Creativity, attention to detail and teamwork are the main reasons Dustin and Laura Williams are holding the title of Manitoba’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2012.
Dustin is a fifth generation farmer who, after completing the agricultural diploma program at the University of Manitoba, came back to farm full time with his wife Laura in 2001.
The Williams currently farm 4,200 acres near Souris, southwest of Brandon. It is a grain-growing region, where high land prices can present a challenge for younger farmers wanting to expand. At the same time there are plenty of farmers approaching retirement, which means there are opportunities for younger farmers like the Williams.
“We are working with some land owners in the area to create a new arrangement between the landlord and ourselves for a long term profit-sharing contract,” says Dustin. “We want to be able to farm the land without having to take on the debt of buying all those acres. I don’t have to own everything I farm. I think I can look after the needs of the retired farmer and still farm for ourselves too.”
Laura, who is also a lawyer and works full time off the farm, forms the other part of the team. Her perspective is an important part of the decision making process. “She provides the insight into what we need to consider to make these new ideas work,” says Dustin. “We function as a team.”
The gradual expansion of the farm has meant embracing new opportunities and ideas, says Dustin. “This has been a traditional wheat and canola growing area, but we are paying attention to climate change and its effects on agriculture in Canada,” he says. “We are moving our crop rotation to crops that are more stable in warmer conditions, such as corn and soybeans.”
The Williams have made a number of changes that have contributed to the growth and success of the farm. In particular they have paid much closer attention to the nutritional needs of their crops and soil health. Seeding cover crops and using seed-placed micronutrients, for example, have helped reduce their use of supplemental nitrogen and phosphate. “Before we would just take recommendations from the agronomist and apply the macronutrients,” says Dustin. “Now we are much more focused on the micronutrients and overall soil heath. We have cut our nitrogen rates probably by 20 to 30 per cent over the last five years.”
Environmentally sensitive areas along a river and creek that pass through the farm are protected by buffer zones and by preserving water runways. “We make decisions on any products we use from an environmental standpoint, first,” says Dustin. As an example he uses only liquid nitrogen, which although bulkier and more expensive than anhydrous ammonia, he believes has less of an environmental impact on the land.
The Williams hope to eventually incorporate more renewable fuels into their farming operations and are looking at building their own small-scale, on-farm bio-refinery. The farmhouse, outbuildings and workshop are already heated by an outside wood boiler. They plan to use renewable fuels such as pellets or straw bales as the energy source for a new grain drying facility.
The Williams are sequestering carbon through a system that injects tractor exhaust back into the ground during seeding operations. Although not completely perfected yet, Dustin estimates that it’s putting 20 to 30 pounds per acre of nitrogen back into the soil with every pass. “We are reducing our nitrogen rates accordingly and not seeing a decrease in yield or protein levels in our crops, so we think there is some credible promise for this system,” he says.
The Williams consider a wide range of opportunities. They grow some identity preserved crops and are looking into vegetable production. They are also investigating new ventures like aquaculture.
The family’s goal is to achieve a stable land base and create a farm operation with a low environmental footprint that respects nature, but doesn’t lose sight of economics. They want to create a sustainable farm business that provides for the family now and foreseeable future, but will hopefully remain a viable operation if their two young daughters — Ardyn, five, and Eva, 15 months — decide to follow in their parents’ footsteps. †