The truth is in the hopper

This fall marked the first harvest for a new farmer with a brand new field

Do you remember me griping about gophers eating my soybeans? I broke 120 acres of pastureland last feel, seeded soybeans on it this spring, and then, come emergence time, noticed that huge circular sections of the field were missing plants.

It was gophers. They were eating my soys. They ate about five acres of soybean plants.

It was frustrating to watch. In fact, it looked devastating from the road. The field did not look as lush and clean and symmetrical as our other soybean fields. In early spring, I would pluck the occasional plant to look for nodulation, but was always disappointed with what I saw: one big nodule, and rarely any more. There were also signs of root rot appearing shortly after emergence.

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Farmer holding soybean

It put me on edge for the season. I would check the field, but only out of a deep sense of responsibility. I didn’t want to check. I was always afraid of what I’d see, and I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to deal with it.

Throughout the season I discovered more pockets eaten by gophers, and some areas where plants didn’t grow at all. Perhaps those were alkali; perhaps it was something else causing these voids. My mind wandered. My imagination came up with all sorts of fatalist conclusions.

(Side note: farmers too often work in isolation from one another, allowing anxieties and ungrounded fears to fester and take on a life they were never meant to have. Talk to others. Do things outside of your farm. Mental health is a real issue in the agriculture community, and it’s a serious one that has been largely neglected, undocumented, and discredited for years. That has to change. It is changing. Take your selves seriously and take care.)

It won’t have been a pretty field from the road. Though, those who drove by it every day to get to their homes will have been somewhat engaged with the field, watching its conversion from pastureland to cropland in a short amount of time.

I put a lot of time and money into this land to prep it for seed. I needed a crop. I needed the areas where plants actually grew to make up for the voids. I was pleasantly surprised.

Harvest time

My dad was operating the combine. We finished my other field and were about to bite into the unknown territory. We had no history with this field. Also, we have never farmed land so far from our yard.

He asked if I wanted to drive the combine, as it was my land. I said “no” for two reasons: I really enjoy driving truck (I have it down to a smooth science), and I was petrified of sending a rock through our combine (it’s the stuff of nightmares).

The land in question is on the edge of the Pembina Valley escarpment. Rocks are a reality for farmers in that area. So, I guess, they are a reality for me now. We rolled the field after seeding, but I’ve seen what rocks can do to the guts of those machines. It’s not pretty, and it’s expensive. I trusted my dad’s eyes over my own.

The early reports from the walkie-talkie were positive. There were soybeans flowing into the hopper. And even that, on a base level, was a relief for me.

“Phew. There are actually soybeans in those pods, and they look okay,” I thought, relieved and excited to get to the field with the truck.

Later reports yielded even better results. Not only did I have a crop, I had a good one — one that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my other field.

I’m not alone. Many farmers pulled in record soybean yields this year in areas where many other crops drowned or were riddled with disease.

I’m too green to fully understand the potentially negative effects of mono-cropping. I know there are some. Of course there are. There have to be. I’ve heard stories. I’ve read the science.

Rotating away from crops that consistently make money and are easy to grow in favour of biodiversity, soil health and other long-game benefits must be difficult. It will be for me, and I know of some farmers who are considering growing the same crop on one piece of land up to five, six, seven years in a row.

Your corn and sunflowers are in the bin. Your fields are tilled (or not tilled) and ready for winter. Farmers, while considering crop options for 2017, think about soil health and sustainability.

Also, don’t fret a few gophers, and never judge a field from the road. I’ve done that often. I have always been wrong.

“Plants are amazing. They are living and breathing things that will do all they can to stay that way,” someone once told me. I’m reminded of this when I worry.

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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