Blair Rempel has been farming for almost 40 years. The Nipawin area producer and seed grower earned his diploma in agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan, in 1976. He considered other careers but always came back to agriculture.
“The things I found attractive was a certain degree of independence and the satisfaction of building your own operation. And I have no regrets,” he says.
While most Saskatchewan producers binned and bagged their best crop ever in 2013, the Nipawin area wasn’t so blessed. “We were just a little too wet for a little too long,” Rempel says.
“It all seems to even out over time. We’ve had years here where we were far better than pretty well anywhere in province. When lack of moisture was an issue we seemed to shine.” He chuckles. “This wasn’t one of those years where we shone.”
His usual rotation is canola, cereal (wheat, barley or oats), peas, cereal and back to canola. Heavy rains early in the growing season have pushed out peas forcing him into a two-year rotation on canola. Disease concerns include sclerotinia, possibly some blackleg and a smattering of others which are hard to identify and not enough of a problem that they would be diagnosed and studied by the people who do these things, he says.
Herbicide-resistant weeds have turned up in some of his rented land, namely Group 1 resistant wild oats and Group 2 resistant cleavers. Though resistant seed can move onto any property through the movement of water and wildlife, he believes that the proper rotation of herbicides can prevent the problem from escalating.
“They (resistant weeds) are resistant to certain types of herbicides, herbicides with one mode of action… So, it’s identifying the ones they’re resistant to and switching to something else. You have to be pre-emptive. If you wait until the problem shows itself then you can’t go back to that herbicide without encouraging the resistant genes that are out there in the weed.”
Location, location, location
Farming at the northeast end of Saskatchewan’s grain belt presents its own unique challenges. “For this province we’re in a low evaporation area,” Rempel says and explains how he learned that term and what it means.
Back in university, when asked the difference in mean annual rainfall from the southwest to the northeast of Saskatchewan, he chose four to six inches in a multiple choice question. He was wrong.
The answer? Less than one inch.
“I challenged the prof to explain how there could be less than one inch of difference between the northeast and the south west. When you look at the vegetation you see a lot of difference.”
The difference is in the evaporation, he learned. Slightly higher temperatures and more wind in the southwest create a higher evaporation rate.
“It was something that stayed with me ever since,” he says.
Moisture does linger longer in the northeast, and that’s not always a good thing. Most producers have grain dryers and make good use of them. Rempel estimates that he uses his dryer two to three years out of five.
Canola has been grown for slightly longer in the northeast than in more southerly parts of the province which might account for a higher rate of insect issues. Fairly rigourous vigilance is necessary which means he doesn’t get away from the farm much in the summer. But that’s not a big problem.
“I’m interested enough in what I’m doing here that I don’t mind sticking around. I like to see the crop develop. It’s a fascination that hasn’t changed over the years,” he says.”
Changes come with time
In a career that spans nearly four decades, Rempel has made some changes in the way he farms. One of the most notable, he says, has been direct seeding and chemical control of early spring weeds.
Killing weeds with chemicals, he believes, is a better alternative than drying out the soil with tillage. And it’s more economical and effective, he says.
“When a new technique or a new development comes out I sometimes will adopt it right away but more often, especially for a revolutionary change, I tend to study it for a period of time before I do it. I tend to have it all thought out before I make the move.”
He’s having a little trouble with variable rate fertilizer.
“There are different schools of thought on the subject. Some think you should apply higher rates of fertilizer where productivity has been lower and some think areas where productivity’s higher need more fertilizer. “Both positions have some merit,” he says.
Then there’s the economics. Will he get a return on the investment to pay for the services and the extra hardware he’ll need to make it work?
“I’m still struggling with that a bit,” he says. “At my age I don’t have a 20-year horizon. I’ve got maybe a five-year horizon. That makes a difference when you’re making your calculations.”
Rempel’s father and grandfather were farmers. He has two daughters. He’d like to see them take over the farm, but right now their career choices are elsewhere, and he and his wife will honour those choices.
But he can still hope. And, he says, “In five years there can be a lot of changes.”