TRANSCONTINENTAL FARM TOUR: Crossing Canada with Don Lotter

Three generations of cereal farmers in
Saskatchewan grow organically on 3000 acres

Small by Saskatchewan conventional farming standards, the Bodera farm is large for an organic farm in the region. Father, son and grandson have been growing flax, wheat, barley, oats and mustard organically since 1989.

By Don Lotter

Editor's NOTE

Since Don Lotter wrote this piece back in September 2003 as part of his transcontinental odyssey, beef sales haven't gotten any easier for Canadian ranchers. The BSE-infected cow slaughtered in Washington state last December was found to have been born in Canada.

The combination of the U.S. and Canadian cases put one in five Americans off their beef, according to a Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive poll conducted in January--not good news for Canadian growers who are almost entirely dependent on the U.S. market.

Japan has closed its markets to both U.S. and Canadian beef, putting on additional pressure. Market analysts predict BSE will cost U.S. farmers alone $5.5 billion (we have no data on what it has cost Canadian ranchers).

So, when Don talks about folks in Saskatchewan eating beef in solidarity with local ranchers, you can bet your bottom dollar they're still eating burgers by the truck load to show support.

One spot of good news: Canadian organic beef sales surged in the second half of 2003, growing by 35 percent.

 

Joff Bodera, 88, starting working on the farm in 1930, when they grew mostly wheat, using 5-horse teams for traction. "Weeds back then weren't as bad as they are now. My dad remembered when the first wild oats came in, and I remember when black mustard, pigweed and the thistles came in."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It takes the Boderas almost two weeks to get all the crops in on the nearly 2,000 acres of crop land. Pre-plant harrowing to control weeds started May 10 this year. The harrow also seals cracks in the soil, which conserves water. The air seeder also tills down weeds. None of Ken’s crops are row crops, so there are no cultivating operations after seeding.

 

The three generations: Grandson Marty, patriarch Joff and his son Ken. The Bodera family homsteaded this remote corner of Canada in 1881, miles beyond the end of the current rail line.

Posted March 23, 2004. Driving west from Manitoba, by the time I get to Saskatchewan my old Saab is covered with the remains of small grasshoppers. I find them in my clothes, in my gear inside the car, and in the engine. The word is that this is a bad grasshopper year. It is also an unusually hot, dry year.

The land has become distinctly drier as I go west. The long stretches of prairie that take days to drive, are made less monotonous by some good books on tape. Diner food and motels are cheap out here. The friendliness of the people makes up for the terrible coffee.

I’ve never eaten so many burgers. The Canadian beef crisis is at its height – the result of the U.S. recently closing its borders to Canadian beef because a Mad Cow was found in Alberta in June of 2003. Most of Canada’s beef is sold in the U.S., and Saskatchewan and Alberta are big beef producing provinces. A lot of ranchers are about to go belly up. The talk in the diners is all of the ban. Eating beef shows solidarity with the local ranchers.

Ken Bodera’s 3,000 acre organic farm in southeastern Saskatchewan lies down a long stretch of gravel road that goes in a straight line past expansive fields of wheat, flax, canola, and barley.

Ken, who looks to be in his fifties, relates how he farms in the spare language of someone not out to impress anyone. The Bodera’s two-story farmhouse is basic and doesn’t look like the house of a big landowner. A tiny, oasis-like garden sits in the middle of the circular dirt driveway of the farm ops area. A sizeable satellite dish is the only thing around the house that makes it look modern. Satellite TV is part of survival on a prairie farm. “We get together to watch the Roughriders,” says Ken, referring to the Saskatchewan’s Canadian Football League team.

Norma, Ken’s wife, works at the local hospital in the nearby town of Moosamin. Sitting in the kitchen, we talk about funding difficulties. The provincial government is putting more and more of a burden on local communities to fund things like hospitals. Norma is involved in the effort to raise funds - $3 million for a local health facility.

Ken and Norma have four sons, one of whom, Marty, 26, lives nearby and works the farm with Ken. Joff, Ken’s 88-year old father, also lives nearby and still helps.

Ken’s great grandfather emigrated from England and homesteaded this land in 1881. By that year the Canadian Pacific Railroad reached westward well into Manitoba, and many British migrated here at that time to settle the prairies. The pioneering Bodera walked from the end of the railway line in Brandon, Manitoba, to the Moosamin area, bringing a team of oxen with him.

Farmers here grew mostly wheat and other cereals for the first 50 or 60 years. Canada is second only to the U.S. in world wheat exports, and most of that wheat is grown in Saskatchewan. Flax was an occasional crop. Rapeseed, the genetic precursor to canola, was brought from Argentina during the 1940s and was grown mostly for industrial oils. Canola only came in as a crop in the late 60s and early 70s, when varieties of rapeseed low in erucic acid and glucosinolates were developed, yielding oils favorable for human consumption. These crop lines were named canola, from combining “Canada” and “oil”.

The Bodera farmhouse lies down a long stretch of gravel road that goes in a straight line past expansive fields of wheat, flax and barley. It doesn't look like the house of a large landowner.

While Ken and I talk, Joff, the grandfather, and Marty, drive up with an enormous air-seeder. The octogenarian Joff is a real character. When I come up a couple of decades short in trying to guess his age, he throws his head back and has a good laugh. A widower now, Joff married the local schoolteacher about 60 years ago. He has another good laugh when I point out that he had an advantage over all of the other single farmers – the school house was only a stone’s throw from his house, in a land where farm houses are a mile apart at least.

Joff worked on the farm from about 1930 at the age of 15, and took it over some time in the 40s. “Back then we used teams of horses to work the ground, usually five, although one year I tried eight,” says Joff. “We would (moldboard) plow before planting in the spring. We seeded with a ten foot wide drill. We grew mostly wheat, with some barley and oats. We summer fallowed every other year back then, cultivating down the weeds a couple of times. This conserved moisture. Some of those Dustbowl years were pretty dry. A lot of guys were out of work. We boarded them at the farm.”

“Weeds back then weren’t as bad as they are now,” says Joff, “My dad remembered when the first wild oats came in, and I remember when black mustard, pigweed, and the thistles (Canadian, Sow, Russian) came in."

Weeds invading the land had more to do with simple ecological succession than with farming methods. After breaking the prairie ground in the 1880s, there was a “honeymoon” period of about 50 years. Weedy plants, mostly from Eurasia, slowly invaded, brought in with contaminated seed, animals, hay, or wind. During this period the residual organic matter from the original prairie, which started out at 7% or 8%, was mined down to about 2% by the annual plowing. The mineralization of the organic matter provided good crop yields. The Dustbowl, which occurred farther south, was a product of the depleted organic matter and a severe dry spell.

Three thousand acres is not a real big farm in this region, although it is big by organic standards, and it’s nearly three times the size of the average Saskatchewan farm. Most organic farms in Saskatchewan run in the hundreds of acres. Many conventional farms in this area are over 10,000 acres, with some at 20,000. With profits being whittled down to such a pittance per acre in conventional agriculture, one way to maintain them is to increase acreage and the scale of the entire farming operation.

Saskatchewan has over one third of Canada’s organic farms and 50% of its organic acreage. The Bodera farm is certified by the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba. Being near the Manitoba border, they are closer to the Manitoba organic inspectors and certifiers than to the Saskatchewan groups, which are farther north and west.

The Boderas decided to go organic in 1989. They had been practicing minimum chemical farming for years, so the transition was not a real difficult one. Wheat, barley, oats and flax are still the main crops. They grow some “tame yellow” mustard – the kind that makes mustard for hot dogs. Although this is canola country, Ken doesn’t grow canola. Only one or two farmers Ken knows of grow it organically. Problems with weeds, especially wild mustard, and with the flea beetle, make it too difficult to grow without chemicals. Most of the organic canola is grown farther north, toward Saskatoon.

Southeastern Saskatchewan averages 17 inches of rain per year. This year is very dry, but all of it in the second half of the season. Most of the crops are harvested this year by the 10th of September - an 85 day season. Most seasons are 110 days. The hot, dry weather matured things fast, but didn’t affect yields that much.

Grasshoppers were bad this year, but the early drying-out of the crops kept their damage to a minimum, according to Ken. There’s usually nothing he can do about them except let them munch his crops. “I counted 25 grasshoppers on a fence post the other day,” says Ken.

Fusarium head blight of wheat is also down this year because of the dryness. The wheat midge, which can also be a problem, seems to have been sensitive to the drought and did not cause problems this year.

Ken in a field of wheat: In 2003, 50% of their cropland was in wheat, 30% in oats and 20% in flax.

Ken normally puts his crops in around the third week in May. Two-thirds of the land is sown with crops and 1/3 is kept as summer fallow and green manure each season. Of the crop land this year, 50% is in wheat, 30% in oats, and 20% in flax. Most of the wheat crop this year is sown on the 1/3 of land that was summer fallowed last year. Summer fallow operations are to disk down weeds a couple of times and perhaps graze cattle on it. Oats can be put into land that is fairly weedy, as it competes well, so it goes into the second year ground, often following wheat.

It takes the Boderas almost two weeks to get all the crops in on the nearly 2,000 acres of crop land. Pre-plant harrowing to control weeds started May 10 this year. The harrow also seals cracks in the soil, which conserves water. Ken usually does another pass with a cultivator or rod weeder before seeding. The air seeder also tills down weeds. This year it was cool early in the season and the crop got a little weedier than usual. None of Ken’s crops are row crops, so there are no cultivating operations after seeding.

Flax has to be sown quite shallow, and if moisture isn’t good early in the season it can have trouble. This year the drought came later in the season, so the crop is alright. Flax has delicate blue flowers that bloom for only a day across an entire field, giving a nice complement to the ubiquitous yellow canola flower.

The Boderas also have 200 cow-calf pairs. This is a tough year because of the U.S. ban on Canadian beef. The cattle are not certified organic, as there is little market for organic beef. Recently the U.S. ban on Canadian beef was partially lifted and slaughtered beef is being allowed in. The problem is that the Canadian beef industry is not set up for slaughtering for the U.S. market. “We’re set up to ship beef on the hoof. Shipping slaughtered beef would make us a lot more money. You need half or less of the trucks. We should take this opportunity to change our industry to shipping slaughtered beef,” says Ken, “but no, you don’t hear anyone talking about that. They’re just talking about a massive cull of the herds.

We’re not subsidized as much as U.S. farmers,” he says, referring to the difficulties of surviving episodes like the beef ban. He cites some surprising statistics comparing farm subsidies in the EU., U.S. and Canada. Some checking verifies his figures. Economists have a statistic called the Producer Support Estimate, which is the average percentage of a farm’s receipts that subsidies make up. For grains and oilseeds the PSE is 12% for Canada, 35% for the U.S. and 53% for the EU. U.S. farms are subsidized nearly 200% more than Canadian farms. This is somewhat surprising given that Canada is known for its liberal federal spending on programs for its citizens. Obviously this does not apply to farmers.

Ken spreads the manure onto his crop fields, but can only do that in the fields near the cattle. He’s trying to diversify the locations of the cattle to get them to fields farther out, by transporting the feed out to them. “But in winter, when it gets down to 20 below (Celsius) and stormy, it’s not easy or smart to be driving out there all the time,” says Ken. He also bales hay for sale.

Ken’s yields are commonly 50%-66% of the conventional yields in the area, which means 20 to 25 bushels per acre of wheat, and 40 to 50 of barley. Price premiums consistently reflect the yield differences – in the 50-100% range.

There is a plethora of market channels for organic grains, and who Ken sells to depends on who is paying what. “There’s not much grower-buyer loyalty in the organic grain market,” says Ken, “It’s best to diversify your buyers anyway, so I generally don’t sell to the same outfit two years in a row.”

As I drive west from the Bodera farm, I can’t help but reflect that the Boderas, all three generations of them, are the heart and soul of the North American breadbasket, as well as its future – farming sustainably, on the free market, and liking it.


The Have a Nice Day motel, near Moosemin, Saskatchewan, where the author stayed.