Brooks and Jen White want a smaller farm.
It may seem like a strange ambition, but that is an actual part of their five-year plan — to be smaller in acreage than they are now.
“For me, what regenerative ag means is becoming more profitable on a smaller scale — on fewer acres,” Brooks said. “Can we be profitable and support multiple families on our farm on fewer acres?”
Brooks and Jen own Borderland Agriculture near Pierson and Lyleton, in the extreme southwest corner of Manitoba.
The farm’s vision includes regenerating their soil to a more productive state. To do this, 90 per cent of their 5,000 cropped acres include intercrops, companion crops and cover crops.
Their herd of about 600 bison graze the land year round, and are integral to building healthy soils and adding more value to their production. The animals cycle through perennial pastures, annual cover crops, and crop residue to make the most of the land.
But just a few years ago, Brooks and Jen had never heard the term “regenerative ag.”
The family farm
Brooks’ family originally homesteaded near Lyleton in the late 1800s, making him the fifth generation to farm the land.
In the late ’90s, Brooks took his agriculture diploma at the University of Manitoba.
While he’d always known he wanted to farm, his plans were accelerated when his dad, Ron White, informed him of plans to retire. Brooks returned to the farm in 1999.
Ron had invested in elk in the ’90s, and when it became legal to farm elk in Manitoba, he made plans to bring his elk home to the farm. He and Brooks toured elk farms in Alberta and Saskatchewan in preparation, and found that many of these farms also raised bison.
“I just kind of fell in love with the animal I guess,” Brooks said.
They invested in bison just in time for the BSE crisis to hit. They lost their American market. However, they were able to buy animals cheaply at the time and so they took a risk and built their herd despite the lack of market.
“We’ve had our challenges, for sure,” Brooks said. His first year on the farm was so wet that they were completely unable to seed crops. Excess moisture that year, and other years after, was what led them to try cover cropping.
“We were growing them as an emergency feed source at the time,” Brooks said. “It was just in the years following that we realized some small benefits that were happening that we were just kind of seeing by accident.”
Following the wet years, the fields where they’d planted the forage crops became the first ones they could seed because they’d improved water infiltration.
“It took a lot of years to kind of put the pieces of the puzzle together and understand what was happening,” Brooks said.
They continued to dabble and experiment with various regenerative practices for several years. However, in 2015, Brooks went through a farm business management program that clarified his vision.
He’d gone in wondering if they should focus more on the grain or bison sides of the farm. He came out resolved to develop a diversified, integrated system.
Jen, who did not grow up around farming, has since come aboard. After attending conferences with Brooks, “the whole soil health thing really clicked with me,” she said.
They changed their farm vision statement to “regenerate” — the soil, their business, and agriculture as a whole.
This year they’ve focused on fencing in their land so they can integrate bison onto all of their fields. They’ve also run experiments, such as a “strip grazing” trial in which the bison are finished for market by grazing small paddocks with strips of planted corn and cover crops.
Brooks said they’ve been able to reduce their fertilizer bill by about 75 per cent, which makes crops lower risk. This is particularly important this year, as weather has made harvest a struggle.
Brooks and Jen have also attended conferences to speak about regenerative agriculture and what they’re doing on their farm. Last year they were recognized as Manitoba’s Outstanding Young Farmer of 2018.
Speaking at conferences and other events has allowed them to spread their regenerative vision outside the farming community.
At a recent conference in Montreal, Brooks and Jen said they were struck by how many city-dwellers they met. They estimated half or more of all attending did not work in agriculture. They were students and urban farmers who believed regenerative agriculture could heal the planet and wanted to find out how to get involved.
“If the urban population demands this from agriculture and supports it and policy gets behind it, then there could be some real driving forces to moving more down this road,” Brooks said.
He added that change — both good and bad — often comes through policy. Farmers want to be part of the voice that influences policy, but they’re only a small group.
“I think we need to look at (urban-dwellers) as being our partners and work together with them instead of segregating ourselves from them,” Brooks said. “Look at them for support and ask if this kind of agriculture can be part of the solution, how can you support us to make that change?”