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.”

The greatest thing about farming is working with family

Lorna Callbeck

Jeff Mathieson is a fourth-generation farmer who runs the day to day operations of their grain farm near Watson, SK. During the busy times, like seeding and harvest, Jeff’s dad comes out of retirement to run the sprayer and drive the combine but they also hire some part-time employees to make sure everything gets done on time. They grow crops like barley, oats, canola, flax and pulse crops like peas and lentils.

Farming is much different than when Jeff’s parents and grandparents started out.

Jeff’s grandfather was considered a pretty large farmer back in the 1950s when he was farming 800 acres, which is just over 3 square kilometers of land. Today, many consider a large farm in Saskatchewan to be over 10,000 acres, which is just over 40 square kilometers. Jeff says at 2,600 acres, their farm is not massive, but it’s still a big change. “I try to imagine what my grandfather would think of the size of our equipment and the technology we’re using today and how we do things,” Jeff says. “I bet it would be amazing for him.”

Jeff goes onto explain that farms don’t get bigger just because farmers want to get bigger. It’s a matter of economies of scale and efficiency in order to maintain a family farm. “In Western Canada, based on the price the consumer is willing to pay for food and what my family is growing, farming isn’t economically sustainable on only 800 acres. We can’t purchase equipment, pay the mortgage on our land, or manage the costs of a grain farm that small these days; it is just not financially viable.”

He’s at that age where he’s having a lot of fun playing farmer” says Jeff of son Andrew

“To me there are two really great things about being a farmer.” Jeff says. “The first thing is that we grow food for people. Basically, we take all kinds of energy, add support from the equipment we purchase and the methods we use to grow the crop, and we turn that into a saleable product. To me, that’s pretty cool. There aren’t very many opportunities in the world to take the energy from the sun and the gifts of Mother Nature and help feed people. And we create a sustainable and renewable resource that we sell into the economy.”

“Our house and yard is in the middle of one of our fields and we grow a crop about 100 yards away from where we live. Everything that we do to produce the food that we sell to consumers is done outside our home. Where we live is the biggest testimony to the safety of the food that we produce because we are living right where the food is grown.”

The other great thing about being a farmer is the daily connection to family. “In central Saskatchewan, we have one planting season, one growing season and one harvest season,” Jeff explains. “While we put in many 15 to 18 hour days during those busy times of the year, I can spend more time with my family in the off-season and take part in activities like taking my 3-year-old son Andrew to the science centre or spending time at the lake with him and my wife Shawna.”

“Farming is my choice. I have a university degree and experience in other professions. I could be doing anything anywhere else and maybe earning a higher salary. In my mind, working for someone else wouldn’t give me or my family the same opportunities.” Jeff goes on to explain that the significance of having family on the farm is the ability to build something that can live on beyond oneself and be transferred to the next generation.

To keep their farm sustainable for future generations, one of Jeff and Shawna’s main goals is to leave the land better each year than it was the previous year. “Everything we do, every crop we plant or the fertilizer or pesticides we apply, we ask ourselves, is this going to make it better? If the answer is yes, it’s absolutely something we’re going to do. If it will hurt the quality of the soil or the environment around us, then we find a different way. As farmers, our job is to take care of the land so it will be there for the next generation.”

“Our house and yard is in the middle of one of our fields and we grow a crop about 100 yards away from where we live. Everything that we do to produce the food that we sell to consumers is done outside our home. Where we live is the biggest testimony to the safety of the food that we produce because we are living right where the food is grown. The Mathieson family farm follows and supports the rules set out for safe food production by commodity organizations and regulatory bodies to make sure that food produced is a safe product right from field to table.”

Is Roundup Poisoning Us?

By Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

Glyphosate is a herbicide — a type of pest control product used to kill plants. It is the active ingredient in the now infamous chemical Roundup, and is one of the most used agricultural chemicals worldwide.

Google glyphosate, originally released as the product Roundup, and you’re faced with results like ‘horrific’ “new evidence about the damage Roundup causes” and “Roundup chemicals are lethal.” One quick search and I can understand why society might have concerns about the pervasive use of glyphosate in agriculture. Reading these statements does lead us to question: is Roundup poisoning us?

Let’s examine the science.

A small amount (think: pop can) is mixed into a tank of water on the back of a special machine called a sprayer. Farmers use these machines to spray the mixture onto the weeds over a large area (that one pop can treats an area nearly the size of a football field) where it is absorbed by the plant. Once inside the plant, glyphosate binds to an enzyme (EPSP synthase), preventing it from building essential amino acids that a plant needs to live and grow. With this enzyme disabled, plants die. Now, the really interesting thing is that EPSP synthase is found only in plants and bacteria; humans and animals do not use this process.

Remember that Google search which told us glyphosate is one of the most toxic chemicals around? Not so. The general standard for acute (short term) toxicity is a value called an LD50. This refers to the median lethal dose, the amount of a chemical needed to cause death in 50% of the animals it is tested on. An LD50 is one way to measure the relative short-term poisoning potential of a compound. The lower the number the more toxic it is. For example, the LD50 of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda, a common ingredient in baking) is 4220 mg/kg; table salt 3000 mg/kg; caffeine (as in our precious morning coffee) is 192 mg/kg; and nicotine (cigarettes) is 50 mg/kg.

So where does glyphosate fit? Glyphosate has an LD50 of 5600 mg/kg. Yes. It is less toxic than baking soda, table salt, and coffee.

Our entire world is comprised of chemicals. Water, salt, and vinegar are chemicals, and even our bodies can be considered walking, talking chemical bags.

You’ve probably heard the old adage of toxicologists “the dose makes the poison”. Even those regular household compounds like salt, vinegar or yes, even water can be toxic if ingested in high enough doses. When glyphosate is used as it is intended, just like salt, vinegar, and water, it has minimal toxicity to humans and animals because the amount used is small.

But how do we know we are not consuming high levels of pesticides? Health Canada scientists review the data from over 250 separate studies before they approve a pesticide for sale or use in Canada. As part of this extensive review before a chemical is approved for sale, they identify the amount of a pesticide that a person could be exposed to without any adverse health effects. These levels are then compared to the maximum amount of residue that might be found on crops after use of the pesticide (a value known as the Maximum Residue Limit or MRL) in order to ensure that consumers are never exposed to an amount that could pose a risk to health. Indeed, MRLs are typically 100-1000 times below levels that are still considered safe.

Thanks to the MRLs established by Health Canada, based on science, we can be confident that if small amounts of glyphosate are ingested through exposure in our food system, we know they won’t be at toxic enough levels to cause damage, even if they are consumed every day over a life time.

I should probably also mention that it is not just Health Canada that has assessed the science around glyphosate. Most other major regulatory organizations around the world, including the European Food Safety Authority, the World Health Organization, and the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency, have also reviewed data on glyphosate (available here).

Glyphosate is easily and relatively quickly broken down in the environment. It does not bioaccumulate, meaning it does not build up in the bodies of fish and wildlife (read an example of mercury bioaccumulation here). And finally, it is excreted by our bodies if ingested. Their overwhelming consensus? When glyphosate is used according to label directions, it poses minimal risk to people, wildlife, and the environment.

We need to evaluate claims on the basis of overall weight of scientific evidence behind it. The stronger the weight of evidence, the more confidence we can have in the scientific findings. Glyphosate has been investigated by many scientists from around the world, in hundreds and hundreds of studies (again, available here) all of which have determined that, when it is used as it is intended, it is safe for people, for animals, and our environment.

Being a science geek, I follow facts. And the evidence tells me glyphosate is not the problem a cursory Google search might suggest. If you would like to know how glyphosate is used, the label (which is a legal document authorized by the Pest Control Products Act) can be found here. And if you still have questions, we want to hear them.

For more information/resources:

https://www.bestfoodfacts.org/glyphosate/

https://www.bestfoodfacts.org/glyphosate-in-food/

http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-2012_en.html

http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/1287975/reload=0;jsessionid=osa7mo59kVxNtcafSkkP.18

http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2014/06/salt-vinegar-and-glyphosate/

http://www.who.int/foodsafety/jmprsummary2016.pdf

 

Cold snap leaves marshmallow growers feeling frosty

By: Farm & Food Care staff

MarshnewCanadians planning on camping with family and friends may feel a little less jovial this summer as late-spring cold has devastated much of the country’s marshmallow crop.

For the first time on record, it looks like frost and freezing rain will cause everyone’s favorite fluffy confectionary to jump significantly in price, and drop in availability.

“2012 was a devastating year for fruit growers, and this year we have that level of damage on our crop,” says Robyn Smore, a marshmallow farmer near Erieau Ontario who specializes in producing large white marshmallows for the retail market.

“We have almost two-hundred acres planted with marshmallows […] there’s damage to well over three-quarters of that.”

The marshmallow plant – formally known as the perennial Althaea Unofficinalis – has been used as both a medicine and foodstuff for thousands of years, and varieties of the plant exist in many areas across the globe. In Ontario, most marshmallow varieties originate from Scipio Africanus, or varieties native to Northern Africa, largely due to its sweet taste and high plant productivity. While these varieties can handle cold weather if temperatures transition slowly, they are not suited to sudden climactic changes. Buds and flowers are particularly vulnerable, and will not produce harvestable marshmallows if damaged.

This year, a spurt of warm weather early in March saw many Canadian marshmallow growers reporting earlier-than-expected budding; some farms even reported seeing plants in full bloom. Last week’s hail storms, freezing rain and heavy morning frost caused significant damage to farms across Canada with the impact of harsh March conditions was felt as far east as Prince Edward Island.

“We’re going to have to change our plans and basically cancel our early harvest altogether,” says Smore. “It just looks bad all around.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the marshmallow plant’s plight either. The unseasonably warm winter experienced by growers south of the border has also led to resurgence in Mallow Beetle populations – a pest which burrows into and consumes the sugar-laden buds of miniature-marshmallow plants – meaning an even wider shortage in the coming year.

Smore believes the loss of prime production areas in Canada and the United States will raise the retail price of marshmallows across North America, perhaps as much as 30 or 40 per cent.
Still, Smore says she is hopeful that they will be able to recover their losses next year.

“There’s always a sticky year between a few good ones. We just hope not to get burned the next time,” she says.

As for the rest of us, now may be an appropriate time to replenish summer stocks. Not having any on hand during the annual family camp-out would certainly be playing the fool. Read more

Updated: Cold snap leaves marshmallow growers feeling frosty

Marsh jkHappy April Fool’s Day!

Farmers definitely don’t grow marshmallows on bushes. Today’s sugary treats are made from a mixture of sugars, egg whites and gelatin beaten together. Although they used to be made of ingredients from marshmallow plant roots and there are accounts of ancient Egyptians making candies from marshmallow root and honey.

Now you know.

For more interesting farm and food tidbits, check out www.realdirtonfarming.ca

More than Farming: What’s a crop science regulatory consultant?

By Matt McIntosh

MorethanFarmingWhat career possibilities were you indoctrinated with as a child? Did your parents or others suggest you become a lawyer? A tradesman? Perhaps even an engineer of trains or mechanical design? What about a crop science regulatory consultant?

To that last one, I suspect your answer is no.

I know that, for my own part, I never heard such a title in my younger days. Considering I grew up a farm kid and have been working in agricultural communications for years now, I’m willing to bet very few of my less-agricultural peers have heard of it either.

What is a crop science regulatory consultant you ask? In short, it’s an individual that assists companies in registering new products – insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides for instance – with the government. Governments, as we know, need to regulate things, and registering agricultural products for sale and use within a given political jurisdiction involves long, rigid certification processes – this is particularly true in Canada, which has some of the strictest food safety regulations in the world.

Someone has to know the process, after all, and be willing to complete the associated paperwork.

Continue reading

Sustainably raising crops and cattle

By: Matt McIntosh

2010 calendar(Ripley) – Wanda Snobelen has had a stake in agriculture and the beef business ever since she bought her first Charolais cow at 12 years old. Since then she has significantly expanded her beef herd, and delved further into a diverse farm life.

The third-generation to be raised on her family’s Ripley-area beef farm, Wanda took her first foray into raising beef cattle as part of a 4-H beef club project. Now she helps harvest nearly 5,000 acres of farmland — and raises 120 Charolais cattle of her own – on her husband’s family farm in Ripley. She is also the new face for March in Farm & Food Care Ontario’s 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar. Her page is sponsored by DeKalb Canada.

“We moved to Ripley in 2000. My in-laws had a business in Tiverton that I worked at for a few years, but [my husband] Sam and I have farmed full-time ever since,” says Wanda. “When I moved, the beef cattle came with me.” Continue reading

Cheerios now have no genetically modified ingredients – Fact or Fiction?

FactFictonFACT: It’s true that General Mills recently announced its “original Cheerios” would have no genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

However, the main ingredient in Cheerios is oats – and there are no genetically modified oat varieties grown in North America, so with the exception of corn sweetener and a few other minor ingredients, Cheerios have always been GM-free.

Now you know!

For more interesting farm and food tidbits, check out www.realdirtonfarming.ca

Greenhouse technology could see Ontario strawberry farmers plug in for year-round production

By Lisa McLean for Farm & Food Care

strawberries(Thamesville) – Ontario strawberry farmers have a new way to grow strawberries, thanks to an innovative production method from a Southwestern Ontario nursery. The good news? If the system takes root, it could help lead to a year-round growing season for local Ontario strawberries.

Sandra Carther, owner of Thamesville-based Carther Plants began developing a new nursery system for strawberry plants in 2009. The system produces “plug plants” or plants that are grown in cell packs that are ready for transplant into the ground or a greenhouse.

Traditional strawberry nurseries produce “bare root” plants, which are grown outside. These plants are grown in the field and harvested in the fall, and then stored through the winter. Strawberry farmers in Ontario have traditionally planted dormant, frozen bare root plants each spring. Continue reading

Aylmer-area fruit and vegetable farmers as calendar models

By Resi Walt

2010 calendar(Aylmer) – The Howes are a multi-generational farming family who enjoy the time they get to spend together on the farm, growing fruits and vegetables for their farm market business.

Glenn and Monica, along with sons Ryan, Rick and Kevin, Ryan’s wife Jill and their children Emma and Cohen grow a large acreage of strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelons, squash, pumpkins and beans. They also grow vegetables.

The majority of the Howes’ produce is sold to a larger grocery store chain, which then supplies the broader Canadian market. About ten per cent of their crop is sold to the local market through the Howe Family Farm Market, which is open from June to November of each year.

In 2015, the Howe family appears in the tenth anniversary edition of the Faces of Farming calendar, published by Farm & Food Care Ontario. Their family’s entry was the winner in a contest launched to select one farm family to appear in the calendar. Their submission was chosen from almost 30 entries by a panel of judges and they participated in a photo shoot in August.

Ryan, Rick and Kevin are fifth generation farmers. Their great-great grandparents William and Esther arrived from England and settled in Elgin County, south of Alymer, Ontario. The Howe family continues to farm in the same area, and is growing many of the same crops as their ancestors.

Monica is proud of the food being grown on their farm, “I love promoting what we produce, because I believe in the wholesomeness of it. We’re lucky to live in southwestern Ontario and be able to produce such a bounty.”

The Howes all agree that farming together as a family is their favourite aspect of life on the farm. They run their business as a team, with each person utilizing their skills to contribute to the overall success of the farm.

Ryan manages the farm’s sales and incoming orders, and can also often be found repairing machinery. Kevin handles the greenhouse, and does research and development work to keep the farm innovative and moving forward. Rick works as an agriculture consultant off farm and helps in the family business when he can. His expertise is in providing information about fertilizer, crop protection and soil inputs.

Glenn, the patriarch of the family, is the voice of experience and reason, his kids say. He guides the farm in the right direction and helps to keep things in perspective for the family. Monica, a natural organizer, is in charge of the farm market. Jill works off the farm as a physiotherapist but helps when needed too. While the family’s sixth generation, Emma and Cohen, are too young to help yet, they love spending time with their parents, uncles and grandparents on the farm.

The family is very involved in the community. Kevin is a director on the Ontario Berry Growers’ Association, replacing Ryan who had previously served on the association. Rick and Kevin both serve on the board for the Elgin Federation of Agriculture. Monica, a retired teacher, volunteers at a local school and involves the students in growing and harvesting a school garden. The Howe family’s commitment to their community also shows through donations of produce to churches, school, sport groups, service clubs, food banks and nursing homes.

The family’s received several awards in recognition of their sustainable and environmentally responsible farming practices. In 2005, they were presented with a Conservation Award from the Catfish Creek Conservation Authority for being the first farmers in the area to use drip-tape irrigation to conserve water.

A few years ago, Ryan tried a no-till approach to growing pumpkins. This innovation resulted in reduced labour costs for weeding, less herbicide use, and better soil health due to decreased erosion. For his efforts, he was presented with the prestigious Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovations Excellence in 2013.

The farm has also become known for hosting nature tours. Nature walks include a tour of Glenn’s bird sanctuary. Glenn, a passionate aviculturist (or birder), has raised many species of birds from all over the world. Sometimes birds are brought to him for special care because they are endangered in their native countries.

The Howes have a lot to be proud of – their farm’s history, their team work, their community involvement and environmental stewardship – and the fact that they’re doing it all as a family.

The tenth annual “Faces of Farming” calendar, featuring the theme of Home Grown and Hand Made, is designed to introduce the public to a few of Ontario’s passionate and hardworking farmers – the people who produce food in this province. Copies can be ordered online at www.farmfoodcare.org. A list of retailers selling the calendar is also located on that website.