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Good stewardship vs. soil health

Will the temptations of higher profits push Toban Dyck into unhealthy rotations?

I’m going be insufferable. If you can handle that, read on. I’m going to theorize about things that make me sound like I’m trying to be old and wise. I’m neither. I just hear things. And I’m a green enough farmer that many things are new to me and they stick.

The last of my soybeans left the yard this morning. My bins are empty. Our harrow is parked directly north of the nape of our driveway to act as a snow shield for when that time comes. The yard is ready for winter. It’s a good feeling.

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This is no place to share such intimacies as bushel counts, but I got the final tally today. This is also not a place to share the ins and outs of my other job at Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers, but it should surprise no one reading this that soybean acres will be up in my province. Perhaps they will be up in Saskatchewan and Alberta, too.

Ours did well. The farms inside, say, a 100-mile radius of my yard also did very well. In areas drowned out by the unseasonably high amount of rainfall this summer and fall, soybeans managed to pull through and yield competitively.

I may have talked about the importance of smart rotation practices in previous columns, but it’s worth repeating, over and over again.

Why would I even consider growing wheat when commodity prices and input costs make it nearly a break-even crop? It’s a legitimate question. And instead of finding convincing answers having to do with biodiversity, soil health, disease mitigation, or stewardship, people are rewording the question: why don’t I just grow more corn and soybeans?

I’ve asked this question of my own farm. It has to be about more than making money. But when farmers are boasting high yields and no disease on fields that have seen soybeans for the last three or four years, it’s really hard to choose to make less money the next year just for a soil advantage you may not experience for another five to 10 years.

When it comes time for me to make the decision in favour of stewardship over the bottom line, I’m not sure which way I’ll bend. Let’s not give up on wheat. Let’s not give up on healthy rotations. And let’s not push those boundaries.

The other day, I surrounded myself with a couple of farmers smarter than me. Isn’t that how we learn? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do – situate ourselves around smarter people.

Anyway, there I was. They were brothers. They farmed together and were responsible for more than 6,000 acres. Stewardship came up often. I wasn’t fishing for it. Not at all.

They didn’t talk about their land as though they owned it. Their rotation includes corn, soybeans, canola, and wheat. This is very important to them. Their father and grandfather made smart decisions such that the soil they now farm is as healthy as it could be.

Over the past decade in agriculture, the voice of industry has become quite strong and outspoken. It’s a force, always pushing, always right there. This is not entirely bad. But, sometimes, a causality of this is independent research.

There is information available to farmers in favour of monocropping. Endorsing it. I don’t know where this is coming from. Nor can I say for sure it’s industry pushing farmers in this direction. I’ve heard the gossip. That is all. But that’s enough. If it enters the coffee shop, all of us are smart enough to know it will spread too fast and to too many people.

I don’t know what will happen next growing season with soybean and corn acres, but I do know that at some critical number a story will begin to unfold. There are only so many fields in Manitoba, in Canada, in the world, and when one crop starts taking over more than its rotational share, we should be concerned.

It’s more difficult to grow canola now than it was, farmers say. I wouldn’t know. The crop has become more disease prone in areas of Canada. Some farmers would also say this is a direct result of poor rotation.

If our farms have a crop or two that pay the bills with a bit left in the pot, great. The idea is to have that cropping option available to you for a long, long time.

I’m a writer. I can talk a big game. Will I make the right choice when the time comes? I don’t know, but it’s something I think about often. It comes up often. Surprisingly so.

It turns out farmers are just humans, and that some lessons — no matter how seemingly simple — need to be learned and relearned. I thought something as basic as rotation and good stewardship were things reserved for new farmers like myself to wax poetic about. I was wrong.

Four years into farming or 30, the basics of what we do and how best to do it are either new or perhaps slowly eroding away into empty shells of things we once stood by.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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