Could’ve Been Worse

The rain event we needed came on Monday. The rain event we needed to avoid came on Thursday.

Yes, the rain that was forecast reared its ugly head early Thursday afternoon. Accumulation expectations varied, but most seemed to be in that 2-3 inch range, with more expected for Monday. Indeed, the outlook was nothing short of grim, with soil that was already saturated incapable of supporting another deluge of rain, thoughts quickly turned to the horrible poundings of rain that slammed us in 2011. Rains that washed out roads, flooded basements, and all but wiped out whatever crops that were in the fields.

The reality was surprisingly positive. Before the rain occurred yesterday, the rains forecast for Monday/Tuesday were backed off to just a chance of showers, which was a big relief. And, now that all is said and done and the rain is finished today, we ended up with a grand total of “only” 1.2 inches of rain. Hardly the amount feared, but still not an insignificant number. Certainly, it was enough to flood out some crops, make the roads wet and sloppy, and will generally make future seeding difficult, but it was not the downpour that was feared. Furthermore, after the rain ended this morning, the sun came out and the wind picked up (a lot), quickly moving water off of many spots in the fields. Things are not as bad as was feared, and it appears that, with the present forecast, we may be back in the fields early in the week. With the calendar flipping to June tomorrow, this is an excellent development, as we may yet be able to finish seeding before the tenth of June.

In a side note, the psychological aspect of farming in this area of the world has been fundamentally altered. For decades, the greatest fear was not getting the rains when they are most needed. Memories of the 1980’s are still fresh in many farmers’ minds, including my father’s. However, we have been in a wet cycle for many years now, in which rain falls in inches rather than tenths of an inch, and farmers now worry about excess moisture rather than missing it. At least, we younger ones do, the ones that didn’t farm in the 80’s. For those that did, drought is an ever-present fear, one that I believe haunts them to their very core. They say that the 80’s were likely worse than the Dirty 30’s; the dust bowl that decimated the prairie landscape, that still leaves scars today in the topsoil piled up in old fencelines. Better farming practices, including conservation tillage made possible by pesticides, were all that held off the horrid dust storms that plagued my grandparents’ homes. My father’s father experienced this firsthand, including the hunger that went with it; they spent many days waiting for the trains to bring food relief. In fact, as my father tells me, my grandfather never even owned shoes, instead saving all the money they could to purchase winter boots. I cannot imagine a time like this; nor do I believe can anyone else in this part of the world.

In reflection of such a terrible time in this province’s history, perhaps our wet cycle isn’t so bad. Cattle aren’t starving to death, we are still getting by, and our homes aren’t caked with dirt. Excess rainfall is frustrating, expensive and difficult, but at least we aren’t choking on dust.

One positive development out of this rain was that I was able to take my wife out to the city for dinner and a movie for her 25th birthday. Since her birthday is in May, it often gets missed out on, which is unfortunate and unfair. She keeps me sane, protecting me from the stress and frustration farming often brings, even if she doesn’t realize it. I am so lucky to have her as my wife.

Being stopped for a couple of days has given us time to evaluate our marketing position as well, which caused us to make new-crop sales of canola and durum to ensure we can make our cash-flow commitments in the fall. Growing the crop is only part of running a business like this. Marketing and finance are vital aspects of the operation that too often get overlooked. This is something I am working on improving, which has led to a massive set of Excel spreadsheets to track every cost and income on this farm. Knowing our cost of production down to the penny has been a huge benefit to us, and we can still do better.

Now that the feared weather event has passed by, we can focus on getting back in the field and finishing seeding. It is time for it to be wrapping up, and I look forward to getting back out there. Maybe Monday will be a go. We will see.

The Swinging of the Pendulum

The rain I have been waiting for has arrived. Yesterday morning I awoke at my usual time, 5:15 am, to get ready to go spraying. As was usual of late, waking up that early was not easy; we had been going very hard the past two weeks, and 5 hours of sleep had become the norm. I woke up to an unusually dark bedroom. I stepped out into the kitchen and lo! it had rained! It was still raining! The soft pitter patter of raindrops bouncing off the roof and the deck, which lay before the kitchen window, was like the sound of Bach No. 1 playing softly through my stereo.

This rain has been looked for for quite a few days, with most of the crop not yet germinating; its soil just too dry to support water imbibition. Indeed, as I explained in my last post, we needed a rain, and if we had gone through this week without one, we would have been worried. In fact, this was the first shot of precipitation on most of our land since the snow on May 1st (see “Winter Returns”). That is an abnormally dry May, by a long shot.

Throughout the day on Monday we received a total of 9 tenths of rain. I realize that living in Canada should mean that I should say we received 23 mm of rain, but we still measure it in inches here for the most part. Anyway, it came down lightly and slowly, allowing for maximum soil absorption and less chance of crusting off the topsoil. It really was an ideal moisture event.

Yes, if you were expecting a “but” to come in here somewhere, you’d be right. I know, typical farmer, always finding a reason to complain. But if you give me a moment, I think I can explain my concerns to you in a non-complaining fashion.

You see, while this rain was nice, it is still the 28th of May. We still have a third of the crop to put in, which will take approximately one week. Our time window is tightening. We still have more than half of our most economically important crop to seed yet: canola. Seeding this crop late often has significant yield repercussions. It is looking more and more like this will be the case.

The forecast does not look good. After a rain like this, sun and heat are what we need. Instead, we are receiving cool, showery weather for the better part of the 7-day forecast. Worse yet, we may be in the unfortunate position of receiving 2-3 inches of moisture from Thursday to Friday. That would set us back heavily, keeping us out of the field for days and hurting the crops that are currently in.

Since 2010, we seem to swing from one extreme to the other, from wet to dry to wet to dry, with wet dominating. We cannot seem to break from this frustrating weather pattern. Our land cannot handle such downpours of rain. It is too flat, too heavy (clay) and too saline to effectively allow precipitation like this to drain away quickly. Rains like this can cause severe damage, and not just to our crops. Flooding is a very real possibility, which affects us all.

Perhaps I am being too overdramatic. This is after all only a forecast, which are known to be wrong (often) and we do not yet know what effect a rain like this would have. Time will tell. I can assure you of one thing: when we can get back into the fields, it will be an around the clock endeavor. Time will not be on our side; and the pendulum has swung away from the dry cycle we were in. Rain will be our enemy now.

Winter Returns

My last post, published only last night, was written too soon. Winter has returned, and with a vengeance. After the rain and thunderstorms last night, who could have expected that we would wake up to a white coating of atrocious wet, deep snow that measures at least 6 inches in depth. Many highways are closed, the grid roads that only just became dry and clear again are layered in snow and mud, and the fields are covered again in white.

This is like some sort of sick joke, a nightmare that I cannot wake up from. A few minutes ago I almost believed for a moment that it was some sort of horrible dream, a reminder of the hurt of the 2011 crop year, a punishment for my futile belief that we could seed our crop in good time this year, a slap in the face for the hope that 2011 was behind us.

It is not a dream, but a frustrating reality that I cannot escape from, and every look out my window further deepens my mounting anger and fury that Mother Nature has once again struck us with a blow that we cannot withstand. When will we be given our chance? When will we be given an opportunity to do what we love to do? I can’t go another year without a crop, without something to tend to and help grow.

I am not trying to sound defeatist, nor am I trying to imply that I am the only one dealt this kick to the stomach. No, I am all too aware that this storm has covered a great deal of the southeast of this province, and while misery may love company, this knowledge does not help my black mood this morning.

I know what you are wondering. Will you still be able to get a crop in the ground? Yesterday, I stated unequivocally yes. Today, my opinion has changed. The truth is, I don’t know. I just don’t know.


Note: if it looks like this post is written in continuation of another post, it is. Another one was written that for whatever reason was lost while I tried to publish it. Hopefully you can understand it without the previous article!

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.