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Seed growers keep their eyes on the future

For the Herle family near Wilkie, Sask., choosing which seed to grow is the key to success

The Herle family has farmed for five generations and produced over 110 crops. Since their ancestors first tilled the Prairie soil, they’ve had a front-row seat to agriculture’s evolution.

“Change is constant it seems in this industry,” said Greg Herle, commercial farmer and seed grower, speaking to ag reporters and communications people last spring at the Herle farm south of Wilkie, Sask.

Greg and his wife Cheryl live on the same farm that Greg’s grandparents moved to in January 1942. Their son Andrew and his wife Ashton live in Wilkie, while Greg and Cheryl’s daughter, Justine, is studying at the University of Saskatchewan.

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Since Greg began farming with his father, Ray, in 1980, farms have grown bigger, and so have the seed orders. Farmers are growing different crops these days, too. The Herles have worked hard to stay ahead of that change and make sure they’re taking the farm in the right direction. And each generation has brought something new to the farm.

For example, after taking a class on seed production at the University of Saskatchewan, Greg was inspired to do the same on the family farm.

The Herles grew certified seed and started into plot production. They initially focused on canola and cereals, and later added pulses to the mix. In 1992, they built a seed plant.

“Since then, we’ve been focused on registered seed production and seed cleaning,” said Greg.

The cropping options have changed since the Herles got into seed production. They still grow canola commercially, but not for seed production. Malt barley used to be big, but that market has died down.

“Hard red spring wheat and soft white wheat are our big crops. Pulse crops — peas and lentils — as well,” said Greg.

The challenges of seed production

One of the big challenges the Herles face is trying to predict where the markets are going and what farmers will want to grow two or three years down the road. “We’ve got to multiply it up to have enough to even offer for sale,” said Greg.

Over the last few years, they’ve been growing faba beans. In 2017, they had two new wheat varieties, two new yellow pea varieties and edible canaryseed. Greg said they’ve grown 20 different crop types over the years, and probably over 100 varieties.

The Herles are members of SeCan, Canterra Seeds and FP Genetics. Greg said they attend quite a few meetings over the winter, but he also listens to his gut.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to go with it because the sure thing on paper might not be the sure thing in three years,” said Greg. He added that things change so much that they always have to a have a Plan B, and perhaps have it in force as they’re doing Plan A.

Cheryl, Greg, and Andrew show the Saskatchewan Farm Writers some of the varieties grown by Herle Seed Farm over the years. photo: Lisa Guenther

Trying to predict the future isn’t the only challenge the Herles face. As Select Seed Growers, they manage plots as small as a half-acre when they’re multiplying seed for a new variety. In subsequent years, that seed is planted in 20 to 40 acre fields.

After playing hockey in the Western Hockey League for a few years and studying agronomy and agri-business at the University of Saskatchewan, Andrew Herle started farming with his family. He is currently working through the probation period to become a Select Grower.

The Canadian Seed Growers’ Association requires seed growers to have three successful years of seed production out of five before applying for Select Status. They then must grow probation plots for three years. At the end of each year, the probation plot seed is sent away and analyzed, to ensure it’s pure. Once a grower successfully completes the probation period, he can apply for small plot production of cereals and pulses.

It’s important not to contaminate those early plots with other crops, said Andrew, or they’ll spend more time roguing the bigger fields in subsequent years. Roguing is manually removing off-types, a task that Andrew and his brother-in-law take on each summer. Roguing requires the right eye, and an attention to detail that Greg compares to the focus required in seed analysis. It also means a lot of walking.

Despite their size, managing the small plots is time-consuming and requires planning at seeding and harvest. For example, they try to harvest the same crops at the same time so they don’t have to vacuum out the combines any more than necessary, said Andrew.

Managing that inventory is no easy task, either. The Herles have grown up to 18 different varieties in the same year. Since that peak, they’ve streamlined things, and these days they typically grow 10 or 11 varieties.

Every four years, the Canadian Seed Institute audits the farm, including record keeping. Cheryl has developed a system to track inventory and manage the required paperwork. Drawing on her work experience in the school division office, she’s created forms to track total orders for each variety. The system also includes purchase orders, inventory sheets that record sales for each variety, and seed tag inventories.

They also have commercial sales, which are tracked separately from the pedigreed sales. And so far, Cheryl hasn’t heard of a software program that will handle their complex inventory.

“It’s a big job,” she said.

Innovation and tradition

Now that Andrew is part of the operation, he plans to apply his education and take the farm forward with modern technology, such as drones and variable rate technology.

“I’m excited by all that kind of stuff,” said Andrew. On the marketing end, Andrew has updated the farm’s website and uses Twitter (@herleseedfarm).

But the Herle family has also carried on certain traditions. For example, a large garden has always been an important part of the farm. It’s partly about health, and partly about harvest, said Greg.

“We have a big crew at harvest and everyone enjoys that meal in the field,” Greg said. Both Cheryl and Ashton have carried on the gardening tradition. And, perhaps inspired by that focus on healthy eating, Greg and Cheryl’s daughter Justine is studying nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan.

“So we have to eat healthy, at least when she’s around,” Greg said, chuckling.

The relationship between the old and new is tangible even in the Herles’ yard. Reporters gathered with the Herle family inside a new shop, which Andrew wanted so they could work on machinery during the long, cold winters.

Also in the yard is a barn built by the family that first homesteaded in the 1920s. It’s constructed from petrified California Redwood, and has been converted to a shop.

“That barn is probably close to 100 years old,” said Greg.

A life well lived

Ray Herle started farming south of Wilkie in 1952. Last year marked his 65th year of farming, and he was onsite to meet the Saskatchewan Farm Writers when they visited the Herle farm last June.

Growing up, Andrew spent a lot of time with his dad and grandpa, Ray, in the fields. Ray’s years of experience provided perspective when the farm faced challenges. For example, in all his years of farming, Ray said he’d never experienced anything like the harvest in 2016. Andrew said it was a bit of a relief to know that harvest was as tough as it seemed.

It was clear during that visit that Ray was a valued member of the family and the farm.

“Grandpa’s taught me a lot over the years, so it’s good to have him around. A little bit of advice once in a while doesn’t hurt,” Andrew said at the time.

Ray Herle passed away late in the summer of 2017.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.



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