Is There Such A Thing As Perfect Weather For Farmers?

Weather. It’s the beginning of seemingly every farmer’s conversation. It’s too dry, too wet, too cold, too hot, too cloudy, too sunny…. and on and on. It’s pretty easy to pick on farmers for that. I know I’ve heard that weather is the lowest form of conversation. But what if your livelihood depends on it? What if every move Mother Nature makes can change your fortunes for years to come? Perhaps weather is a more interesting topic than you might think.

Usually, the discussion about weather is… well, that it sucks. Seldom do we farmers get what we want for weather; indeed it’s almost always not “perfect”, which of course is next to impossible. It usually rains too much, or too little, or at the wrong time. Yet, sometimes the weather does do exactly what you want it to do. Sometimes, there just isn’t really much to complain about.

This week, we got that weather. After a ridiculously long and cold spring that saw us start seeding two weeks later than normal and into soil temperatures that would make a polar bear flinch, we finally got going. We had a pretty good run, despite some problems (well, maybe more than “some”), and in 8 days we seeded half of our crop. To be honest, I’m still shocked at that number. After two days of what was my most horrible nightmare of starting seeding, with a new drill that I was ready to drive off a cliff, we managed to average 650 acres a day, or a little more than 6% per day. We have never seeded half of our crop in 8 days. And then, to cap it off, we got a perfect rain. A nice, slow, light rain that totalled between 3 and 7 tenths across our farm’s geographic area.

I know, rain does stop the seeding operation, and yes, it is already late in the season. It rained overnight Sunday into yesterday morning, and we probably won’t get going until Thursday. We can live with a delay with the progress we made. A rain like that will germinate all of our seeded crops, it will get the weeds growing so we can get a better kill, and it will ensure our winter wheat doesn’t run short of moisture.

Yes, I am not afraid to say it: it was a perfect rain (at least for us, anyway; I know some people south of here who were not happy to see any moisture, and I know how that feels, believe me!). The only thing that would cause this rain to be a real problem for us is if it rained again right away this weekend. We still need at least another week to get the crop in, and June is coming up awfully fast, so rain could just go ahead and stay away for awhile. But, let’s be real about this; Mother Nature really couldn’t care less about what I or any other farmer wants for weather. The weather will just do what it does, and we just have to go ahead and get over it. That doesn’t mean we can’t complain about it though!

There’s a quick update on what’s going on for the Leguee Farm. Hopefully we can get going with the drills the day after tomorrow. We hope to get spraying and tillage work done tomorrow near home, where it rained less. I’m excited to get back out there; I live for this time of the year!

Advertisements

A Year In The Life Of A Farmer

For many years, I wondered how agriculture could get its message out to the public about what exactly it is that we do. Why do we spray pesticides? Why do we grow GMOs? Why are farms so large, and what does that mean to food safety and rural communities? It seemed that there was no simple way to get these answers out to the consumer, and I pondered this as I went through university and after; until an idea came to me, a little more than a year ago. Why not just… tell them? And what better way is there to do that than to post it online?

So, I started a blog, here on WordPress, to explain just what it is a farmer goes through in a year, and all the excitements, the frustrations, and the disappointments therein. Of course, this wasn’t the only reason I started this blog. I also wrote it as a form of therapy. Writing my frustrations down was a way of venting for me in an industry that can be very punishing. Mother Nature doesn’t care how hard you work, she doesn’t care how much you love what you do, and she certainly doesn’t care what kind of weather you want. Weather, and climate, just… is. It acts the way it does simply because it does. It’s a chaotic system so complicated that despite hundreds of years of study, nobody really has much luck trying to predict it.

The realities of weather, combined with the difficulties in running equipment that can break down at any time, and working in an industry so heavily scrutinized by a critical public that sometimes seems to believe we should go back to farming like my grandparents did, can be exhausting, not to mention incredibly stressful. This blog has been a release for me to contend with the stress, and it has actually been quite effective.

I guess those are the reasons I started this blog. And as I look back through the year that was, I realize that I accomplished that goal. Starting on April 18, 2013, I wrote my very first post about a winter that wouldn’t end and a spring that wouldn’t come. I poured out my frustrations and concerns about the dangers of weather like that preventing us from seeding, and what that would do to our farm.

As the spring progressed, things began to improve (after the snow at the end of April, of course), and seeding actually went well until rains delayed us. It’s funny, looking through those blogs, how up and down last season was. I wrote a lot of posts in May, going from asking for wind and heat, to wanting for rain, to begging for the rain to stop! Fortunately, it did stop (just in time) and the crop went in. We dodged hail, plow winds, tornadoes and frost, finally getting the crop to harvest, when we learned it was the largest crop we had ever grown.

The excitement over the massive crop was dampened by collapsing grain markets and plagued railway and elevator systems, causing what looked like a financial windfall to be reduced to a moderate profit. Then, thoughts turned to the 2014 growing season, and we purchased and booked fertilizer, seed and chemical for the new year. Finally, we have come to April once again, where once again we are delayed by a late spring!

What is so interesting and exciting about farming is exemplified so perfectly in the 2013 growing season: weather that swings from one end of the pendulum to the other of wet to dry; the rush of trying to get the crop in and to harvest it; and the craziness of world financial markets that can cause you to swing from profit to loss in a matter of days. Farming is perhaps best described as a rollercoaster, with the ups and downs so extreme sometimes you wonder if you made the right decision getting on it in the first place! It is all one big adrenaline rush, with winter as the reprieve. Sometimes Mother Nature can knock you on your back, but you just have to get up and keep going.

In my time writing this blog, I have learned a lot. I learned about other bloggers, some doing much like what I’m doing, writing about the day-to-day life of a farmer. Others focus more on advocating for agriculture, getting our positive message out there. For a long time, I wrote this blog quietly, keeping it mostly to myself and using it as a therapy session. In reading all the other blogs out there, I came to understand that writing a blog about a year in the life of a farmer should be more than just the basic day-to-day life, and that it doesn’t hurt to explain my own views and opinions on broader ag-related issues, such as GMOs and pesticides.

Making this blog more public was a hard thing for me to do as well. I wrote a lot of personal stuff in it, talking about my own emotions and the hardships our farm has faced. I am not an open person when it comes to this, and I was afraid of the ramifications of doing this, and that it might diminish the ability of this blog to be a release for me. It was my wife that convinced me to try and get this blog out there, to get people to read it. How could I get my message out there without telling anyone about it? It was because of her that I made the effort to get my blog posted on AgMoreThanEver, an excellent website full of positivity for Canadian farming. From there, it amazed me how many people were- and are- interested in what farming is all about. I publicly posted all of my new articles after that, and was shocked at the positive reception.

Having said all that, it has been difficult recently to figure out just where to go with this. I set out to write about a year in the life of a farmer, and I did that. I didn’t really have any long-term plans or goals with this blog, I was just writing because I truly love to write. Originally, I wrote for the stress release, which I don’t really seem to need anymore. I guess I found out that if we can get through everything that our farm has over the past 5 years, we can get through just about anything.

For some time, I considered closing out this blog, with this as my final post. It has taken me awhile to figure out how to write this one, especially since I knew it may be my last. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I really loved writing anymore,  and that I may not need it anymore.

Despite this, I think I need to keep writing about farming. I love what I do, and farming is a fascinating and vibrant business, and learning new things is a daily occurance. Furthermore, I love writing, and I love sharing my story about agriculture with anyone who will listen, even if its only a few people. To write something that touches someone’s life, or teaches them something new, is an experience that is hard to put into words, and this blog allows me to do that. As one of my close friends told me a few months ago, “just keep writing,” and that is what I intend to do.

So, as we enter into yet another growing season, I will be talking about the joys, trials and tribulations of the life of a farmer, just as I have before. Paralleling that will be more thoughts on the broader world of agriculture, and why and how it affects us as farmers in our daily lives. Finally, I will keep explaining why we do the things we do, which sometimes may seem strange or questionable to those outside of agriculture.

Agriculture is a fascinating industry, and farming is an incredible lifestyle. In this blog, you will find the daily thoughts, activities, and stresses of a farmer in Southeast Saskatchewan, Canada, from the little town of Fillmore. I hope you enjoy reading this blog as much as I enjoy writing it. Thanks for reading.

Harvest 118

P.S.: Listed below are links to some of my favorite ag-related blogs that helped me develop my own. Check them out!

AgMoreThanEver.com

RealAgriculture.com

Agriculture Proud

Janice Person – A Colorful Adventure

Prairie Californian

LipStick & Tractors

Daddy’s Tractor

Rural Route 2

 

Is Winter’s Grip Finally Breaking?

It was in early November that winter settled in. The days slowly turned colder and shorter, and the ground rather suddenly turned white with fresh-fallen snow. Fieldwork had been stopped, whether one was ready for it or not, and equipment was quickly tucked away for the winter months. The majestic season that is winter had arrived.

That was over four months ago- four months of cold, snow, heavy clothes, cold vehicles and expensive energy bills. It has been one of the colder winters I can remember, with near record days below -30 degrees and precious few days of negative single digits. Nevertheless, as we reach the mid-point of March, we are finally seeing signs of winter failing. The Sun actually feels like it is creating heat now, and the days have grown longer, with sunlight persisting even after supper. And, finally, the snow has begun to recede under the glowing heat of the Sun.

Yes, as winter begins to draw to a close, a glimmer of excitement begins to appear in people’s eyes. Conversely, we have just realized how much work we have left to do before spring break-up begins!

After such a massive harvest, we had a lot of grain to move. And with the pathetically slow movement of it, due to incompetent railway management, we still have a lot to move. Our Red Pete Unloadingbins at home are still full, and consequently we still have grain bags out in the fields. You can imagine what happens to these long, plastic tubes when the ground starts to thaw. After being mauled by birds, raccoons and deer all winter, they are not in the best of shape anymore, with multiple holes and tears perforating them like Swiss cheese. As the snow melts and the fields turn to water and muck, the bags will not fare well, and we may lose some grain to spoilage. In short, it is time to get them emptied out.

Out of the ~20 bags we had in the field after harvest, only six remain. One bag of soybeans, one of durum, and three of spring wheat are all that we have left. So, we began the arduous task of emptying the bags and moving them into bins. Why not to the grain companies? Because they are still full. What bins will we move it all to? Good question. Fortunately, we have close neighbors, and we therefore will be able to use some of their bins and a few of ours that aren’t still stuffed full.

The snow-dozer tractor has been busy, cleaning out all around the bags and the back roads to get to them. On the weekend, we got the first bag cleaned out and moved home. Soybean bag: check!Quadtrack Moving Snow

Fortunately or unfortunately, the weather has warmed up faster than was anticipated. A couple of days have already leaped above 5 degrees Celsius, which, especially if the sun is shining, can melt quite a lot of snow. The areas pushed out around the bags have quickly turned muddy, and the roads have become very wet and dirty. Our semi trucks are no longer clean!

Red Pete Grain BagOver the past few days, we have gotten two more bags cleaned up. Only one bag of wheat and one of durum remain. The durum has nowhere to be moved to, and sadly must remain where it is for now. The only goal now is to get the final bag of wheat moved out. It is vital that it be moved out soon; it’s located in the back corner of a field that only dirt trails go to. The ground is low down there, and if we don’t get the bag out before spring arrives, we will be in trouble.

As we move further into these warmer days, it becomes more and more difficult to move grain. Limits are already in place as to how much weight can be loaded, and eventually no trucks will be allowed on the roads until the spring thaw has completed. Consequently, our days for hauling are becoming shorter and shorter.

Entombed SeedMaster 2014On the flip side of all of this is the excitement that comes with spring. Seeding is only a month and a half away, and much must be done before this occurs. The air drills still sit entombed in snow, and one of them in particular will need significant work before seeding can begin. The sooner it melts out, the sooner we can get it ready.

I should point out one other thing about the spring melt. Although a few warm days quickly settle a great deal of snow, it takes a great deal of time to melt the white fields. The sunlight reflects off of the snow, slowing the melting process. Sometimes, it can take a long time to draw down the snowpack enough to get black ground to show. Once that happens, the melting process really speeds up. So, the more melting that goes on in this current warm spell, the better off we will be.

Notice I said, “current warm spell”? I have a feeling that winter isn’t done yet. It is rare in my experience that winter lets go so suddenly. No, Mother Nature doesn’t give up that easily.  She will give us yet another blast of cold air yet, and maybe even more snow. Just a hunch, anyway.

As we finish up the last of the grain bags, preparations will truly begin for spring. Excitement is brewing in all Canadians for the end of winter: but none more so than farmers, waiting to get another shot at growing the crop of their dreams. Light and dark, glowing warmth and bitter cold, death and rebirth. Winter, a time of cold, dark, and bare and empty trees and fields, is finally coming to a close. Spring, a time of rebirth, is coming. And I can’t wait.

A Cold Sunset 2014

Excitement or Fear?

There is an interesting and frightening juxtaposition when you look at crop conditions today. Crops look good. No, scratch that; crops look fantastic. We haven’t seen a crop like this since 2009, which was a record-breaking year for our farm. But, incredibly, this year could actually be better than 2009.

The other side of this coin is that the reason crops look so good is because summer has been so cool. We have not seen a high breach 25 degrees Celsius since mid-July. We have had many days of cloudy, cool weather with some disturbingly cold nights. In fact, some areas of northern Saskatchewan actually had patchy, soft frost last night. While we have escaped any of this so far (as have most) and forecasts look for an improvement in temperatures, tensions are building for everyone here. Will the crop mature in time?

In the Northern Prairies, we grow mostly cool-season crops, like wheat, peas and canola. These crops do not like temperatures above 30 degrees, especially when they are flowering. These hot temperatures can cause seed and pod abortion, which reduces yield. This was what we experienced last year, although the crop was still a good one, for the most part. Canola especially loves flowering in cool weather, which is why it looks so phenomenal. 

Due to warm weather the past couple of years, we have been experimenting with long-season crops like soybeans and corn. These crops, and especially corn, require hot weather to mature in time before our usual frost of September 10th.

As we near the middle of August, it almost doesn`t matter whether your crop is warm or cool season. All crops are at risk. A frost in the next 3 weeks would be devastating. Our farm is simply not prepared to deal with that kind of financial hardship, especially not after the difficult years we have experienced in 2010-2011. We have invested a lot of money in this year`s crop, totalling over 1 million in direct inputs alone, not to mention the new machinery we have purchased to upgrade ageing equipment. We cannot withstand a significant frost event until at least September 15. Beyond the 20th or even the 25th would be wonderful. The risk has become very real.

It is odd to talk about such a wonderful crop in the field and then complain about the weather. But there is no event, not hail, wind, drought or excess rainfall, that causes the financial and emotional hardship that an early frost creates. You can quite literally lose the entire crop if it freezes too early, as many experienced in 2004 (read more about that year and its devastation here), which was one year all farmers in the Prairies will remember. 

Harvest is coming, and the crop of a lifetime is out there.

The calendar is ticking ever closer to September, with fields still green and flowering.

Will we make it? Only time will tell.

I’m becoming very nervous.

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.