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.

Asher harvest

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!

the-food-dollar
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.

dsc_0126
Photo credit: Vanessa Lanktree Photography

Christmas Holidays on the Farm

One reality about farming is that the work is never really done. Even in the dead of winter, with glistening fields of glowing white as far as the eye can see, with frigid temperatures that would make a Siberian husky cringe, when we couldn’t be further from thinking about green growing plants- we are.

In addition to farming, I also work an 8-5 job as an agronomist at a chemical retail in my local town. It highlights the difference in life-styles quite well; I go to work in the morning, then I go home. Evenings, weekends and holidays are mine. When I go home, I leave my job behind.

Farming is so very different. When I go home from work, I go to work again. During the winter months, sometimes that means I get on a semi truck to haul grain, sometimes I go to the shop to work on equipment, and sometimes I just go to the computer to work on numbers. Evenings, weekends and holidays are consumed by the myriad of farmwork that needs to be done. While friends and family busy themselves with other activities, like house renovations, video games, fishing, or a million other things, my focus, and the focus of other farmers everywhere, must remain on the farm.

Christmas is no exception. The week before Christmas, we were busy hauling soybeans and durum and working on one of our tractors. One thing about track tractors is that they do require more maintenance than their wheeled counterparts. The tracks on one of our Case Case QuadtracQuadtracs needed to be rotated, just like the tires on your car or truck- but they are not quite as easy to move around. We used the pallet forks on our little tractor to lift, drag and twist the tracks to get them off their wheels (yes, it was as difficult as it sounds). We pulled them off, changed oil in the idler wheels (bottom wheels in the picture) and then came the hard part- putting them back on. Remember, these tractors weigh in excess of 59,000 pounds and drag implements that weigh as much as a small house, with significant rolling resistance to boot; their tracks are heavy– and cumbersome. But, with the right tools and enough time (and enough sweat, blood and ugly words) we got the job done. At least it’s not a job that needs to be done very often.

Besides all that, our farm’s year-end is December 31st, so we had a lot of documents to get to our accountant, preferably in an organized fashion. The end of the year is also a time to get seed bookings in to get the best discounts (where possible), so it’s important to at least have a basic idea of what to seed next year. Planning really never stops; there is a lot to consider as you try and figure out what to grow each year. Everything from the price of oil to nutrient levels in the soil has an impact on which crops will be most successful in the year ahead.

With the ending of another calendar year, a lot of questions come to mind. What worked this year? What didn’t? What can we improve next year? Is there anything new that we should try out? At our regular farm meetings, we spend a lot of time discussing and dissecting the year that was, and what we can do better next year. With Christmas holidays, everyone is around, so it’s a great time to have these discussions.

Even though the work never stops on the farm, sometimes, you have to find a way to leave it behind; sometimes, you have to realize that there is more to life than the farm. It is easy to let the farm consume you, and if you let it, it will. There is a never-ending list of jobs to get done, and never enough time to do them all. Even farmers take holidays, and, as much as we love the farm, we need them.

My wife and I headed for Calgary to her sister’s farm, where we met with her entire immediate family, from Christmas Eve until the 28th. We will be having my side of the family’s Christmas on New Years Day. Christmas on the farm, whether it be here, north of Calgary, or anywhere else in this great nation, is a wonderful time; the freedom of the country is hard to beat.

Sadly, Christmas of 2014 brought difficult times for our family, and for the farm. Don Court, my uncle and my mother’s brother, passed away suddenly on December 20th. He was 60 years old. He had been working on our farm since 2012 and was a skilled mechanic and equipment operator, not to mention he had a personality that we will sorely miss. It was a shock for all of us, and he leaves behind a loving family that will miss him terribly.

Nikon J1 184