You aren’t alone.

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.

Organic inspection is done!!!

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.

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A sign on a buffer between the road and one of our fields.

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.

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Broken trees after the snowstorm in May, 2016

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!

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2016 wheat

 

 

Mom’s eyes lit up at the old shoe crusted in dirt, a huge grin spreading across her face.

“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!”F1000274 copy

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.