And I should also point out that we do usually experience weather like this during our winters in Saskatchewan, but just not usually for this long of a stretch at a time. Nevertheless, this is life on the Western Prairies, and we just have to deal with it.

Hauling grain in this weather is not exactly the first idea of what I want to do on days like this. However, in their typical fashion, the grain companies we contracted wheat and canola through suddenly decided they all wanted their grain at once, starting Thursday of last week. Now, it was not horribly cold at the time, so we started hauling, extracting from grain bags.

Source: www.agri-tec.com
Source: http://www.agri-tec.com

Extracting grain bags is an interesting task. As much as we can, we store our grain inside bins, such as the large steel cylinders you see at the top of this page. Bins are, unfortunately, quite expensive, so we can only store so much in them. We usually haul a lot of grain off the combines to the grain handling facilities, such as the one to the right (Weyburn Inland Terminal – one of the largest of its kind in Canada). If you have read some of my other posts, you may recall that we had the crop of a lifetime this year. Well, so did the rest of Western Canada, so moving it is a challenge (more on that later). So, with no bins or elevators to haul to, we stored our grain in bags.

Harvest 069These 200-300 foot long plastic bags can hold a lot of grain and they are easy to fill. You simply dump grain into the “bagger” which pushes it into the bag. The bag then fills as it is pushed off of the bagger, a little bit at a time. Once filled, the end is tied up and the bag is left for later. As you might expect, animals can be an issue with them, tearing holes and eating grain out of it, walking along the top and punching holes, and generally wreaking havoc. For this reason, we try to empty the bags before spring. Otherwise, they can tear open and can be brutal to clean up.

20140104_145702We are in the process of extracting the bags, which involves a contraption with a knife to slice the bag open, a caged auger inside the bag to remove grain from it, and an auger to move the grain into a semi. It all works quite well, assuming wildlife hasn’t mauled the bags too badly, and assuming the extractor runs straight down the bag. In the winter, it becomes more challenging, such as the past two days, when heavy winds and snow came in just in time for us to be extracting. You can imagine how annoying wind is on a large plastic bag. Visibility on the roads was very poor from the blowing snow, and they quickly became difficult to drive on, with large snow drifts all over them. Semi trucks are designed for clean highways, not snow-drift covered roads.

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Looks like fun, right?

Nonetheless, we emptied the bags yesterday, in a -45 degree wind chill afternoon. We had to push the snow out from the bags and back roads again, thanks to the lovely winds. 20140104_133205Although difficult, cold and sometimes painful (Google “frostbite”), there is a certain sense of pride that comes from having “beaten” Mother Nature at her worst, knowing that despite the cold, wind and snow, you were able to get the work done. There’s just something about going out into the worst of winter, toughing it out and getting the work done, that is somehow kind of satisfying.

Well, there is more grain to haul and more bags to extract, so hopefully winter will ease off! Otherwise, it is going to be a long wait until spring.

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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?

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?

Summer Storms and Narrow Misses

By all accounts, there is a great looking crop out there.

In some form or another, most farmers around here have said these words, with the makings of an excellent year growing as each day goes by. With a few exceptions, growing conditions for the past month have been nothing short of excellent, helping to repair many of the problems the late, wet spring created. 

Some of our own crops are fantastic, such as this field of peas:

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The plants are lush and a deep green in colour, with beautiful white flowers growing from the tops of the plants, and long, thick pods growing below. There is great potential here, and most of our other fields are more of the same; lush, green, thick and healthy, such as this crop of canola:

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Any year a crop like this is out in the field, anxiety can be hard to master. We have narrowly missed two large storms over the past week, one on Saturday and one on Monday. The storm that rolled through some farms on Saturday can only be described as devastating. Hail the size of baseballs pummeled the ground, roaring out of the sky like meteors for a full half hour, shredding and flattening crops to the ground. Many fields are nothing more than a mass of flat, yellow-brown vegetation, utterly devoid of the life that existed only an hour before the black cloud arrived. Not only were fields destroyed, but trees, pasture and even birds were killed by the terrifying ferocity of a July supercell thunderstorm. Tornadoes touched down in multiple places, leaving destruction in their wake. From Weyburn to Pipestone, Manitoba widespread destruction can be found, with many farmers losing their entire crop. This cloud caused severe crop loss north of us, and didn’t miss us by much:

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Hail insurance can help. But imagine this analogy; you lose your job, suddenly, out of the blue. You receive an insurance payment that is about half of what your wage is, but enough to cover your basic living expenses. However, you cannot work again until a full year has passed by. Your insurance income must cover your needs for a full year, but it is only half of your normal wage! You can understand the stress and anxiety that would come from this, and the utter disappointment and frustration that loss would cause.

Luckily, so far we have missed the so-called “white combine”. But summer is not over; there are still at least two weeks of severe weather possibilities before we pass into the relative safety of August. Then, we just have to get the crop to maturity before a frost and get harvest completed before it rains or snows. 

Almost all of the money we will invest into this year’s crop has been invested. The risk is greatest now, because a total loss could severely damage our ability to farm again next year. But, if we weren’t optimists, believing the worst will not occur, why would we farm?

Spring- Where are you?

Looking out my window, I see only one colour – white. The fields, the yards, the sloughs and everything in between still glisten with the bright reflected glow of the sun as its rays bounce off the icy world beneath. The snow stubbornly refuses to leave, like an infant that refuses a meal. The cold winter air still bites in a manner not unlike the bitterness of the freezer-burnt meat in the freezer.

From the paragraph above, you might think that I have written this for the middle of January, because after all, is Saskatchewan not a winter tundra at that time of the year?

You would be wrong. Today is April 17th, nearly a month since “spring” began. Winter still has a grip on Southeast Saskatchewan, and from what I hear, we are not the only ones. This is rapidly approaching the latest spring melt in recorded history, and as the days and weeks drag on, spring seems further and further away.

You have stumbled upon the blog of a farmer, and here you will find the hopes, dreams, frustrations and sorrows of a dryland grain producer in Southeast Saskatchewan; if you should find yourself with such a lack of important things to do that you wish to read about the life of a farmer, that is! Here, you will experience the day to day life of a farmer over the course of a full year, and the joys, trials and tribulations experienced therein. Today, I will relate to you the aforementioned concerns over a winter that stubbornly refuses to abandon us.

My job, first and foremost, is a farmer. I, along with my parents, my wife and my older sister, operate a moderate sized farm in Southeast Saskatchewan. We seed a variety of crops, including (but not limited to) durum, canola, spring wheat, peas, soybeans, barley, lentils and canaryseed. Our main crops are durum and canola, which we plan to seed in plenty this year, along with peas, soybeans and hard red spring wheat.

Have our plans begun to change? Certainly, worry gnaws at the back of my mind, as it does the minds of most other farmers in the area; as our air drills sit buried under a mountain of snow that stands taller than I do. However, in agriculture, we are battered by countless problems and complications throughout every growing season, and while these difficulties can make our short growing seasons stressful, they do help prepare us for the frustrations of trying to seed a crop in a year where Mother Nature resolutely refuses to grant us a break.

Perhaps my concern over planting in 2013 would be greater if it was actually a new experience for me. Unfortunately, 2011 is a year still fresh in my memory, a year in which a farmer’s worst nightmares came true, a year in which farming never really took place. We sprayed, we disked, we cultivated, and we swore in frustration at the cards we had been dealt. If only, I thought with despair, if only we could have gotten a crop seeded. With the grain prices available today, our struggling family farm business could finally catch the break it needs to go beyond a yearly struggle for survival, and go to a place where the fear of failure can finally be put behind us. But, alas, it was not to be, and we scraped by through that frustrating and fruitless year. 2012 was more kind to us, and our farm made great progress, but we have this one last year in which we can capture the tail end of the remaining lofty grain prices before they come crashing down to the abyss wherein breaking even is the ultimate goal.

Understand, our farm will not fail because of one failed year, despite the negative effects it will have financially. No, instead the hurt stems from the lack of green, growing things to tend to for another entire year, and the joy and adrenaline that grows from caring for 10,000 acres of cropland filled with life.

However, it is much to early to panic, and we may yet come through this late spring alright, and produce the crop we have dreamed of all winter. Hope has not left me (though it has faded a tiny amount). This crop will go in the ground and, as you will learn if you read the ensuing posts that will follow in the weeks and months ahead, optimism is the light of all farmers.

Talk to you soon.