I have been reading a lot of articles lately on the whole pro-GMO/non-GMO debate. I won’t quote them or link them here, as some came from well-known agricultural publications that in my opinion could stand to take a slightly less-biased stance when writing these pieces. If you are interested in reading them, please feel free to email me and I can tell you where to find them. I myself won’t be giving those pages any more shares/views.
I will however, clear up a few things.
1. As an organic farmer and consumer, I actually do know what GMO/GEO/GM/ bio-technologically modified foods and seeds are. The articles I have come across tend to refer to organic and non-GMO supporters as being uneducated on the subject. The idea that organic consumers and producers are uneducated is insulting. If I consider myself a farmer who cares about my career at all (which I do) and a consumer who cares about her health and environment (which I do) then of course I have done my research (and yes, I realize this may not always be the case but as someone who personally knows plenty of non-gmo and organic advocates, they are anything but uninformed on the subject).
2. The biotech industry’s biggest argument right now is that consumers are uneducated as to what a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) is, and that heritage seeds and selective breeding actually falls under this umbrella term. I find this interesting as more than a few reputable sources actually refer to Genetic Engineering and Genetic Modification as one in the same. The World Health Organization, for example, defines GMOs as:
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, defines them as organisms that do “not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” That is, they are created by unnatural DNA recombinant technology.
3. These biased articles are a direct attack at the organic movement. Not that I feel it’s threatened. If they are arguing semantics of terminology and grasping at opportunities to call organic supporters uneducated and uninformed, then they are obviously running out of ideas.
4. Whatever they decide to call it or not call it, I, as an organic producer and consumer, am not doing what I do to fight against some silly term. It’s much bigger than the wording (whatever that ends up being). If I can no longer say that I am “non-gmo” then I will instead say that “I am against the unnatural alteration of genetic material in our food using DNA isolation and recombinant technology. I support selective breeding which is a very different and quite natural process, and is a type of biotechnology that has been used for millennia by farmers and growers that care about what they are producing/eating.”
If you are interested in reading more about GMOs, or want to be clearer on the terminology, here are some great links to get you started – and to share with friends! The misconception is that organic advocates are uninformed. Let’s change that.
I just finished reading my last post, “Organic Inspection is Done!!” and the last paragraph had Nolan and I both giggling and shaking our heads:
“This year’s tour was very enjoyable since our inspector was so enthusiastic, he even said our crops are the best he’s seen this year so far! We are pretty pleased with them too, the rain was timed perfectly with our seeding this year and some of our rotation decisions are working out great! Everything is a beautiful deep green, which means there’s lots of nitrogen in the soil. Things are also maturing early, which means a nice early harvest!”
Oh how naive we were! The phrase, “a nice early harvest” seems especially innocent now.
It is now the second week of November, and harvest is still nowhere near complete. Like so many farmers in Western Canada this year, we have had a wet, snowy, frustrating autumn. Anything that we have managed to combine so far has had to be run through the grain dryer before going into storage, and we have only had a handful of days where the weather conditions were good and we weren’t dealing with breakdowns.
Going into this, I knew that farming would be a tough career at times. I prepared myself for that. However, when I was looking out on our field of wheat (beautiful wheat, that we were so proud of) covered in 3 inches of wet snow . . . I have no words to describe that feeling.
The ground has been so wet at the farm that it’s been nearly three weeks since we’ve been able to do any significant amount of field work. Even discing hasn’t been possible most days, it’s just too muddy. We’ve been busying ourselves with drying grain and maintenance and marketing, ready to jump back on the combines the moment conditions are better.
We are hopeful yet, the past several days we’ve had a lovely chinook blowing through, melting snow and drying things out a little. If it keeps blowing like this, or else gets really cold without snow, then we still have a chance at getting the crops off.
Sometimes when I talk about weather now, I feel like a particularly finicky customer at a restaurant: “I’ll take a week of sun and warm winds for an appetizer, followed by a large helping of very cold, hard frost and breezy evenings, perfect for freezing the muddy fields and finishing combining. Please HOLD THE SNOW!”
Talk about picky! If I don’t get exactly what I ordered, we still have options for harvest. We are researching winter combining, and if worst comes to worst, we still may be able to combine in the spring. If we are unable to finish discing because of the mud and snow, then we can work those fields in the spring and plant some later crops next year with a shorter growing season (probably barley, and perhaps hemp – I’m researching that possibility this week). Some of these solutions aren’t the most ideal, but it helps a lot to talk about our options. I worry less.
This post has been a long time coming. I have been putting it off and wondering what to say, because I so want to keep a positive dialogue going when I talk about farming. I still want to smile when I talk about my career, and I want to communicate to people how beautiful I think a life in agriculture can be. This season though, I am disappointed that I have found it hard to find that silver lining.
I thought about only writing about the positive things in this post, but decided that just wouldn’t be real or helpful to anyone. When I think about what has brought comfort to me lately, the biggest thing has been remembering that we’re not alone.
When Mother Nature threatens your pay cheques for the entire year, it somehow helps to know that you’re not the only person she’s picking on!
The morale of our fellow farmers in the Peace Country is low, too. With only 50-60% of crops harvested in the area, we aren’t the only ones feeling frustrated. I do notice though, a lovely sense of camaraderie among the farmers that I talk to. We all feel for each other and know that each of us is doing our very best.
Thus, this post is my part in supporting other farmers who may be struggling this year. Especially new farmers, like us, who don’t have a few tough harvests under their belts yet. I’m going to say what I’ve been hearing, and wanting to hear all season:
“We get it, it sucks, you’re not the only ones, and you still have options. Don’t give up!”
Here’s hoping we get what we ordered weather-wise, and that we’ll remember there is always another farmer across the table.
We are over the moon with feelings of accomplishment and glad that inspection was early in the season. Now we can focus on haying and all the plowdown we have yet to do. I’m looking forward to some more long days in the tractor, far away from paperwork.
We didn’t spend quite as many hours on organic books this year, and I think that means we are getting the hang of things on that front. In fact (commence some pompous bragging), the inspector said our farm records were the best he’s ever seen! I was soooo glad to hear this, since it is one of the tasks that I stress most about, and I spent a good 20 hours or so working on paperwork before he came.
For readers who are new to organic methods, I thought I’d summarize what is involved in the yearly organic inspection so that we can maintain certification.
We usually get a call from an organic inspector from AOPA (the Alberta Organic Producers Association) anywhere from two weeks to a month or so before the inspection date. In that period, we knock off an incredible to-do list, making sure everything is just right.
One job before inspection happens is double checking that all our “Do Not Spray” signs are up on our buffers. This is so neighbours are aware of drift when spraying, and so the county doesn’t accidentally spray ditches next to our fields. We have an agreement with Birch Hills County that they don’t spray near our fields, but signs are just an extra precaution. We are lucky to live where we do, since most of our fields are surrounded by trees, this task isn’t as big as it might be for organic farmers in less-treed areas.
Another task is to make sure we can access all the fields so we can show the inspector the crops. This year we found this a bit of a challenge, since we are still cleaning up fallen trees from a snowstorm in May, and have to fix the river crossing since we got a ton of rain in June and the river was very high. As it was, we didn’t get to everything this year and we ended up taking the inspector to see the last field on quads across the river and over some trees. I was a bit nervous about this, but I don’t think he minded – I looked back a few times to see him grinning as he drove over trees with the quad. I guess a scenic quad ride is nothing to complain about.
The biggest job to do before inspection is updating the Organic System Plan (OSP). We send in an annual update at the end of February every year, with our proposed seeding plan, rotation, and our total inventory and sales from the time of the last inspection. Just before the inspector comes, we go over this form in depth and make notes on any changes from our original seeding plan. This year for example, we had originally planned to plant winter wheat on our lease across the river, however with the dry spring that we had were were able to get on that field much earlier than usual so we decided to plant flax instead. Flax has a longer growing season than wheat and we usually never are able to plant flax on that particular field because we can’t cross the river early enough. It’s good we got to it, because it will add more variety to the crop rotation.
One of the last things we do before inspection date is make sure that the house and yard are well-kept and beautiful. This isn’t a necessity for inspection, but moreso a necessity for our sanity, I think. When inspection is over and we’re finally done worrying about it, then we can take a guilt-free evening off to celebrate without seeing a huge to-do list of yard and house maintenance.
When the inspector arrives, we usually go over the paperwork first. He or she checks for changes to the original seeding plan, and will ask to see a seed source list for where the seed for each crop planted this year is coming from. We usually use our own seed, so this is often covered with our bin and field records. However if we purchase any grain for seed then we also need to have some extra forms ready – like organic certificates, and proof that it’s untreated, non-GMO seed. This year we are purchasing some winter wheat, so I had to fill out a “Non-GMO Affidavit” form for the first time. It’s fairly straightforward, but definitely not something that I would ever want to overlook for inspection. Proof that our seed reaches organic standards is extremely important.
The inspector will also want to see bin records (what is in each bin and where it came from), field activity (what we did on each field and when), and clean equipment logs (anytime a piece of equipment was washed or blown off), etc..
He or she will also do a sales audit trail for a randomly chosen certified organic sale since the time of the last inspection. This starts with making sure that the grain was hauled with a clean truck. Most trucking companies haul both organic and conventional seed, so we have to inspect any truck that comes before loading it, to make sure it has been properly washed and there’s no chance of contamination. The next things to check is what bins the truck was loaded from, and then what fields the grain in those bins came from. The inspector has to make sure that every certified organic sale is traceable from field to buyer, so any time we move grain, dry grain, clean grain, or harvest multiple fields into the same bin, it all must be recorded.
When the paperwork is all done, we get to do the fun stuff – taking the inspector for a tour of the yard and fields. We usually start with the grain bins, to check that the bin inventory matches up properly, and then go for a drive. During the tour, the inspector will take notes making sure that each field is seeded to what our records say, and also will check buffer zones to make sure they are wide enough to protect our organic crops from any spray drift from the conventional fields nearby.
This year’s tour was very enjoyable since our inspector was so enthusiastic, he even said our crops are the best he’s seen this year so far! We are pretty pleased with them too, the rain was timed perfectly with our seeding this year and some of our rotation decisions are working out great! Everything is a beautiful deep green, which means there’s lots of nitrogen in the soil. Things are also maturing early, which means a nice early harvest!
What a difference a year makes! We just finished spring seeding here and with the recent moisture we’ve found some time for rest and have been reflecting on how different this farm season has been going so far.
This time last year, we were only just settling into our new life on the farm, and full of anxiety and uncertainties. While we still have much yet to learn, I really feel like Nolan and I are beginning to become more confident in our capabilities. We still often go to Dad with questions and are always, always researching, but I think having made it through one year, just knowing we can, makes all the difference in the world. I feel like we have learned so much in the past year, so I thought I’d summarize some of the lessons that I want to remember throughout this season to keep me focused, healthy, productive, and happy! Here they are, in no particular order:
10 Things I Learned In Our First Year Farming:
1. There will always be questions.
At about this time last year, I was feeling silly and incapable simply for not knowing more. How could I have grown up on the farm my entire childhood and still have so many questions!? Certainly I must not have paid enough attention or not retained enough information!
When I think back, my parents had lots of questions about farming when I was growing up, too. I remember conversations like: “This field first, or that field first? . . . Should we seed barley or rye there? . . . How to we get rid of this weed? Is the flax ripe enough to combine? . . . Should we try harrowing one more time?”
They questioned things, they tried things, they figured out what worked and learned from what didn’t. With the start of this season, I am reminding myself that questions are a good thing – good farmers ask questions!
***Another thing we learned is “Yes, you can Google that!”
2. Don’t worry about things you can’t control (like the weather).
Farming is a lesson in humility. When your crop’s success or failure is dependent on whatever mother nature decides to do, you have to learn not to worry.
Last year, I prayed fervently for rain. I dreamt about rain and woke up in the middle of the night, disappointed when there was no sound of it on the roof. I would have done a rain dance if I knew how. I stressed about it, a lot.
We didn’t get as much as would have been ideal, but we got enough. This year, even though the spring started out even dryer than last, I was much calmer. I realized how much energy I had wasted worrying about rain, and then hail, and then snow! What is the point? Why let the weather (something you can’t control) disturb your peace (something you can control)? It really is simpler than we make it.
3. Take it one day at a time, and stay flexible.
No two days are alike. Some days we wake up with a plan and I get to cross everything off my to-do list. Other days, our goals completely change because of a breakdown, life, or a change in weather. Again, we are not in control, even when we think we are. It’s just important at the end of the day to look back on what you did accomplish and the knowledge you gained, even if it didn’t exactly match up with your plans. It was supposed to happen the way it did today, and when plans change it’s a good reminder that we won’t ever feel bored!
4. Health first, farm second.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way last year. From a 3-month-long bout of bronchitis in the spring, an injured shoulder during haying, and vertigo and a sprained ankle during harvest, I have learned this lesson! I went into seeding this spring with a newly developed allergy to animal proteins, so I am preparing myself to practice putting my health first this year. I don’t know how many productive days I lost last year simply by not taking rest when I needed it, and pushing my body too far.
5. Take breaks.
When your job is just footsteps outside your front door, and the to-do list seems never-ending, it can be hard to learn how to balance things. With my old nine-to-five job it was easy to leave work at work and make time to rest when I got home.
With farming however, it’s so easy to get caught up in overwhelm and I have caught myself more than once in the past year working steady instead of working smart. Working smart, I have discovered, means taking breaks regularly so that you are more rested and focused on working more productively. When I think of this I will always remember the all-nighter I spent baling last summer. Covered in hay dust, exhausted and cranky at about 4 am, I stopped tractor and shut it down completely. I took about 10 minutes and stood outside drinking tea from my thermos and taking in the beautiful night. I listened to the wind rustling the trees and let myself become mesmerized by the starry sky as I lapped up deep breaths of the pungent green scents of the field. I went back to my tractor focused, refreshed, and peaceful, and was able to bale faster and with even less plug-ups than before! This seems a simple lesson, and one that I thought I knew already, but it made it’s way onto this list because I have learned that it is incredibly important to remember as a farmer.
6. Always, always appreciate.
It’s no secret that farming can be stressful. The best way I have learned to cope with this is to count our blessings every day. It is so easy to focus on what goes wrong, even when there is so much that works out just right. The perfect timing of the rains this spring; a sale falling through, for an even better one to come along the next week. Even something as simple as spotting a broken bolt on a piece of equipment, saving us from a much more difficult repair if it had been left unnoticed. There is so much to be thankful for!
7. Language matters.
This relates back to my last point, and it astounds me some days at the difference it makes. I touched on this in my previous blog post about creating positive language around farming, and it is something that I think about all the time.
I have noticed that the day-to-day language we use around the challenges and successes of farming can influence the level of stress vs. appreciation in our lives immensely. Something as small as “Wow the flax is coming in really nice in the lower spots” vs. “It’s too dry on the hills, the flax needs more moisture, damn this drought” can totally determine the outlook for the rest of the day, and type of language one uses can influence the people around you. It’s not just about being appreciative, but also about communicating that appreciation to the people you’re working with. Just being aware of our language and level of appreciation around farming every day is the first step in changing how the farm lifestyle is viewed in general. Talk about what you appreciate!
8. Keep organized, and make lists.
I make lists to keep track of everything from which field should be worked next, to what meals to make and freeze before we get busy with haying. Keeping organized is absolutely necessary for me to defeat any feelings of overwhelm. Right now I am working on my comprehensive to do list for the summer, with all the tasks rated by priority, all to be transferred onto a dry erase board for easy updating. 🙂
9. Look back.
I have been so grateful for the wealth of information that old farm diaries have provided. I keep the more recent ones (2007 and later) on-hand in a shelf in my living room.
Whenever I’m feeling discouraged, I can study them and realize how much this farm has come through, and look at how my parents problem-solved and experimented to make things work. It’s a good reminder that challenges are part of farming, as is the constant learning.
10. You can actually fall in love with a career.
I have never felt quite the way I do about farming about pretty much anything else in my life. When I say “I love farming,” I actually get a tickling achey feeling in my chest. When I am in the field on my hands and knees digging around for germinated seeds, the glee I feel while furrowing my fingers under the soil is totally encompassing. Every time I dump a truck or combine and watch the river of grain pouring out, I am filled with a sense of accomplishment and pride. When I work a field and watch the bright green turn to dark, fresh soil and see the ravens flock behind me, peace overwhelms me. Nothing has ever given me the same satisfaction as farming does.
Last week, Nolan and I attended the Organic Alberta conference, in Olds, AB. What an exciting event, I am so glad we got to go! The speakers were all very knowledgable and enthusiastic, and the atmosphere was wonderfully positive and inspiring. I left with a pile of notes (that I have to copy out neatly sometime this week, since they are in my nearly-illegible-chicken-scratch handwriting) and even more excited than usual about everything organic!
When we first arrived at the opening, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a good number of those attending were around our age. We don’t know a lot of other young farmers so I was excited to meet some people with whom we might have some things in common. I was disappointed to find though, that when we went to the first few talks aimed towards grain farmers, we were some of the youngest people in the room.
Next generation family farming is something that I have thought about a lot since the conference. In one talk, called “Where Are All of the Young Farmers?” presented by Dana Penrice of Organic Alberta, I learned that 74% of Canadian farmers today say that they will sell their farm in the next 10 years. This is sad, but didn’t surprise me. What did come as a shock though, is that 68% of new farmers nowadays actually did not grow up with a farming background. The question arising from these stats is: Why aren’t “farm kids” returning to the family farm?
For me, if anyone had told me at the age of sixteen that I would return to the farm at age twenty-six and LOVE it, I would have laughed in their face (or maybe gave an exaggerated eye-roll – I had quite an attitude at sixteen). I did come back though, and it embarrasses me now when I think about how badly I wanted to get away from the farm as a teen. Of course, it was isolated and a lot of hard work, most teens wouldn’t be keen on staying. Now though, I wish I had learned to appreciate farm life sooner, and feel a little like I’m making up for lost time. I always thought that I just had a particularly bad attitude about the farm as a teenager, but learning these statistics really makes me wonder since obviously it is common for individuals to not return to the family farm – what with the trend in so many family farms being sold.
When I try to put myself back in that sixteen-year-old mindset (eye-rolls and all) I remember seeing my parents as overworked, worried, and exhausted. Not very attractive adjectives to someone deciding on a future career. When one thinks about farming as a career in general, I think it is commonly viewed as very difficult, stressful work, without a lot of benefits. How can we as farmers, and non-farmers who support agriculture, spread enthusiasm and respect for a career in farming?
One of the talks at the conference, presented by Becky Lipton, the Executive Director of Organic Alberta, explained a project called Organic 3.0. It was created by IFOAM Organics International and is basically meant to bring more people into organic farming, and help integrate it into society as a more commonplace practice in the future. As part of this presentation, Becky had the audience split into small groups and brainstorm ideas about Organic 3.0, one of the subjects being how we as individuals can contribute to this movement. At the time, I didn’t have a lot of ideas, but I have been pondering this idea over the past few days and came up with a very simple, small thing that I think could have a big impact:
From now on, when someone asks me about my farming career, I’m going to smile. I’m going to grin and talk about the best things about my job. I’m going to make it a goal to establish in myself a kind of contagious enthusiasm for organic agriculture.
A few days ago, someone asked me how my first year as a full-time farmer went. Without really thinking, I said “Well, there was a drought, and we lost some flax to elk damage. Next year should be better.”
I am appalled at myself that by default, I just talked about the hardships instead of all the good things in our first year farming. I didn’t mention the excitement I felt as I dug my hands into the soil searching for flax seeds when our first-ever crop started germinating. I didn’t tell them about one of the late nights during harvest when we shut down the combines and just stood staring up at the sky, watching the Northern Lights dance like I’d never seen before. I can’t quite believe that after just one year farming, I’ve been talking like a cranky old farmer!? I’m frustrated that I’ve been letting this negativity to come out of my mouth when truthfully, I am full of pride and a powerful sense of accomplishment over our first year as farmers, despite the challenges.
It is easy for so many of us (in all different careers and life situations) to focus too much on the negative. I think we need to be especially conscious of what we focus on when it comes to agriculture, since it is such a challenging profession, and one that so desperately needs the interest and involvement of the younger generation.
As long as I’m farming, I’m going to keep smiling, because there’s so much to smile about!
“I can’t believe it,” she said, taking it from me and turning it over in her hands, “I remember these!”
I was surprised at her enthusiasm over the ugly child-sized shoe that I’d found in our field earlier that afternoon.
“I used to love it when your grandad plowed, I’d take off my shoes and socks and run barefoot on the furrows! Mom told me all the time not to since my feet would get so filthy, but it felt so nice and cool on my toes! Marga and I used to have races. . .” She smiled, and reached for a jar of carrot pickles to add to the table set for lunch, “I lost my shoes once, lost track of where I’d left them in the field. This must be one of them!” Mom shook her head as she giggled, “I can’t believe after all these years!”
This is one of my favourite memories of the farm, and mom. I loved her face, tanned and tired, but glowing with happiness as she told me this story. I especially love the image in my mind’s eye of her running barefoot along the plow furrows as a little girl, smiling and gleeful.
Not long after she told me this story, I tried it myself. Out for a walk one warm evening, I wandered to the field across the road and slipped off my flip-flops, pressing my toes against the smooth, dark, packed soil of the overturned earth. By my second step, I was smiling. It was cool, refreshing. The smell of the soil and green filled my nostrils and my heart.
Among the hard work, long hours, and sometimes chaos of growing up on an organic grain farm, moments like this stood out. When I go back to this moment, I am filled with peace and a deep love for where I grew up. There is something incredibly tranquil about the farm, something that isn’t always easy to see.
It’s not difficult to view farm life as nothing but stress since it is busy, but there is also so much peace to be found. As long as one takes the time to just be, barefoot on the furrows.