Farmer Led Research

It is amazing that despite over 12,000 years of agriculture, it is still an industry full of learning and growth. Here in Canada we have records of corn being cultivated by Native Americans back in 500 AD and even before that there are records of squash being grown as early as 2300 BC. In the 1600’s the people on the east coast of what would eventually become Canada began to grow wheat, flax, vegetables, dairy and even some fruit. As for Alberta, we have a long history of cattle ranching dating back to 1881, crop cultivation remained small scale until the completion of the Trans Canada Railway in 1885. In 1907 genetic experimentation led to the development of Marquis wheat, this combined with the government’s promotion of summer fallowing to conserve soil moisture and control weeds helped remove the technical barriers that held back agricultural expansion. Since these earlier days in Alberta’s history, we have seen a lot of technological, genetic and economic advancements in agriculture. Our industry has come a long way.

There have been quite a few scientists and speakers brought into rural Alberta for speaking engagements in the last few years and our access to information is much greater than it was in the past due to ease of access to the internet. Having information at our disposal is incredible, but that information needs to come from somewhere.

In the last few months I have had the opportunity to spend a good amount of time soil sampling fields. I have taken cores in everything from conventional wheat fields with good rotation, crop fields with little to no rotation, cover crops, pasture lands with different management types and organic grain fields. There are a few different studies currently happening in regards to soil and a lot of the boots on the ground are those of fellow farmers. Gateway Research Organization is working with many groups in Alberta to collect samples for the CARA soil benchmarking project. Soil health is a huge topic and one that probably has the most impact on the financial viability and longevity of our farms. Even though we have come so far with agriculture in the last 12,000 years, the soil is an ecosystem that we still have a limited understanding of. When we think about the fact that there are more organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people in the world, when we consider the ability of plants to share information with each other through the fungi in the soil, we can start to fathom how much more information there is to learn about the world beneath our feet.

Through all of the soil sampling that I did this past fall, one of the things that really stood out to me was how different each piece of land was. As we move into different regions it changes even more drastically. Research results coming out of southern Alberta, may or may not work for us in northern Alberta. Results coming out of La Crete may also not work for us in the Westlock region. When research associations are willing to take on the task of trying these new methods in our localized regions we can bring new innovations to the area without farmers ourselves having to figure it out through trial and error.

All of this brings us to the idea of farmer led research, which has become a bit of a buzz term in the last little bit, but what exactly is it? Well here at Gateway Research Organization and other groups like ours, it means that we have a board of directors that consists of farmers. They are the ones that determine the direction of our applied research. Our board is a mixture of grain farmers and ranchers. We have directors that run sheep, pigs and cattle. They grow wheat, oats, canola, barley and so much more. There are decades’ worth of experience on our board and these are the people that have final say on what trials to run, how much money to put in what direction, and they keep us pointed in a forward thinking direction. The great thing about farmer led research is that not only is it farmer directed, but it is local farmer directed, if it’s not you that is sitting on the board, it’s your neighbour that is sitting on it.

Some of the projects that we have going on would not be happening if it were not for farmer led research. A quick overview of these are things like our perennial wheat and rye trials, regional silage trial, our heifer pasture trial in which we are going to be watching for the correlation between different cell designs and ease of animal movement, as well as animal impact on the land. On the grain side of things we have our local variety trials for wheat, oats, barley, peas, canola and flax. We are also bringing the work with the Field Crop Development Center in Lacombe out to our area and have a trial in which we are finding ways to tackle clubroot effectively, which includes the liming trial that we started this past summer.

Agriculture really has come a long way in the last 12,000 years and a lot of the progress that has been made can be attributed to work that farmers have pushed through by being willing to take the chance on new processes themselves. From selecting breeding lines in both crops and animals, improving equipment so as to require less labour and the improvement of ventilation and efficiencies in livestock facilities, the face of agriculture has changed dramatically. Farmers themselves are the ones that know best what is needed to move our industry into the future, so research that is led by farmers only makes sense.

So how do you get involved? If you are a farmer or rancher, talk to your local research association. Attend an AGM and become a general member or a member of the board. The ARECA website is a great resource to find out which research association is in your area. Alternatively you can speak with your county agricultural extension person and they can put you through to your local associations. We need to get involved so that we can have a say in the future of agriculture!

 

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

Healthy Soil, Healthy People

The leaves on the trees have begun to grace us with all of the beautiful colours of fall. The abundant rains of this summer seem to have subsided long enough for the ground to dry up, allowing farmers to get started on harvesting the crops that they spent the spring planting. Many of us have young children that have started back at school. It seems like as the hours of daylight shorten, our to-do lists seem to lengthen. Because of these lengthening to-do lists we can often feel overwhelmed with the need to get everything done in short order and to get it done well. It is so easy to get caught up in the just trying to keep up mentality of life in this season. In this we often forget that there is more to life than being busy and that our mental health can pay the heavy toll. When you meet an old friend in the grocery store or coffee shop and they ask “how have you been?” do you typically reply with “busy”? And how does busy make you feel?

We all know that there are seasons of busyness that are unavoidable, especially on the farm, and harvest season is one of those. Much like we plan though for harvest throughout the winter, as we lay out our plans for our next season’s crops, talk to salesmen to purchase needed seed and do repairs and maintenance on equipment, is it not just as important to plan for our mental health before these busy seasons ensue? Would it be possible to plan for these seasons in advance and make sure that we are maintaining good emotional and mental health?

When preparing the plans for our growing season, we typically start with a basic understanding of our industry. We ask ourselves what we are wanting to grow and what will it need to flourish. All of our plans, any purchases that we make stem from this basic foundational knowledge. So what is the foundation needed for good mental health? As with caring for our soil, it is all about balance. The foundational aspects to mental health are social, physical, mental, economic, spiritual and emotional. Now there are times that each of these aspects are beyond our realm of control, but when we have a good balance, we are able to fix the problem while maintaining production. When there is a nitrogen deficiency in our soils, this is a sign that we need to fix a problem. That we may have to change our management styles in order to give the soil what it needs. If we don’t address the nitrogen deficiency when it is still in its early stages and if we continue doing the same things that we have always done, we will end up with poor crops and a whole host of other problems including weed issues and compaction in our soils. This is a mirror image of what happens to our mental health when we fail to address the signs of potential problems. Like when farming a new piece of land, we need to start with a good assessment of where we stand in our soil and mental health. From there we need to decide what we should start planting, what management practices need to come in to play in order to become regenerative. And we need to start long term planning, speaking to experts if necessary to figure out what our next steps are in growth. Maybe we need to start putting up some fences (boundaries) and taking down others. We do everything that we need to in order to make our vision of our land become a future reality.

Creating the foundation for good mental health may seem like just another thing to add to your to-do list, but it can be instrumental in having a regenerative heart and mindset. At GRO we think that this is just as important as having high yielding crops and terrific soils, so we are in the midst of planning a mental health workshop in Lac Ste. Anne County in the beginning of December. Keep an eye on our events calendar for more information!


Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

The Germination of Idea Seeds

So many of us farmers enjoy a good conversation at the local coffee shop. It is our opportunity to connect with our neighbours, and before the days of the internet it was one of our limited ways of finding out what was going on in the world around us. A lot of great things happen at the local coffee shop, but if you listen to the conversations going on you will recognize some common topics. It is so easy to get caught up in the questions that we regularly hear ourselves asking. What is the weather going to do in the coming week? What are the cattle prices doing? How much are we going to get for the wheat that we harvested? Are we going to be able to bale our hay without it being rained on? What is the price of hay? Is that field going to have a chance to dry down before the snow hits? Are we going to be able to swath that canola field before first frost?

There is a common theme among all of these questions and it is not just that the answer to them can have a very significant impact on our farm businesses. The answer to every single one of these questions is outside of the realm of our control. As farmers we spend a good amount of our time worrying about things that we have little to no power to change. Now I am not saying that these questions should not concern us, but what if we were to take half of the time that we spend worrying about the things outside of our control and put that time towards learning something new? With the emergence of the internet we have been given a chance like never before in history. We can now take courses, go back to school, take part in webinars for free, and access an unlimited amount of information from the comfort of our own homes. For that matter there are many seminars and workshops happening in our areas that are generally quite low cost and might give you a chance to get out of the house on a day that the weather keeps you from getting out to the field.

There are many good reasons to further our education as farmers. One of the biggest ones is what it can bring to our farm businesses. With every course, seminar, webinar or workshop that we take we have the opportunity to bring a new idea back to the farm with us. Sometimes that idea comes in the form of something that the instructor said, sometimes it will come in the form of a good old fashioned coffee shop type of conversation with a fellow farmer. Sometimes we will go home to our farm and not even realize that an idea has germinated until months or even years later. We can guarantee though that we will not leave a new learning opportunity without a seed planted.

Another great reason to get out there and further our education, is the chance to network with other farmers that have similar interests to our own. Now, I am not saying that we should neglect our local coffee shop, but just think what the guys at the coffee shop will say when we can come back with “Hey, I heard that Jane from northern Alberta is doing this crazy new thing, what do you think of that?”. Now not only will we have a new seed to bring home, but maybe that seed could eventually pollinate our neighbour’s field too! An extra topic or two for shop talk never hurts either.

A large reason for not furthering our education is the lack of time that the majority of us seem to experience, but if one seed could potentially save us from losing money on our next harvest, or help our pastures resist a drought, if it could save us money on our next fertilizer purchase or give us a way to salvage a crop that we considered a loss, would we not be willing to head over to our local UFA to purchase that seed? Even if it is an hour drive into town and a little inconvenient? I have taken part in educational opportunities where I have brought these exact seeds back to my farm.

The questions about weather, harvest, and markets will always be there. And really what would we have to talk about it if it weren’t for the weather? But let’s delve a little deeper into the agricultural world. Connect with your local applied research association and see what is happening in your area of province. It’s an investment that is sure to turn a profit!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Association

The Human Side of Farming

There is an often overlooked aspect to farming that can really make or break a farm. When we think about our work as farmers we often first think of the crops or livestock, what our soil is doing, how much rainfall we have received and what our harvest will look like. All very important aspects of a farm, but not always the most important. Another aspect of farming has come a little more to light in recent years due to the push for good succession plans. This aspect is human resources. Not only can knowing how to work with people benefit our farms when it comes to succession planning, but it can be crucial in making the day to day operations on the farm run smoothly.

If we really think about how many people we interact with while going through the motions of the activities on our farms, the numbers add up a lot faster than most of us would assume. Not only do we need to be able to work with the family members and hired hands that directly contribute to the efforts of the farming business, but we may need to collaborate with our parents or our in-laws. We also are often interacting with salesmen, veterinarians, land owners, neighbours, truckers, customers, seed cleaning plants, agronomists, and the list goes on. For what is considered to be more of a solitary profession, agriculture actually has us interacting with many different types of people on a regular basis. I think that we often underestimate how much of an impact these other people have on our businesses and on the contentment that we can find within our agricultural community. So how do we learn to navigate these occasionally turbulent waters?

Most of us learned from our parents and teachers how to work with others. In fact we often see people with a limited lens and can struggle when it comes to understanding why the people around us react to different situations in the way that they do, as we have only ever been given our current lens to view others through. Sometimes the people that we are interacting with can seem completely foreign and we will misunderstand their intentions which leads to communication difficulties and hard feelings. I think that this is made even more apparent with succession planning, as suddenly we are in this place of making some very hard decisions, both as the predecessor and the successor. Different goals and priorities when making these large scale decisions can really emphasize the difference in personalities. Maybe though these misunderstandings are just that, and something that can be remedied by learning more about different personality types. By widening the lens that we view people through we are able to not only understand where the people that we are working with are coming from, but use their strengths to our farm’s advantage. We can also learn to complement each other’s personality types by understanding theirs and our own weaknesses.

I know that all of this sounds great in that hypothetical scenario where everyone gets along just right, but let’s put it into perspective. There are many different personality tests available online, most of them free. The one that I will use for this scenario is the DISC test. With this test there are four different personality types, with people usually falling under one primary one and having characteristics under the others. The D stands for Dominance, these people are the ones that place an emphasis on accomplishing results, they are very confident and their primary focus is the bottom line. The I is for Influence, these are the people that put the emphasis on people. Their focus is primarily on relationships, they are good at persuading others and are very open personalities. The S is for Steadiness, these are the dependable types, their emphasis is on cooperation and they are usually very sincere. And the C is for Conscientiousness, these are the people that place a high emphasis on quality, accuracy, expertise and competency.

Now with all of that being said, my husband is quite a high D. In order to communicate well with a D personality it is best to be direct and to the point, this is also how he naturally communicates with others. I jump between most of the types, but am typically a high I, to communicate with me you are best sharing your experiences, telling me stories and giving me a chance to talk things out. I want to hear all of the positive things and I want to fully understand the reasons behind what I am doing. Now my husband and I have spent a lot of time working cattle together. When I first started working with him it was a huge learning curve, I couldn’t understand why a gate needed to be closed and why he would be yelling at me to close it with such urgency, or why he would be telling me to stand in front of a heifer bound to get through said gate. These cattle handling sessions would often end with me in tears and him frustrated at my lack of understanding the need for such urgency. I am very thankful to say that we have come a long way since those early days. My husband will now patiently explain the plan of animal movement before we get into a situation that requires quick orders and I have learned to not take the need for quick orders as a personal attack. By understanding each other’s personality traits we are able to give the other person the benefit of the doubt and it saves a lot of hurt feelings and arguments down the road. Think back to the last time that you felt offended by someone that you were working with, did they intend to offend you, or could it be that it was more an issue of conflicting personality styles? When we look at disagreements through this lens it makes it possible to work through issues with a lot less hard feelings.

Obviously this is a huge topic, but why not take that first step in discovering your own personality type and work towards discovering the personalities of those that you interact with on a regular basis? The DISC test is a fairly simple and quick test to take. With only four personality types it is fairly easy to understand. A more in depth test that I have found to be incredibly accurate is the Meyers-Briggs test, which can be completed for free on a website called 16 Personalities. These are the two that I have heard the most about and have completed myself, but there is a myriad of different tests out there.

Understanding personality styles might not keep your husband or wife from leaving the gate open, or from tracking mud across the kitchen floor, but at least you will understand why they did it!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

Weather, Water and Chess

With the forest fire up at High Level currently burning out of control and early concerns of summer drought already making headlines in the news, we are reminded of the many reasons that we need to increase the water holding capacity on our farms. Whether or not we are all on board with the idea of man induced climate change, I think most of us can agree on the fact that we are going to have extreme weather events and that we are definitely going to experience droughts in the future. Water is all too often the most limiting nutrient on our operations. As farmers we are very well aware that while we can control our seeding rates, how many head of cattle we run, what breeds of animals and seeds we grow, what equipment we use and how straight our fence lines are; the weather is still one of the few things that remain beyond our control.

The weather makes for excellent conversation at the local coffee shop and often gives us long nights of contemplating what our next move might be in this agricultural chess game, followed by early mornings of action as we put our pieces into place. I want to propose a new approach, I propose that we thwart the strategy of our opponent right from the outset of the game. It’s time that we became proactive rather than reactive. That we get to a place where we can shout out checkmate before the weather has moved its first pawn. It all sounds great on paper, but what exactly does that look like in real life?

Throughout all areas of agriculture recently there has been so much emphasis placed on soil health. And rightfully so. The health of our soil has an effect on not only our plant health, our animal health, but on human health as well. When we take care of our soil we are taking care of so much more than just the dirt below our feet. A single handful of healthy soil is home to more living organisms than there are people on earth. As farmers it is our responsibility to ensure that it is in good enough condition to continue to be an integral part of life. The results of this emphasis on soil health has been an increase in the uptake of best management practices in both cropping systems and in animal agriculture. It will also hopefully continue to be a reason to educate ourselves about what we can do to regenerate our land and water. Another benefit that has come from this push for soil health has been the increased water holding capacity of our land and riparian areas. With healthy soil comes a functional water cycle. When the water hits the ground it has the opportunity to seep down to the roots of the plants that depend on it, to hydrate the living organisms below our feet and move slowly to fill our dugouts, lakes and rivers. We as farmers then see so much utility out of that water that we watch fill our rain gauges. Without healthy soil we are bound to witness most of this water running off or evaporating.

We saw the water cycle in action a couple of years ago on our farm. Our area near Busby was in the middle of an extreme drought. Most of our dugouts were in the process of drying up and we were starting to worry about how we were going to water 800 head of thirsty cattle if we didn’t receive any rain in the next couple of weeks. Not long afterwards we ended up receiving a torrential downpour in which we received almost four inches of rain in a very short period of time. While people were canoeing in the Sobey’s parking lot in Westlock, we were excitedly driving out to see our dugout that would have certainly filled up. We had been managing the piece of land that that the cattle were on for over 10 years and must have certainly caught the majority of that water! As we arrived at the dugout we realized that we really didn’t catch any more water than the four inches that had fallen. At least there was enough to last the cattle until we moved off of that piece of land. Over the next couple of weeks though that dugout continued to fill. We were incredibly excited when we realized that the reason it took so long to access that water is that it went through the soil first. Rather than just running off the top of the soil, every single plant in that pasture had access to that water before it made its way to where we thought that we needed it most. We knew how much rotational grazing could help the plants grow through and recover after a drought, but until this point we had never seen such a visual reminder of how the water cycle actually works and how much healthy soil can make a difference in this important cycle.

Our real life practices that promote a healthy water cycle are things like: no tilling, crop rotations, cover crops, intercropping, integrating animals onto cropping systems, rotational grazing, fencing off riparian areas, watering out of troughs, using grazing animals on land susceptible to wild fires, responsible use of pest and weed control and maintaining biodiversity in our pastures, crops and soils. There are so many excellent resources on how to put these practices into play on our operations, but the first step is always awareness. It’s one thing to have rainfall, but a whole other to have effective rainfall. Best management practices and ultimately soil health will play a huge part in our water holding capacity, our drought resiliency and our susceptibility to wildfires. So I guess to some extent we actually can control the weather as farmers!

If you would like to learn more about any of the practices above we welcome questions here at GRO and for anything that we don’t know, we will happily point you in the direction of an expert. Checkmate!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

Farming The New Old Way

The beginning of the spring is always an exciting time. The world around us is finally starting to turn green after months of whites and browns. The birds are returning and new life is coming into the world everywhere that we look. We at Gateway Research Organization are preparing to seed the trials that we spent the winter planning. We are readying ourselves to prepare the heifer pasture for entry day. Farmers all around us are doing these things. Taking care of their animals, welcoming calves, piglets, lambs and kids into the world. Getting ready to move animals onto their seasonal pastures, or getting ready to plant seeds in the ground for the crops that will sustain the farm come harvest. Most farms in our area either concentrate their efforts in cropping, or their resources are dedicated to ranching. Is it possible to integrate the two and return to the mixed farming methods of our grandparents?

I think that when we speak of integrating livestock into crop systems, we need to first differentiate between a diversified system and an integrated system. In a diversified farming system we have a few, or many different profit centers, but they do not work together. This is a great way to ensure that during downturns in crop or cattle prices we have another farming enterprise to fall back on. There are a couple of drawbacks to a diversified system though. One of them is the fact that your time is now split between multiple enterprises. Equipment costs are generally higher as well, because quite often we will invest in separate pieces of equipment for each enterprise.

In an integrated system you can have the benefits of being diversified without as many of the drawbacks. In a cropping operation this may look like inter-cropping, so planting more than one crop type on the same field. This can be a combination of cash crops, or a cash crop with a cover crop. The intention being to provide benefits for the cash crop. We have a farmer near us that grows oats, peas and barley in the same field for livestock feed. This comes with great benefits, such as a reduction in pests, nitrogen fixation, an increase in organic matter, an increase in resource utilization caused by different roots and root depths, not to mention the increase in soil life. An inter-cropping system does require more management, planning and knowledge, but can have the same benefits as a diversified system with the additional perk of adding nutrients to the soil. I am definitely not an expert in inter-cropping, but find the concept very thought provoking. If we look at the way that nature works in the wild we never see plants growing in a mono-culture. There are poly-cultures everywhere that we look. Could we make inter-cropping work on a large scale and receive the benefits that come from the natural model?

Another integrated system that has been coming into play more often is a livestock integrated system. There has been so much talk about healthy soils in the last few years and with that has come a rise in popularity for practices such as bale grazing, swath grazing and silage grazing. One of the things that I love about integrating livestock into cropping systems is that it looks different on each farm. Because there is such a variety of animals and crop types, there is so much room for learning and growth in this area. First Nature Farms in northern Alberta even utilizes pigs in their organic cropping system.

Quite a number of farms in the province are doing swath grazing. On our farm we will sometimes bring our custom cattle to neighbours’ fields to swath graze salvage crops or crop residues. Doing this we not only get a decently priced feed for the animals, but the grain farmer receives an additional income from his crop, as well as the extra nitrogen and benefits that come from having animals on the land. I know of a number of farmers that swath graze their own animals with success on their own land. You do need to plan out a swath grazing field, and have a plan for weather that does not want to cooperate. Some areas in Alberta definitely work better for this grazing system than others; as things like snow cover, rapid thaw and freeze cycles and access to water can play a big part in the success of swath grazing.

Bale grazing has also become quite popular in recent years. This method of livestock integration is incredibly beneficial to hay land and very economical. The biggest issue with it that I have seen is sourcing enough cattle to cover a large number of acres.We see the effects of bale grazing on our land for years after feeding on it. This is a fantastic way to give a nitrogen boost to that hay land that is starting to fade, or those pastures that are just not doing as well as you would like.

There are many new developments happening with integrated systems. Here at GRO we are excited to be trialing Kernza (perennial wheat) and ACE-1 perennial rye, which could eventually be a very economical way to get both a cash crop from your land, a forage for grazing or haying, and best of all you would not need to reseed it the next year.

With people trying different integrated systems all of the time, there seems to be a constant stream of new ideas and information coming out about these farming systems. Is it possible to return to a mixed farm system and stay profitable in our current agricultural society? I definitely think so, and I think that it’s absolutely necessary if we want to be not only sustainable, but regenerative. It will just take us producers stepping outside of our comfort zone to try something new. Every one of the farmers that I know are incredibly hardy, resourceful people. Let’s use that resourcefulness to try a new practice out on a small plot of land. If you have any ideas that you think would make for a good trial, GRO is always open to new ideas as well and would love to hear them. We look forward to hearing from you!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

Geeking out with Perennials

Here at Gateway Research Organization we are so excited to have received Kernza perennial wheat seed and ACE 1 perennial rye seed for our demonstration trials this year! These trials are sure to get the plant nerds in all of us geeking out about the numerous possibilities that perennial grains could hold and eager to discover the trial results! Just imagine what the future could look like if we could grow crops that not only feed the masses, but also help to rebuild soil and sequester carbon. All of this without having to save or purchase new seed each year, without having to spray or till and then replant in the spring, without having to spray pesticides and purchase fertilizer. And reducing agricultural runoff on top of it all. The possibilities are endless.

Our intent with the trial is to determine whether or not perennial wheat and rye is reasonably adaptable to the Westlock climate. We are also looking to determine the winter hardiness of the plants, to determine how harvestable the grains of these perennial plants are, what the forage yield quality might be and how the plants adapt to being placed in polycultures.

With all of that being said, I think it is time to introduce the newest crops in our varied field trials! First up we have perennial rye of the ACE 1 variety. This crop is one of the perennial cereals closest to being ready for commercial production. The seed was developed at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Lethbridge. The source germplasm came from Germany in the 1960’s with the Lethbridge Research Centre starting their breeding program selecting for winter hardiness.

From all of the research, perennial rye appears to be easy to establish and competes well with weeds. It grows early in the spring and produces more biomass than barley and fall rye. It does produce less seed than high yielding fall rye cultivars. The forage quality of ACE 1 is comparable to barley.

This plant has an extensive root system, which makes it a terrific candidate for soil rejuvenation, adding to soil organic matter and making it drought tolerant. It also has good winter survivability, is resistant to shattering and has not shown susceptibility to disease or insect pressure in western Canada, outside of experiencing ergot infection during wet seasons.

With all of this information in our toolkit as we go into trialing ACE 1, we are impatiently waiting for the snow to melt and planting to start!

Next in our line up, it is time to introduce Kernza, or perennial wheat! The breeding efforts of perennial wheat began in the Soviet Union almost 100 years ago. This cool season, domesticated version of intermediate wheat grass does not yield as much as it’s conventional counterparts, yet according to an Australian economic study perennial wheats would only need to yield 40% as much as annual wheat in order to be a viable economic option. Part of this is due to the fact that it provides good grazing for several years after being planted.

In 1988 researchers with the USDA and the Rodale Institute began seed selection for perennial wheat in New York State. After that, in 2003 the Land Institute began their work with the trademarked Kernza. Since then it has begun its integration into the American mainstream food system with breeding efforts being made to eventually have Kernza be an economical alternative to annual wheat.

Currently Kernza produces seed that is a fifth of the size of most conventional wheat seeds and grows best in cooler, northern latitudes, which is what makes it such an interesting trial for our Westlock region. The roots of these plants can extend over 10 ft. beneath the soil, which will offer a fantastic addition to our soil organic matter. It has also been found to be resistant to Fusarium Head Blight, which is a fungus that affects the heads of conventional wheat crops, decreasing yield.

For obvious reasons our team at Gateway Research Organization cannot wait to bring you more information about our perennial plant line up as we get our geek on! As the weather starts to warm we are getting incredibly eager to get out of the office and into the field. Keep an eye on our social media pages for more information and our trial results as they become available!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

Women in Farming

Here at Gateway Research Organization we just finished hosting our first Women in Farming Workshop in Thorhild. It was a great success and we had the opportunity to meet with so many wonderful women in our region as we spent a day learning and laughing together. I really want to encourage those that are just getting into farming, taking over a family farm, and even those that have been farming for years to step out and learn something new. Take time to find the humour in what you do and love every moment of it, even those moments when the truck has broken down in the middle of the pasture, you’ve lost your third set of gloves for the day and you have water overflowing from your trough because your float has broken. These are the moments that make the best stories, and even through all of the trials we have so much to be thankful for in agriculture. We each have our own unique story and the lessons learned are where the stories begin. With that in mind, here is my story:

As one of the few people in our area that are first generation on the farm, I was treated to a very steep learning curve when I met my husband. I would often ask things like, “well how do women do that” while watching him do things like fixing barbed wire fences, hauling and handling heavy square bales, moving large protein tubs, cutting high tensile wire, washing out trailers with water line from our troughs and above all, closing the notorious, big, bad, barbed wire gate.

Now if my husband is anything like most other farmers out there, he has ways of getting all of these things done. Ways that have worked perfectly well for him his entire life. Ways that require a strength that the average woman (or at least myself) just does not possess. Through trial and error I have found ways around most of these chores no thanks to good old Google. A while back I did try googling “women fencing tips”, I figured that there must be easier ways to get some of these things done. Imagine my surprise when the first couple of suggestions that came up were recipes! According to Google I had been going at this whole farming thing from the completely wrong direction. Here I was trying to do all of this hard work when really all that I needed to do was cook some decent meals for the men that would do it all for me!

Okay, realistically we all know that big, strong men don’t always just appear when we cook a meal. So how do we get around some of the more heavy duty chores as women, especially when your husband won’t buy you a tractor no matter how much begging, pleading and cooking that you do? Sometimes we just need to get a little more creative.

I have to say that my fence stretcher is probably one of my best friends on our ranch. Although my husband’s hammer trick to tighten barbed wire fences does a terrific job and gets the fence a lot tighter than my stretcher will do, I either have not perfected the art of using a hammer, or just simply don’t have the strength required in my hands. My fence stretcher will help me hold many things tight. Not only does this terrific tool allow me to repair fences like a professional, it also helps me open those torturous gates! Now if only I could find an easy way of carrying it while checking fence lines on foot!

When it comes to moving protein tubs, and handling square bales, and washing out trailers. I have learned that the age old adage of slow and steady wins the race is definitely true. For protein tubs I will often drag them off of the truck or trailer and then proceed to drag them a little bit at a time until they are where I want them. Bales are quite similar, while I can lift the dry ones, wet straw bales have become one of my larger nemesis. Again I take these a little bit at a time, lifting one end at a time. The same thing goes for washing out trailers and manipulating water line. I may be slower at getting some of these jobs done, but they always do end up completed in the long run.

For cutting high tensile wire, I have found that using the good old wire cutters that are in the back of the truck isn’t always the easiest job in the world. Although I’m sure that it would have looked quite humorous if someone had been watching me trying to jump on the handles in order to have the pressure needed to cut the wire. For this exact reason another one of my good friends has become my high tensile wire cutters. These high tensile cutters can be hard to find and a little more expensive than the traditional ones, but well worth the cost as they save a fair bit of time and a lot of headaches.

Things have gotten a lot easier since my first few days on the ranch. Between learning different tricks to negotiate some of the harder chores, and getting physically stronger through sheer force of will to get the job done, I have found ways to do almost every job that I’ve seen my husband do. I have found that not believing in the word ‘can’t’ and being willing to make the mistakes that are bound to happen in any industry are imperative to getting the job done and truly enjoying your career as a rancher or farmer.  While recipes on Google are definitely a life saver in the kitchen, I truly love the labour side of ranching and would not trade that part of my job in for all of the delicious meals on the internet.

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

What is GRO???

I mentioned in a previous article the importance of agricultural associations in our farming communities. I think that it is so important to become involved, get to know the people in your area and share the massive amount of knowledge that you have with your local agricultural community. At conferences and seminars, I truly believe that a large part of knowledge gained comes from the other producers that I have the opportunity to network with.

With that in mind, I would like to introduce you to Gateway Research Organization (GRO), a non-profit agricultural research association for the Westlock region. We originally started as the Pembina Forage Association back in 1975 and made the decision to change our name in 1994 as we began to include crop research to our existing forage, pasture and livestock research.  At GRO we feel that it is so incredibly important for producers to have unbiased localized research to base their decisions on. Because all of our trials are right here in the Westlock area; our plots are subject to the same temperatures, weather conditions, soil conditions, weed and disease pressure as the pastures, forages, and crops of our supporting neighbors. What this means from a practical perspective is that the information that we gather through our research on plants, products, rotations, and practices can actually be used to help make informed decisions on your farm without risking the investment that some of these things can require.

So what exactly do we do? Throughout the summer we take care of the many cereal, as well as oilseed crops, cover crops, silages, legumes and grass forage trials that we run. We also have a heifer pasture that we manage throughout the summer season, where we can experiment with different types of rotations, watering methods, fencing products, and corral setups. All of these studies would be useless without meeting and getting to know our neighboring farmers, so from an extension aspect we spend a lot of time planning and putting on events. Agriculture is nothing without community and events such as our crop walk, the fusarium head blight demo, our pasture walk, the bus trip to Canolapalooza and so much more, gives us the chance to bring the community together. Our winters are generally spent analyzing the research data and hosting events within our community while planning for the next plot trial season.

With so much going on at Gateway Research Organization we need a good team to keep everything running smoothly. Throughout the summer we usually employ two or three students. This year we had a great group; Sami Siegle returned to us for a second summer, Lilly Artemenko and Fito Zamudio all helped out greatly with the day to day operations. These three terrific students were led by Rick Tarasuik who is our Crop Field Technician and ensures that our trials and all of our field work runs smoothly. For the harvest season we have been very grateful to have Avery Tarasuik helping with the plots, she has been a great asset during such a busy time of year. Amber Kenyon is new to our team this year and works in the capacity of Farm Energy Outreach Officer, she also helps run our social media and website. Sandeep Nain is the General Manager here at GRO, he is the visionary and implements the new trials each year. He also does a great job of keeping us all on track. Directing the entire operation is our terrific group of directors. Each of the eleven directors brings a completely different, forward-thinking, agricultural perspective and background to the table. We feel that this is so important and necessary to keep our operations truly unbiased and practical right down to the roots.

I know what you are thinking… How can I become involved with such a fascinating organization? The first step is to sign up for a membership. With membership renewals coming up in January, this is the perfect time to sign up and get involved. Membership gives you access to our annual report (that features all of the results from the year’s fieldwork), quarterly newsletter, as well as discounted admission fees to the events that we host. Our AGM is a great place to come and meet the team, get some great information and network with other outstanding producers. We are also always happy to give tours of our plots and answer questions by phone or e-mail at (780)345-4546 or grohome@telus.net. We look forward to hearing from you!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

Small Abattoir Licenses in Alberta

At the beginning of the year I had the pleasure of attending a weekend event in Alix, Alberta, hosted by the Alberta chapter of Young Agrarians. There were a number of very interesting speakers, but a young couple from British Columbia really stood out. Tristan and Aubyn Banwell manage Spray Creek Ranch near Lillooet, BC. They presented on a number of different topics, but the one that really got me thinking was about their on farm abattoir facility. They spoke of an on farm license to butcher that they were able to get through the provincial government that allows them to butcher a limited number of animals for direct marketing into their region.

Since 2011 in British Columbia it has been possible to apply for, and receive, a small on farm processor license. These class D and E licenses come with some restrictions (you can slaughter a limited amount of meat, how you sell the meat that you slaughter is restricted, the region that you sell in is restricted and with a class E license there cannot be professional slaughter services available within a two hour drive of your farm), but what they do is enable smaller producers that are looking to direct market, or even just sell to their neighbours, the ability to do this.

Currently in Alberta it is incredibly difficult for most small farmers to access a provincially inspected abattoir. The only processing facility available in our province right now for farmers looking to direct market is Pigeon Lake Poultry Processors. This leaves a very large gap in our ability to get small scale, local chickens and turkeys into the hands of the consumers. Especially if you are a fair distance away from Pigeon Lake. I have heard of a few producers that will truck their chickens down to Pigeon Lake from as far as Grande Prairie. Realistically, you would either need to be processing a very large number of chickens, or mark your prices up so high that there would be very few people willing to pay the exorbitant prices, to make the journey worthwhile.

There has been so much talk lately of how we should be buying locally raised and grown food. Farmers markets in the last few years have been teeming with consumers looking to meet the farmer that they are purchasing their food from. An increasing number of producers are looking into direct marketing as an option to insulate themselves from potentially volatile market prices. We are starting to see more of this in beef, pork, vegetables and fruit. Yet direct marketing chicken continues to be unachievable for most producers. By bringing in legislation that allows direct marketers to butcher animals on farm in small numbers, in localized regions, and sell that meat to a certain sector, we would allow room for competitiveness in the industry and could potentially add another avenue for smaller producers to make a profit in an industry that has been gradually pushing out the little guys.

It is very encouraging to listen to farmers like the Banwells speak of how they have been successfully using this model in British Columbia. A system like this could make a large difference in the profitability of small farms in Alberta. It would also make it easier for people new to agriculture to get their foot in the door, as small animals such as chickens do not need the land base that our current agricultural systems require. Having conversations around this is the first step towards change, so let’s start having these conversations!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization