Daring to be different may enrich your spirit, but it can also leave you cash poor. If you’re Derek and Tannis Axten, however, you wind up having your fungicide-free cake and eating it too. While the 2017 Outstanding Young Farmer (OYF) Award winners for Saskatchewan began their farming career on a well-trodden path, the route to success was the road less travelled.
“I’m a third-generation farmer and our family just received the century award for 100 years in the business,” says Derek.
As a self-described “typical farm kid,” Derek took a two-year Farm and Ranch Management program at Olds College and went home to work the farm in Minton, Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, Tannis studied education at the University of Regina with a biology major that “turned out to be quite helpful.” In the midst of it all, the pair found time to get married in 2002.
“It was business as usual for us until 2006 when we decided to buy a disc drill to reduce disturbance and increase moisture savings,” says Derek.
Since the local machinery dealer had no interest in bringing one in, the couple wound up in Gettysburg, South Dakota, where they bought their drill and had a life-changing encounter in the process.
It was there that they met Dwayne Beck, the research manager at Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, South Dakota. And it was there that Derrick says everything changed for the couple.
“Dr. Beck was one of the first guys to push no till, low disturbance farming with high diversity rotations. His approach involved little or no herbicides or fungicides, and he was the first we had heard talking about cover crops,” says Derek. “When we saw the good yields he was producing and the huge improvements in soil under dry land and irrigation, we were hooked.”
When the Axtens headed home to run Derek’s family farm with daughter Kate (now 13), son Brock (now 11) and Derek’s father, they did so with the confidence to try these practices for themselves, and they haven’t looked back.
“Since then we have significantly reduced the amount of synthetic fertilizer we use and haven’t employed insecticides in six years,” he says. “We’ve gone from being focused solely on the plants to really addressing the soil and what it needs. If you take care of the soil, it will take care of your plants.”
The Axten’s tell their children that it’s OK to try new things and be different from others, and have taken this to heart in their farming operation. With cost of production and the soil’s health as their key focus, they have now incorporated intercrops (seeding one or more crops together), cover crops, controlled traffic farming (using same track for all operations), compost extract and compost teas into their operation. It has been a real change in mindset for the Saskatchewan farmers.
What resonates most for them, however, is that farming is fun again.
“Before it felt like just a job and a lot of number crunching,” says Derek.
And those numbers weren’t good, as the Axtens found themselves making little money while costs continued to rise. As Derek put it, “something had to change.” And change it did, as their new farming practices led to improved yields and significantly reduced input costs. Even their accountant was impressed, to the extent that he nominated them for the OYF award. The Axtens will be among seven regional finalists from across Canada competing for national OYF honours in Penticton later in November.
“We were shocked and pleasantly surprised to win because what we do isn’t typical,” says Tannis. “It’s not organic or conventional, so sometimes we think we may sound crazy. This award gives us a platform to share what we do and hopefully inspire others to follow suit.”
While they have no plans for big changes in what they do, they want to start using short perennial sequences and try to get their cover crops established sooner so they make the most of every minute.
And of course, they’ll keep on daring to be different. Hey, if they can do it while enriching their soul and their bank account at the same time, who can blame them?