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The view from Northern Blossom Farms

Gary Martens photos: supplied

A university instructor is turning his nano farm into a living laboratory for sustainable farming systems

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I spoke to a number of young farmers recently and learned that they are questioning the business decision that every farmer makes every year: Hold $2 million in assets, invest another $250,000 cash in a crop in order to get $60,000 profit. And that is if everything goes right, which it typically doesn’t. What is to be done?

In 1950 a farmer spent 50 cents to earn $1. Today a typical farmer spends 87 cents to earn $1. Is that a smart investment considering the risk that is involved?

Stephen Gliessman, professor of agroecolgy, University of California outlines four levels or steps to becoming more profitable in farming.

Level 1: Improve input efficiency

This is what all farmers do constantly. We used to broadcast our nitrogen, but now we band it. By banding the nitrogen we feed the crop, not the weeds and we lose less nitrogen, improving our nitrogen efficiency dramatically. The companies selling nitrogen stabilizers are now trying to tempt farmers to broadcast their nitrogen again, saying they don’t have the time to band the nitrogen. Most conventional farmers are stuck at Level 1.

Level 2: Input substitution

Instead of buying nitrogen fertilizer some farmers are growing their own nitrogen by including a legume crop such as alfalfa, soybeans or peas in their rotations. Gliessman says that most organic farmers are stuck in Level 2.

Level 3: System change

This is very difficult to do, but can be the most profitable if the new system is designed properly.

Level 4: Better connections

This may mean shortening the distance between the farmer and the eater.

Based on the above, I have decided to try a system change on my “nano” farm (smaller than a micro farm) to test the theory and put it into practice.

I have learned so much about farming and farming systems in the last 15 years working with many people but especially Martin Entz, the University of Manitoba agronomy professor and researcher of natural systems agriculture. I have recently also been exposed to farm-scale permaculture through the MOSES conference in Wisconsin. Mark Shepard’s talk on permaculture was absolutely the most inspiring talk I have attended in years.

All of this has me itching to actually practise what I preach. So I have set out to be a farmer again. I intend to turn my 25 acres at Kleefeld into an edible forest with alleys and space for annual crops, perennial crops, livestock and vegetable gardens.

Crops and livestock

A system change that many farmers in Manitoba and Western Canada could implement is the reintegration of crops and livestock. A crop farm alone lacks sufficient nutrients and a livestock farm alone has too many.

Put the two together and you get many synergies besides the balance of nutrients. Livestock on a crop farm allows for the introduction of perennial crops like alfalfa and perennial grasses in hay and pasture areas. When those pasture and hay areas are put back into annual crops, the nutrient status is usually quite favourable, the wild oats have disappeared (well almost; wild oats typically have a five- to six-year lifespan) and water infiltration is enhanced.

My nano farm has approximately 10 acres of the 25 acres in hay and pasture right now in two fields, both of which are approximately five years old.

One of those fields will be plowed up this summer in anticipation of some excellent annual crops on that field next year.

One field of long-standing grass, alfalfa and dandelions was plowed up last spring. It was very dry very early in the season. I was out there in the middle of April hoping I would be able to prepare a good enough seedbed for some experimental hemp. The hemp was planted but it was so dry that it only grew to about shoulder height. There was certainly no sclerotinia evident in the field.

New model

I understand that many crop farmers object to diversifying into livestock. There is more machinery to purchase, some of the busy times overlap and what about going fishing or on a holiday?

I am not necessarily advocating going back to the mixed farm as we knew it 50 years ago, however, I certainly wouldn’t object to someone doing that. What I am advocating is the integration of crops and livestock at a regional scale.

Some farmers love crops but others love livestock.

Is it possible to arrange some kind of a business alliance, a biological partnership that would benefit both the crops and the livestock? It might be that one of your children is looking for an opportunity to join the farm but the net income is not big enough for two families. Is it possible to layer a livestock farm on to the crop farm without expanding (too much) and allowing for two incomes and give one of your children an enterprise to be in charge of?

Next time I will discuss my crop rotation and my annual cropping plans.

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