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.

Image

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.

Image

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?

Winter Wheat is an Exercise in Optimism

One of the strangest experiences during harvest is its polar opposite – seeding! Although winter wheat planting is difficult to accomplish during the busiest time of the year, it is usually a worthwhile endeavour; saving time and inputs during the other busiest time of the year, seeding.

ImageAn early morning for the maiden voyage of our new air drill!

When we seed in the spring, all hands are on deck to sprint the marathon of planting the year’s crop. It is a busy, stressful time of the year, when you put everything on the line to seed a crop in the extremely short time window that is available. You are seeding multiple different crops with varying fertilizer plans, ensuring as few mistakes as possible are made, as every wrong decision can bring disasterous consequences. 

Fall seeding, by comparison, is relatively relaxing. While harvest wore on, I spent close to a week seeding mostly on my own. I had help from my wife when she was home from work, as well as from others early in the morning. For the rest of the day, I had to load trucks and load the drill on my own. This is a big project for one person. It comes with very early mornings and long days, trying to keep everything moving without disturbing the harvest crew, which of course takes precedence. Sacrificing time harvesting this year’s crop to plant next year’s is akin to the “bird in hand versus two in the bush” analogy. Despite all of this, I get to work at my own pace, which is not the marathon spring seeding normally is. 

Winter wheat is grown all over the world, mostly with greater success than we experience here. Our long, cold winters are very harsh for this crop, and as such we must give up the higher yielding varieties from the south for winter hardiness. Even with these tougher varieties, a winter without much snow (which does happen from time to time) can virtually kill of this crop if temperatures dip below -25 degrees Celsius (which happens often). For these reasons, careful management of winter wheat is a must. Selecting the right varieties and seeding at the right time can make all the difference. I seeded ours from September 10-15.

Like every crop, winter wheat requires a clean field, so we sprayed it for weeds about 2 weeks before seeding. Like other wheats, it also requires large fertilizer amounts. We applied a fair amount of slow-release nitrogen, but we will top up in the spring if the crop looks good.

ImageLoading the drill with fertilizer – it needs a lot of it!

Can you grow winter wheat organically? Sure, but you won’t be happy with the weedy, weak stand that will most likely not yield enough to even make the land rental payments. If you are going to strip the seeds from your plants, you are removing nutrients from the soil. How will you replace them without fertilizer? If you mine your soil, it will eventually fail you. Just ask anyone who farmed in Saskatchewan in the 1930’s.

Farming requires a great deal of optimism (or foolishness, take your pick) and seeding winter wheat is no exception. Just when you finally get your crop in the bin, you go and plant another one, with a whole new set of risks and rewards. Will it germinate in the fall, typically one of the driest times of the year? Will it survive winter? If it does, it has great potential for the following spring, and really reduces the workload in the spring.

Farming is all about risk management. Rain can be very damaging to mature crops at harvest, so we plant a crop that will benefit. It’s just like your retirement portfolio; full of different investments that respond to different market events to reduce your exposure to market fluctuations. In essence, this is what we do with every crop, every year.

At least, that is what we try to do. It doesn’t always work. All we can do is hope that it does.