Family, farming, flax and food

Meet Nancy Johns, who, with her husband Jason, own and operate Zelma Acres in central Saskatchewan. This fifth-generation family farm of about 5,600 acres is a Century Family Farm. Retired father-in-law Lloyd is their right-hand man during the busy seasons. The Johns family grows flax, barley, wheat, peas, lentils and canola on their farm.

Nancy Johns in the cab of her combine.

Nancy is the owner, operator of her own business called Hope Floats Agronomy Services. “I’m an independent agronomist, working with local farmers and also with the Saskatchewan Alfalfa Seed Producers association. I travel across the province 3 to 4 times per year and help troubleshoot alfalfa grass production for farmers,” Nancy explains.

 

Nancy describes a typical day during harvest:

“This morning I left the farm at 5:30 AM and drove to Parkside, 215 km from home, to look at an alfalfa field. Then I drove straight home because we hope to start harvesting today,” says Nancy. “Right now, my combine is idling and my husband is testing the seed to see if it is ready to harvest. I am responsible for pretty close to half the combining on our farm.”

Ben Johns

Nancy and Jason have a 10-year-old son, two grown boys and two grandkids. “My ten-year-old son Ben is my combine buddy and has been since he was in a car seat,” she reflects. “I love being able to farm with my family.”

Not only is Nancy a busy working mom, farmer and entrepreneur, but she is also the treasurer of the local KidSport organization, and a member of the Parent Council at Ben’s school.

In addition, Nancy is on the Board of Directors for the Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission, and dedicates her time and talents to leading the flax industry.

Flax has many different uses.

“Flax is referred to as the ocean of the prairies because the flowers are blue. When you drive up to a field, it kind of looks like you’re arriving at the ocean,” Nancy says.

Flax has many different uses. The seed is ground for its oil which is high in omega-3 essential fatty acids and it is used in nutritional supplements, body and makeup products.

“There is considerable research being done on using flax for cancer treatments and to lower both high cholesterol and high blood pressure,” she explains. “Flax is very nutritious for us to eat. You need very little of it and it can really change your health.”

It’s something Nancy knows from personal experience. “Our family eats flax all the time. We take it from our bin and grind it in a coffee grinder. We use our home-grown flax in pancakes, stir it into orange juice, pizza crusts, buns and muffins—just about anything you can put flour or butter in. It can also be an egg substitute for those who have egg allergies.”

Nancy is clearly passionate about the food her family grows and the reason the Johns family has farmed for over a century. “We care so much about what we produce, and about having safe, nutritious food for us and for our consumers. We care about the health of our land. We care about leaving a legacy for our own kids, and for future generations.”

“Milk does not grow in containers on the shelves of your local grocery store. Milk is produced by farmers…”

What does the circle of life, eggnog and a passion for farming have in common?
Quick answer: Joe Kleinsasser

Joe started working in a hog barn when he was a kid. “We don’t have hogs anymore but I love the circle of life, it’s the eternal cycle of renewal, raising the young animals, that somehow speaks to me. That’s what I love the most about farming. I would go down to the barn after supper and make sure that everything was quiet and the animals were resting; you could step back a bit and enjoy what you had worked hard all day to do.”

Joe lives just north of Rosetown on a Hutterite Colony; a multi-commodity crop and livestock family farm. Together they farm 8500 acres of canola, peas, lentils, barley, and wheat.  The livestock operation includes a beef cattle herd of 300 animals, 100 dairy cows and 11,000 laying hens.

Joe loves farming.

“We are in the business to produce food as sustainably as possible.” Joe says. “You cannot farm unless you are totally passionate about it, whether it’s caring for your animals as living breathing entities or your land as a renewable resource. You cannot afford to be lackadaisical about anything. You have to look after them first from a moral perspective, and then from a production perspective.”

There’s a lot more invested in the food production system than just the food that comes out of it.

On Joe’s farm primary agriculture is a big part of the social structure.  As Joe explains, “It’s the time. It’s the passion. The love of what you’re doing.  I think if you put all that together you’ve got it.”

“For us simply because of our lifestyle, social structure and ability to function as an entity, family is extremely important. It is so much more important that the kids stay on the farm because it’s not just a particular lifestyle that’s gone if they don’t; it’s a social structure, they ensure continuity. Our success is based on transitioning to the next generation so family is very important.

”You need people that you can depend on.

“No one can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year; we need somebody to pick up the slack.” Joe explains. “I know for me there have been a lot of times where I’ve been on different committees, different Boards of Directors, at functions where I was part of leading the industry. Every time you leave the farm somebody has to step up, that’s where family and your coworkers come in. You certainly could not do it without them.”

As Joe reflects, “We have to give a lot of credit to our farm manager’s holistic management practises. Not only in future planning but in the day to day running of the farm; developing a farm safety plan, an environmental farm plan, and animal handling and animal welfare controls that are continually being upgraded. You need to build systems that become the everyday practice, something that’s done as routinely as feeding and watering the animals.”

Bio security warnings on the doors to the chicken barn help keep out disease and harmful pests.

“I think Canada has one of the safest food producing systems in the world. With the regulations we have in place I think we can give people assurance that they are eating safe healthy food, grown in an ethical and sustainable manner.”

What would Joe like people to know about family farms?

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there, folks that think farms are primarily profit driven, that we do this because you make tons of money farming. I remember going to a seminar and the speaker saying if you want to get rich buy shares in Microsoft, don’t buy a farm. Yes, we can make a good living farming, but let’s face it there are easier jobs. For me those jobs wouldn’t be as satisfying.”

When you go to your grocery store looking for a particular product, perhaps eggs and milk to make your eggnog, take a little bit of time to think about what went into getting that product there. Joe reflects “You would be surprised if you stop to think about all the different steps and the different people who have committed time and energy putting your food on the grocer’s shelves.”

Our Food Has a Story

By Serra McSymytz and Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

kids-and-vegetable-patchAs agribusiness professionals we’ve had the opportunity to talk to farmers about why and how they farm.

Just twenty five years ago, this wasn’t even a conversation. Farmers just got on with the business of working the land or tending to their animals.

Today it’s different. Consumers also want to know why and how farmers carry out their duties, growing and raising the food we sometimes take for granted. But how do you explain what farming is?

Well, there are a lot of things it isn’t.

It isn’t a 40 hour work week, sleeping in on the weekends or even through the night, at times. It isn’t a guaranteed paycheque. It isn’t easy or cheap, low risk, or low stress.

So why? Why would someone gladly raise their hand and say “I want to be a farmer”? Generation after generation?

farmers-by-the-tractorFor many, farming is a place to raise their children where they’ll learn the value of hard work, build strong principles, strengthen their character and intellect, and earn a sense of responsibility.

Farming is rewarding and challenging. It is the opportunity to give back, to do more and be better. Farming is often part of a family’s history and their children’s future. It is satisfaction, seeing something you have sewn and tended grow and thrive. It is reaping the reward of a nutritious meal prepared using ingredients you yourself have nurtured.

Farming is technical and constantly evolving; an industry always on the verge of the next advancement. It is the chance to earn a living from a passion rather than an employer. Farming is the fulfillment of feeding your family, your neighbours, and our world. Farming is a measure of who the farmer is.

The thing about farming though, is that its product is so much bigger than just one person, one family one cow, one field, one farm.

It is our food. It is our story.

farmer-in-the-tractorThere is a narrative woven through our long history. Each chapter is unique and told by the stewards who contribute to it. The rancher, beekeeper, miller, baker, berry picker, processor, butcher, grocer and, in the end, the consumer.

It is the food choices you make for yourself and your family. Farming touches each and every one of our lives because it provides one of the most basic necessities. Whether you buy local, conventional, organic, free range, with or without added hormones, we are all a part of the same story.

Join us in October during Agriculture Month in Saskatchewan and share your food story. #OurFoodHasAStory #AgMonth16

For more on events in Saskatchewan for Agriculture Month, click here.

Earth Day is Every Day on Canadian Farms

Since 1970, we’ve been celebrating Earth Day (the largest environmental event in the world) annually on April 22. But on Canadian farms, farmers celebrate Earth Day each and every day.

Farmers understand the importance of healthy soil, water and air. They live on farms with their families and they depend on the environment to create a healthy place to live, as well as the right conditions to grow crops and raise livestock. Farmers want to leave their farms in better shape for their kids than when they started farming.

Urban growth also continues at a staggering pace – with housing developments being constructed on once productive farm land near urban centres – which is another reason that farmers must protect, preserve and nurture their valuable farmland.

Here’s some of the ways that farmers strive towards protecting their farmland and creating a cleaner environment for generations to come.  

ED - Soil HealthSoil health – sustainability

  • Our very existence on this planet is dependent on a few inches of topsoil. Over two thirds of farmers use conservation tilling practices to help preserve that precious resource.
  • When people talk about ‘bringing soils to life,’ they literally mean increasing the amount of living creatures in the soil. You can measure this by counting earthworm holes in a square foot. Another way is to bury a piece of 100% cotton in the top layer of the soil to measure levels of decomposition after a few weeks or months. You can actually see how the microbiological activity turns last year’s plant stalks into smaller organic partials that build soil and bind carbon, reducing the impacts of climate change.
  • Greenhouse gases are a concern to agriculture as they are to society as a whole but farmers can actually sequester carbon in the soil as they build organic matter through good soil management. This is good for the soil and good for the planet because it reduces atmospheric CO2.  Farmers can help reduce emissions and transform atmospheric carbon dioxide into soil organic matter – and ensuring a sustainable food supply despite a changing climate. The carbon sequestered (saved in the soil) due to conservation tillage in Ontario alone equals 600 kilotons/year. That’s equivalent to taking 125,000 cars off the road each year.

Environmental training for farmers

  • In all provinces across Canada, an educational initiative called the Environmental Farm Plan is helping farmers assess their farms for environmental concerns and set goals and timetables for improvements. In Prince Edward Island, for example, 90 percent of farmers have completed an Environmental Farm Plan and in Ontario, about 70 percent of farmers have participated and invested over $600 million into on-farm environmental improvements over the last 20 years.

Did you know Conservation TillageTillage

  • Tillage is an age-old practice and refers to plowing or working up the soil, something that’s done mostly to control weeds. Many farmers in Canada have adopted “conservation or minimal tillage” or “no-till” practices. This means that crops are grown with minimal or no cultivation of the soil. Any plant materials remaining from the previous year’s crop, like corn stubble, is left on the soil building up its organic matter.  Minimal or no-till practices also help maintain populations of beneficial insects and soil and nutrients are less likely to be lost from the field.
  • Farmers also strive to prevent soil erosion caused by wind or water. One of the ways they do this is by planting cover crops to prevent soil erosion. Cover crops can do exactly what their name implies; cover the soil during the rest of the season before or after the main crop has been grown. Cover crops may be planted over a whole field for erosion protection, or they may be selectively planted in the most erosion prone areas. Cover crops are not harvested and cost money to plant, but their benefit comes from improving the soil quality and preventing erosion.

 

Water

  • Farmers rely on water for their crops and livestock to flourish. Most, 91.5 per cent to be exact – rely solely on precipitation for watering crops. Irrigation is used on higher quality crops like berries, fruits and vegetables that are for direct human consumption.
  • In Canada, only 8.5 per cent of farms use any form of irrigation. The remaining 91.5 per cent of farms rely solely on precipitation for crop watering. Irrigation is used on higher quality crops like berries, apples, tender fruits and vegetables that are for direct human consumption.

 

Natural environment

  • Work is ongoing across Canada preserving hundreds of thousands of acres of land that are inhabited by wildlife – whether that be forests, swamps and other natural spaces that are also part of a farmer’s property. Many farmers have also created, improved or expanded farm forests, ponds and river edges.

 

These are just a few of the environmental initiatives taking place on farms across this country. Today, farmers across Canada are pleased to join with their fellow Canadians to celebrate this special day.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

 

Guest Blog: Biotech Benefits for the Environment and You, Too

By Bob Bartley, grain farmer based at Roland, Manitoba.

I have been a farmer for 40 plus years and I have grown genetically enhanced (GE) crops since 1996. We grow corn, soybeans and canola, all of which are GE as well as other crops which are not. I have seen many benefits to this technology through the years, but what is in it for the consumer?

IMG_2241I really don’t consider the crops I grow to be ready-to-eat food, like apples, carrots or potatoes, but more like ingredients to make food products such as margarine, flour and feed for livestock. Government regulators and scientists have questioned the safety of GE crops right from the beginning. As a result, these crops have undergone testing far beyond that required for other new varieties. There have been about 2,000 published studies on GE crop safety, I’m told. The results say that the GE crops now grown are as safe as any others. Some reports say even safer. There have also been several studies showing that they reduce food prices too-a direct result of the higher farm yields. GE crops are one reason why North American consumers have the safest, highest quality and most affordable food in the world.

The adoption of higher yielding GE crops has allowed farmers to grow more without using additional land.  Every day, cities grow larger on some of the most productive soils in the world. Every day the world’s population increases. Farmers are tasked to produce more food on fewer acres and it’s not something we can do on our own.  Farmers need the help of innovative plant breeding tools to increase the capability of the crops we grow – innovations that increase production and allow our harvests to be used in many different ways to provide food for you and me.

The adoption of higher yielding GE crops has allowed farmers to grow more without using additional land.  Every day, cities grow larger on some of the most productive soils in the world

The discovery of the herbicide glyphosate and glyphosate-tolerant crops changed agriculture. They have allowed farmers to control perennial weeds in crops instead of depending on summer-fallowing, which requires no crop to be produced for an entire year.  Also, with the new technology, the crop stubble remaining after grain harvest is undisturbed and this allows for more moisture retention and reduced soil erosion due to wind and water. There is less fuel used on the farm because of the reduced soil tillage.

Bob BartleyInsects have always been a threat to our crops and thus to our livelihood. The Bt gene in the corn we grow, gives the crop resistance to the European corn borer. In earlier years, we used insecticides to kill the borer but they also killed beneficial insects such as lady bugs. Bt is pest specific and only kills the corn borer. Insecticide is not applied now which saves another trip across the field.

Farmers have always been stewards of the land using the tools available to them.  We strive to leave our land with the same or increased production capability compared to when we started farming. Carbon sequestering in farm soils, through no-till and reduced tillage, results in a reduction of green house gas (CO2) levels in the atmosphere.

What’s in it for the consumer? Society’s buying habits have leaned towards being environmentally friendly and sustainable. So here it is!  Better air and water quality due to reduced erosion and reduced tillage. Fewer pesticides applied and less fossil fuel consumption resulting in lower greenhouse gases. Drought-resistant crops that produce with more efficient use of water. Protection of beneficial insects. It turns out that what’s good for me as a farmer is also good for you the consumer.  Some call that win-win.

This post first appeared in the Financial Post, April 13, 2016, and is used with permission. 

International Women’s Day: Celebrating Canadian Women in Ag

International Womens DayWe’re celebrating International Women’s Day 2016 with a nod to all the awesome women in Canadian agriculture.

Did You Know: The latest census from Statistics Canada reported more than 27 per cent of farmers are female. Women can be found in agriculture at every step from farm to fork!

Here are the stories of seven women in Canadian agriculture: Continue reading

It’s Food Freedom Day

Food Freedom DayDid you know… that in Canada, we mark Food Freedom Day in early February?  This is the calendar date when the average Canadian has earned enough income to pay his or her individual grocery bill for the whole year.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has calculated that Food Freedom Day for this year falls on February 9, 2016.

Canadians enjoy one of the lowest-cost “food baskets” in the world, spending only about $0.10 of every dollar on food – compared to almost $0.25 in Mexico and approximately $0.31 in Russia [source].

Food choices abound Continue reading

Some thoughts on the Food “Free” Frenzy

By Crystal Mackay, CEO Farm & Food Care Canada

Trends continue to snowball with labels about what’s in a food product being expanded to how that food was grown or processed. Gluten-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, cage-free, everything-else-free labels are multiplying. It seems almost every day I see a new announcement from a company or a grocery store ad or a label on something I go to buy that has a claim like this.

With so much noise, how does one cut through the clutter and make an informed decision about what to buy and eat? Here are a few principles I feel that need some attention:

1. Isn’t choice awesome?
Let’s start here. I think we are extremely fortunate in Canada with so much food that we can have all these choices. For example, the fact that the egg counter at the grocery store can be a 10 minute experience reading about all the options for types of eggs is awesome. Some people in other countries might be happy to have one egg. Continue reading

Local pickled bean makers snap up Premier’s Award

Product shot Extreme BeanBy Lilian Schaer

The new pickle is a bean, says pickled bean aficionado Steve McVicker.

He’s one half of Matt & Steve’s, a Mississauga-based company that just won a Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation for their popular “Extreme Bean” Caesar garnish.

McVicker and business partner Matt Larochelle used to tend bar together and felt that the many Caesars they were mixing needed a better garnish than the traditional, bland celery stick that everyone was using.

Their search for a vegetable long enough to stick out the top of a 12-inch glass led them to the Kentucky Flat Bean, which is longer, sweeter, and crunchier than the average green bean. The two were also roommates at the time, and they cooked up their first batches of pickled beans in their 600 sq. ft. rented Mississauga condo using instructions provided by Larochelle’s mother.

“We were a bit like mad scientists with hand me down pots and adding various spices to jars,” laughs McVicker. “We weren’t very good at it in the beginning, but when we took some to work to try, they were pretty good so we scraped together some money to get started.” Continue reading

Coded eggs stand out from most others produced in Ontario

Eggs stamped with an alphanumeric code

Eggs stamped with an alphanumeric code

By Treena Hein for Farm & Food Care

(St-Isidore) It’s easy to tell a Ferme Avicole Laviolette egg from others being sold in Ontario. Each one has an alphanumeric code that signifies the date of packaging, batch date and producer. Every time their customers see the stamp, they are reminded that Laviolettes take quality and accountability very seriously. The code is also an important food safety measure, helping make any product recall both fast and accurate. For being the first in the province to implement traceability that goes beyond the carton, Marcel Laviolette recently won a 2014 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.

By 2012, the year Marcel implemented the automated egg stamping system, his business’s sales territory was quite large, including dozens of grocery stores, restaurants and food wholesalers in eastern Ontario and southwest Quebec. At that time, food safety and traceability were all over the media, and being discussed at dinner tables across the nation, within the government and within the food and agriculture industry. Marcel knew that his many customers would feel that much more comfortable if each egg was stamped, something that was being done in other jurisdictions. And for the local egg producers that use Laviolette’s grading station (and make up two thirds of his egg volume), stamping would provide added peace of mind. Lastly, having coded eggs should help increase sales, being a preferred product in terms of traceability and food safety concerns. “We wanted to stand out,” Marcel explained. Continue reading