Agriculture is often viewed, especially by outsiders, as a staid and conservative place where things are done by tradition.
To be fair, it’s often true. After all, you’re practising a craft that’s 12,000 years old and the foundation of human civilization. Without farming we’d all be hunting and gathering our next meal with no time to ponder art or engineering. One would be a fool to turn one’s back on that much-collected wisdom, especially when managing a complex biological system.
In recent decades however, farmers generally — and Prairie farmers particularly — have proven to be an adaptable lot ready, willing, and able to embrace change.
The zero-till production system is the clearest example of this dynamic at work. From the dawn of agriculture until the mid-20th century, there was only one way to grow annual crops, and that required tillage and lots of it. Farmers tilled to kill weeds and spread crop residue and set a seedbed — multiple passes every season.
Then some dreamers thought there might be a better way, and began to experiment. The Prairies and northern U.S. Great Plains weren’t the first place to try these techniques, but they were the first place that worked out a practical way of growing crops without tillage.
Perhaps it’s a function of that old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt,” that we aren’t all perpetually in a state of amazement at that fact. This is an evolution that only happened because the farm and research community made it happen and the new system was a game changer in many ways. It made farms more biologically efficient, more economically efficient, and received widespread adoption within a relatively short time frame. This most conservative of industries can turn on a dime if given a compelling enough reason.
In less dramatic, but no less important, ways we’ve seen this before. Take canola as an example. Originally introduced as rapeseed, and produced for industrial lubrication purposes, it really shouldn’t have amounted to much. But in the early 1970s researchers like the University of Manitoba’s Baldur Stefansson and the University of Saskatchewan’s Keith Downey began to wonder if it wasn’t possible to modify the plant’s oil profile for human consumption. By the early 1970s they’d found success and the process of building a new crop was underway.
That wasn’t always easy. The early growers had to learn the agronomics of this new crop, while simultaneously creating a new market for it. The vast swaths of yellow flowers that greet us every summer now make it clear they were successful, but those early challenges were significant. When they were overcome, however, the industry again proved ready to adapt, adopt and improve.
Today the business isn’t standing still, and innovative researchers and farmers continue to look for better, more productive ways of doing things, and new crops to expand their portfolio of growing options.
In the area of new crops, our Brandon correspondent Alexis Stockford looks at the trials and tribulations of growing one of the newest in this issue — the South American “super grain” quinoa, which is actually genetically most closely related to weeds we’ve been trying to stamp out for generations. She talks to producers about what it will take to grow this crop from just a few hundred acres a year to something more significant.
A bit further down the development track, there’s the industrial hemp sector, which has made great strides since its legalization and reintroduction in 1994. Processors such as Winnipeg’s Manitoba Harvest have created a significant market for human food products. Canada is now a major force in hemp production globally, and is a significant supplier to the U.S. market, where the crop is only recently legal to grow, having been erroneously swept up in drug-related hysteria.
On the technical side, developments continue as well, with two interesting threads emerging, from polar opposite ends of the spectrum.
Over the last 20 years, the University of Manitoba has emerged as a leader in natural systems agriculture under the direction of professors like Martin Entz. Often they’ve been dismissed as dreamers, but the truth is, they’re doing very important work in understanding the biological foundation of farming, and it would appear that young farmers in particular are beginning to pay attention.
In the meantime, innovative farmers are also starting to make practical use of the plethora of high-tech tools developed over the past few years, in new and interesting ways. They’re experimenting with intercropping, prescription input applications, drone aircraft and vast new possibilities in data management. There’s little question in the minds of many that this will be transformative.
If you think the past 40 years have been exciting, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.