What’s the world coming to? When it comes to well managed farming operations recognized as Outstanding Young Farmers it appears to be leaning toward a natural field cropping operation in Saskatchewan and an organic market garden operation in Quebec.
Derek and Tannis Axten of Axten Farms Ltd. near Minton, Sask., and Véronique Bouchard and François Handfield of Mont-Tremblant, Que., were chosen as national winners from seven regional finalists competing at Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmer (OYF) national event, held in Penticton, B.C., in early December.
These two young farming couples, about 3,000 km apart in geography, are actually travelling a similar path in the agriculture industry as they work to develop environmentally sound, reduced chemical input, sustainable farming operations.
It’s not a comment on the validity of so-called conventional farming practices, but reduced or no chemical input farming suits the personal philosophy of these young producers, looking to harness more natural systems for economical and efficient crop production.
The third generation farmers on their Minton, Sask.-area farm, the Axtens were inspired by long-time conservation farming advocate Dwayne Beck, research manager at the University of South Dakota’s Dakota Lakes Research Farm.
Starting from there, the Axtens have developed a no-till, low disturbance grain and oilseed cropping system, using cover crops, that has helped them dramatically reduced the need for synthetic fertilizer, reduced herbicide applications and virtually eliminated need for insecticides.
“In 2007, we started using a low disturbance, no-till drill,” says Derek Axten. “Our goal during seeding is to move as little soil as possible. Soil is not dirt! Soil is a mixture of minerals, organic matter and living organisms required to support plant life. Also, by not tilling the land and growing high residue crops, we reduce water and wind erosion. From soil tests, we know that our organic matter is increasing.”
Along with a diversified cropping system, that includes pulse crops and cover crops, the Axtens also improve soil health and fertility with compost extract and compost teas.
And the other OYF nod went to Francois Handfield and Veronique Bouchard who both set aside their musical career pursuits in university to pursue studies in agriculture. With no farming experience of their own, over the next decade they developed a successful organic market garden operation in the picturesque Laurentian Mountain region of western Quebec.
At university, Handfield studied agriculture engineering, while Bouchard took agronomy. They eased into vegetable production in 2005 while still in school and went full time farming in 2008. “All we had was $500 for seed, a wheelbarrow and a shovel and a plan,” says Handfield. “We started everything from scratch.”
With a steep learning-as-you-go curve they have developed a thriving organic Ferme Aux Petis Oignons market garden, community shared agriculture business supplying produce to about 4,000 people, they employ up to 20 seasonal workers, and gross about $800,000 annually.
“What we liked about organic agriculture production was that it involved producing high quality food in an environmentally sound system where we had to work co-operatively with nature,” says Handfield.
Other regional finalists competing at the national event were: Gary and Marie Baars — dairy producers from Chilliwack,B.C.; Marc and Hinke Therrien — turkey producers from Redwater, Alta.; Brent and Kirsty Oswald — mixed dairy and grain operation at Steinbach, Man.; Dusty Zamecnik — fruit producer and seedling propagator from Langton, Ont.; and Lauchie and Jolene MacEachern — dairy producers from Debert, N.S.