Mike is dressed in a t-shirt and jeans with a huge grin plastered across his face, not the typical look of a farmer who is struggling to finish harvest before the snow flies. He invites us to climb up the steps into his combine and we all squish into the cab. He is combining oats today and could not be happier with the yield. The golden yellow swaths of oats are bathed in sunshine and the field is surrounded by trees holding onto their brightly coloured leaves.
Farming is Tough Business
Mike has been farming organically since 2004 and he loves his job. He proudly talks about his son “I tell him 'You won’t ever get rich from farming, but you can’t beat the lifestyle.' ” Mike has not always been so optimistic about farming. He started farming in 2001 and worked on the oil rigs during the winter. He worked all winter rigging making really good money then he would come home and sink all his money into the farm. “Farming was really tough then” he explained “I couldn’t make a profit for 3 years”. The high prices of fertilizer and pesticides were staggering and the area was going through an extremely dry period so the yields were not enough to pay the bills. He knew farming was a tough business having grown up farming, but after losing so much money he was devastated. He told his father he was quitting and went back to the rigs for the winter. A lot has changed on the farm in 15 years.
Organic Makes Sense
Mike was always aware of all the toxins he was exposing himself to both as an oil worker and as a farmer. “Every jug you handle as farmer has warnings on it for potential health risks” he told us “I began to wonder about farming differently as a way to reduce my exposure to toxins.” Mike has a fantastic network of neighbours and some were farming organically. He began to explore the option of converting their family farm to an organic operation.
When you convert a conventional farm to an organic farm the land needs to be rested for 4 years and you cannot use any chemicals or fertilizers during production. The crops grown are technically organic, but the grains cannot be certified or sold as organic so the grain is worth less money. During the transition the farmer has to accept lower yields, but sell for the same prices plus learn how to do everything differently. Growing a forage crop like alfalfa is a good option while going through the transitional phase because it helps keep the weed pressure down and you can sell a high quality hay.
Getting the Knack for Organic
Mike has learned a lot since their farm transitioned to organic 15 years ago. He laughs as he says he is still learning. He still uses alfalfa in his crop rotation. A typical rotation for Mike would be alfalfa, flax, oats, and peas. He sometimes will grow barley instead of oats in his rotation or lentils instead of peas, but he always has ⅓ of his land growing forages. After producing 3 years of grain crops a quarter of land is rested and seeded to a forage like alfalfa or red clover. Using the land for hay production is a great strategy to control weeds because you harvest the hay before many weeds have a chance to go to seed.
The farm doesn’t own any cows so the hay is sold, but Mike does raise pigs. Pigs and organic farming work really well together because when organic crops are cleaned there is a lot of dockage, which is usually weed seeds or underdeveloped seeds. The farm will clean their own grain and turn the dockage into pig feed. Mike is really enthusiastic about his pigs because they let nothing go to waste on the farm. After the garden is all done the pigs get to feast on leftover corn cobs and other garden produce. Mikes enthusiasm for home grown pork is contagious as he explains “The pork from the farm grown pigs that spend their whole life outdoors taste like nothing you can buy in a store!”. We find ourselves wanting to know more about how he has learned to produce food without all the pesticides and synthetic fertilizers most farmers use.
Diversity is the Key
When he grows peas he underseeds the field with red clover. This means that he plants the peas and the red clover at the same time, but the peas will be harvested first and the red clover is left still growing in the field. Red Clover is a legume so it uses bacteria in its roots to produce nitrogen. In the fall this red clover is worked up releasing the nitrogen back into the soil for next years crop to use. The red clover in this case is considered a green manure so it is a plant source of “manure” used to return nutrients to the soil. Another green manure used is a combination of rye and faba beans. He has found this combination really helps improve the soil and build tilth. One of the biggest differences Mike has noticed on his land compared to any new land he acquires is how the soil feels in his hands. “It’s a hard thing to explain” he says “ but our soil, it just feels different than soil from conventional fields”.
Building Habitat While Farming
Farming organically also means that buffer strips are necessary as a barrier between organic fields and conventional fields. Mike laughs when he says “Yeah most farmers have decided to rip out shelter belts and here we are planting trees around our fields”. The trees work really well as a barrier and are lower maintenance because otherwise you have to till the buffer zones between fields. The trees around his crops also provide habitat for wildlife. Mike remembers being a kid and hunting partridge with his grandfather and seeing the birds everywhere. Now he has noticed you are lucky to even see a single bird. He hopes by planting trees around his crops and keeping the habitat that he owns healthy that he can provide a refuge for the birds to live.
Mike family has been family for several generations and hopes that his son will become the 5th generation and follow in his footsteps. For now Mike is focusing on making his farm as sustainable as possible and part of that plan is to diversify the types of crops they grow. He is always testing small plots of potential crops that he could incorporate into his future cropping rotations. His hope is to pass the family farm onto the next generation and that farm will be profitable and produce healthy food.
Mike produces organic oats and is one of the many dedicated Canadian farmers that we support. Watch for future articles to meet more of our producers.
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