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

 

Fact or Fiction: You can save 1,300 gallons of water by skipping your lunch burger

FactFictonThere’s an infographic floating around on social media. Perhaps you’ve seen it.

It claims you can save 1,300 gallons of water if you:
– don’t flush your toilet for six months, OR
– don’t take a shower for three months, OR
– for lunch today, don’t eat one burger.

Turns out, this is FICTION.

Let’s look at how the cow (behind that burger) really measures up.

Continue reading

From Pasture to Pond

by Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

(Mooretown) – Chad Anderson might not be an avid outdoorsman, but he has a definite appreciation for natural spaces and the wildlife they support. On his cow-calf farm near Mooretown in Lambton County, Chad has invested in both new pasture and a new pond in an effort to improve the environment for wild birds as well as his beef herd.

The view of the Anderson farm from the duck pond

The view of the Anderson farm from the duck pond

Last year, Chad’s farm was in the middle of a transition. A section of cropland was being converted to permanent pasture for his animals. However, his pasturing plans hit a roadblock when they encountered a stubbornly wet section of ground just behind his barn.

“Part of the area we were seeding down to pasture was always a really wet and low lying area,” says Chad. “Leaving it like that and making it into pasture would have been an issue. I didn’t want my cows to get in it because they could get stuck in the mud, or get sick from drinking the water.”

In the interests of his herd’s health, says Chad, the area was going to have to be drained before it could be used. Continue reading

Celebrating soils

By Patrick Beaujot

Did you know:
• 95 per cent of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils
• A shortage of any one of the 15 nutrients required for plant growth can limit crop yields
• By 2050, food production must increase by 60 per cent globally and almost 100 per cent in developing countries
• 33 per cent of soil is moderately to highly degraded due to erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, salinization, and compaction
• It can take up to 1,000 years to form one centimeter of soil
• Sustainable soil management could produce up to 58 per cent more food
• Experts estimate that we only have 60 years of topsoil left

Source: United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization
The United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of the Soil. This is also National Soil Conversation Week so it’s fitting to consider what the soil and the earth provide.

Since 95% of our food comes from the soil, we should treat the soil with great respect.

To make sure our top soil is kept healthy and preserved for future generations, farmers have been changing their practices from using intensive tillage to conservation or no-till. Continue reading

Farmers: the original environmentalists

Happy Earth Day!

Earth Day Love Copy

Soil or dirt? What’s the difference?

soil

Soil is a living environment and is ideal for growing crops.

Soil is a living environment and is ideal for growing crops.

Soil is alive; it contains small particles of sand and clay, decaying organic matter, earthworms, bacteria, insects and microorganisms.

Soil is a living environment and is ideal for growing crops. Dirt is basically dead soil, which can be revitalized by adding organic matter.

The texture and colour of the soil, how it looks, feels and even smells, depends on the amount of each component in the soil blend.

Sand – what you find on the beach
Clay – what you find at the bottom of a valley
Organic matter – decaying plants and earthworms, bacteria and other microorganisms
Loam – the perfect mixture of sand, clay, organic matter – ideal for growing crops.

Different types of soil? Really?

Farmers work with different soil types, depending on where they live. The type of soil found across Canada is directly dependent on glacier movement thousands of years ago. About 12,000 years ago, during ice age events, advancing glaciers slowly ground rocks into finer particles as they moved south. Then, centuries later, retreating glaciers deposited sand and gravel in a mixture with the soil they were travelling over. That, combined with the annual cycles of plant and animal growth and decay over millions of years, has built the soil in your region into what it is today.

(Farmer Profile:) Doug Chorney is a third-generation Manitoba fruit and vegetable farmer. His ancestors made a commitment to farming sustainably when they immigrated to Canada 100 years ago – and he plans on his descendants continuing that practice for at least another century. What’s his favourite part about farming? The smell of the soil! He explains, “For me it’s about living the great life that you can on a farm with fresh dirt and hard work….It’s the smell, the sound, the feeling you get when you’re out there. It’s very fulfilling.” Photo: Manitoba Canola Growers

Doug Chorney is a third-generation Manitoba fruit and vegetable farmer. His favourite part of farming is – the smell of the soil! 
Photo: Manitoba Canola Growers

What’s his favourite part about farming? The smell of the soil!

Soil by depth is broken into three groups: Topsoil (on the top) is rich in organic matter but lower in minerals. Subsoil, found below the topsoil layer has a higher clay and mineral content. Parent Material is made up of deeper rock, sand or clay with no organic content.

Scientists have created soil maps of Canada. On those, you’ll see local soil types like Brookstone Sand Loam or Staten peaty muck referencing types of soil found just in that area. The type of soil found on a farm will certainly influence a farmer’s crop choices and management systems.

Although you cannot change your basic soil type, there are many management techniques that can help maintain or improve soil structure.

Doug Chorney is a third-generation Manitoba fruit and vegetable farmer. His ancestors made a commitment to farming sustainably when they immigrated to Canada 100 years ago – and he plans on his descendants continuing that practice for at least another century.

What’s his favourite part about farming? The smell of the soil!

He explains, “For me it’s about living the great life that you can on a farm with fresh dirt and hard work….It’s the smell, the sound, the feeling you get when you’re out there. It’s very fulfilling.”

 

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

 

On-farm environmental improvements yield decades of benefit for watershed

By Lilian Schaer

(Chatsworth) – It’s hard to imagine a prettier spot in Ontario than Bob McKessock’s farm.

Bob McKessock is shown by his farm sign in Grey County

Bob McKessock is shown by his farm sign in Grey County

Nestled in the picturesque rolling hills of northern Grey County between Chatsworth and Owen Sound, the 100 acre farm where he raises beef cattle has been in his family for over 100 years.

About two decades ago, McKessock was one of the first farmers in his area to take part in a unique demonstration project designed to improve water quality in the Bighead River watershed where his farm is located.

Today, as the project has matured over time, the benefits of McKessock’s work and the proactive vision of the program’s leaders are clearly evident.

The Bighead River demonstration program was part of the Wetland, Woodland and Wildlife (3W) Program, which was designed to prevent potential conflict between agriculture, wildlife and fisheries.

The focus was on working with local farmers and land owners in the watershed to improve water quality by reducing livestock access to open water sources, controlling soil erosion, and rehabilitating fish habitat.

McKessock is fortunate to have several fresh water springs on his farm that served both his house and barn, as well as the cattle in his pastures.

As part of the Bighead River project, McKessock built two cattle watering stations on his farm and then fenced his stream and swamp areas off to keep the livestock out of that water.

Continue reading

Inside Farming: Hormones Are Everywhere, Including In You

By: Chloe Gresel, CanACT member, University of Guelph

The beef with growth implants in cattle production

Many Canadians actively search for hormone-free beef for their next meal, but hormonal implants may not be the enemy. In reality, growth implants help beef animals convert feed more efficiently, which results in leaner meat and keeps the price of beef more reasonable for the consumer. In addition, the levels of horses in these animals not be as worrisome as some think. Photo by Rudolph Spruit

Many Canadians actively search for hormone-free beef for their next meal, but hormonal implants may not be the enemy. In reality, growth implants help beef animals convert feed more efficiently, which results in leaner meat and keeps the price of beef more reasonable for the consumer. In addition, the levels of horses in these animals not be as worrisome as some think. Photo by Rudolph Spruit

There is much buzz in today’s media about wanting hormone free meat. Can I let you in on a secret? There is no such thing. You see, just like humans, all animals have naturally occurring hormones in their bodies. What the consumer is actually trying to get when they ask for “hormone-free beef” is animals that are raised with no hormones outside of their own. Companies such as A&W are trying to scare consumers into thinking that their products are better because they are using beef that is raised without growth hormone implants.

Can I let you in on another secret? Implants are not the enemy. Growth implants are used to help beef animals convert feed more efficiently. This means the animals develop more lean meat and grow more on less feed. Beef animals that are implanted have increased weight gain from 5 to 23 per cent and convert feed to meat 3 to 11 per cent more efficiently than non-implanted cattle. By using less feed, costs are reduced for the farmer and beef is kept at a reasonable price for the consumer. There is also a smaller environmental impact when cattle are implanted, as farmers are using fewer resources to get them finished and ready for harvesting. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Animal Science stated that if we were to remove growth implants from our cattle production system, we would need 10 per cent more cattle, 10 per cent more land and feed, and 7 per cent more fuel and fertilizers to raise the same amount of beef.

You might be thinking that it’s great that implanted beef has a smaller environmental impact, but you still don’t want all those extra hormones in your own body. Well then, let me share this tidbit of information: 15 ml of soybean oil has over 28,700 nanograms of plant estrogen, while a 100 gram serving of beef raised with growth hormones has only 2.2 nanograms. Surprising, isn’t it? Studies have shown that there are greater differences in hormone levels between the different sexes of cattle then there are between cattle raised with growth hormones versus cattle raised without growth hormones. Continue reading