May 10, 2019

Spring seeding: “You remember why it is you love farming…”

By Chris Forrest

Spring seeding – or planting, depending on your crops and locale – is one the greatest collective endeavours in civilization; the risk and reward required to feed a growing global population. Farmers literally put everything on the line when they commit to a crop each year.

We chatted with Toban Dyck – a southern Manitoba writer who returned to the family farm in 2012 – about what fuels his passion when the snow melts and the fields smell of freshly turned soil.

Question: We chatted early on April 27 when you were finishing seeding 550 acres of wheat. Your energy and excitement were palpable. How would you describe the unique sense of anticipation, adrenalin and risk that goes with getting your fields seeded?

Toban Dyck: Seeding is a long ways away until it isn’t. Sometime between when the final snowbank melts and the frost is out of the ground, I have to jolt my brain out of its winter/waiting holding pattern.

We prepare all of the machines. We get the seed. We talk about conditions. We hem and haw about when we should take the plunge and get on the field. And then, by what can only be described as an act of sheer will, we start, setting in motion a growing season we’d been anticipating since we put everything to bed last fall.

It’s exciting. To start the tractor for the first time is exciting. To get grease under your fingernails for the first time in a while is exciting. And then, once you’ve relearned how to operate the autosteer and everything is working as it should, you sit back in your chair and remember why it is you love farming.

There’s always a sense of risk with farming. It’s something that looms. But in spring and especially during seeding, my thoughts bend toward the positive. The post-winter novelty of green grass, BBQs and days spent outside help with that.

Q: What do you listen to in the cab during those long hours?

TD: I listen to the news, but if that gets crackly or the Blue Jays are playing, I’ll turn the dial to TSN.

Q: Once you’ve seeded, I guess your work is done and you relax until harvest, right?

TD: I’m not good at relaxing and I’ve set my life up accordingly. When I complain about being too busy, my wife reminds me, “you like it that way.” She’s right. I do.

The farm remains active throughout the growing season. Weeds grow and need to be killed. Ditches need to be mowed and on a 13-acre yard, there are more than enough things to keep me busy.

But then there’s my other work. I work full-time for the Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers as their director of communications. I write a column for the Financial Post and Grainews. And I try to find the time to contribute to other publications, such as Maclean’s. I serve as the chair of our local agricultural society and I’m a Manitoba Farm Writers and Broadcasters Association board member.

Q: Your Manitoba farm roots go back to the 1880s and the original sod homestead. You didn’t get involved in farming right away, you headed for the cities and a career in journalism. What the heck brought you back?

TD: Ha! Great question. The eureka moment came when I realized that the things that drove me away from the farm in the first place now seemed trivial. And that I would likely be able to seamlessly continue my journalism career from southern Manitoba.

Seven years later, that logic has proven to be sound.

I enjoy the outdoors. So does my wife, Jamie. We love the space. We don’t mind driving or flying great distances to visit friends. We like our life here. We’re honoured to have it, and we find ourselves chuckling from time to time at how we got here.

Q: Have you seriously questioned whether you made the right decision?

TD: I have. But it’s in my nature to do so. I studied philosophy and politics at the University of Winnipeg. I was drawn to those programs because I arguably spend too much time in my own head. Second-guessing is a ubiquitous state of being for me.

So far, my doubts have been fleeting and haven’t been strong enough to shake our commitment to the farm and to rural living.

Q: Farming is a complex business. How did you “re-learn” to farm after you came back? Did you watch a lot of ‘how-to’ videos on YouTube or spend a lot of time asking Siri?

TD: YouTube is a dear friend and a trusted advisor. I have yet to engage Siri over farming issues. I might now, though. I routinely forget about her.

Farming is definitely a complex business. I’m struck by this often. I don’t know enough. I would like to know more. I’ve learned a lot since 2012, but the tableau that has begun to form of what it means to farm is far from complete. I do, however, feel less lost than I did last year. The learning trajectory seems to be heading in the right direction – knock on wood.

Q: Weather has always been the boss when it comes to growing crops. Do you believe weather is more volatile these days or about the same as your grandparents faced?

TD: There is, I’m sure, an actual history of agriculture. On a local level – on an individual farm level, that history is largely anecdotal. My parents tell me stories of trying to grow crops in the exceptionally dry conditions of the ‘80s. I feel it would be a disservice to previous generations to say that only now are we dealing with volatile weather conditions.

Then there’s science. I trust it. I think it would be naïve to say that our natural environment hasn’t changed over time. Flux seems certain in nearly every other aspect of life. And it only seems fitting that our actions on this earth have consequences. I say this without attributing any value to these consequences – they may very well be neither bad nor good. They just are. I’m not smart enough to comment further, but I am smart enough to know that distrusting science leads to very frightening ways of thinking.

Q: How do you decide what crop to plant any given year? What key factors come into play?

TD: I’m still quite a green farmer. I rely a lot on what other farmers are doing in the area. Ideally, I would like to base my cropping decisions on considerations such as soil health, profitability and sustainability.

There’s the added factor of familiarity. Growing a crop for the first time is intimidating. There’s risk. There’s insecurity. I’d like to try seeding a crop type that is entirely new to this farm.

Q: We hear about “resistant weeds.” What does that mean and how does it impact the farmer?

TD: In my area, we have a lot of Roundup®-resistant kochia. This is new to me. And it’s new this year. I have been encouraged to apply a pre-emergent chemical on fields with a history of the weed. It’s an additional cost – and a hefty one at that.

Until now, resistant weeds usually referred to other areas of the world. Not us. Not me.

It’s something the agricultural sector in Canada will be watching closely. There may be a lesson in all of this.

Q: Disruptive trade issues blocking our commodities at the port; growing skepticism about crop protection products; margins are tighter and it’s difficult to access debt to grow your business. What could possibly be attractive about staying in this line of work?

TD: The challenge itself is exhilarating. This is what I remind myself. Also, trade issues aren’t a new problem for farmers. The skepticism coming from the public is a tricky one. One fearful consumer can’t affect change. One million fearful consumers have the ability to change whatever it is they’ve set their gaze on. This is new territory for a lot of farmers, many of whom live rurally because they don’t want to be involved in city things. Now, they/we are being asked to justify practices that seem new to consumers but are steeped in a tradition of success for us.

Q: In a recent Maclean’s column, you talk about the amazing advances in agriculture occurring at the same time that consumer scrutiny of food and farming practices is at an all-time high. What are the three things you feel Canadian consumers should know about farming practices in 2019?  

TD:

  1. The noise we make championing agriculture in general and things we do on our farms does not mean we think we’re above reproach. There is always room for improvement.
  2. Farmers care. We care about the environment. Sustainability to us means farming in such a way that our soils remain fertile and healthy and our crops remain profitable and clean. This practical definition of sustainability is, in my opinion, better than many.
  3. The Canadian consumer should know that the agricultural community and the industry supporting it work hard to meet a demand set by those buying the food. There’s a market for wheat, because people eat it. There’s a market for soybeans, because it’s a great source of protein used for human consumption as well as livestock.

Q: We’re seeing the rise of autonomous tractors, smarter use of data with precision farming, and increased interest in plant-based protein. What excites you most about the next decade in farming?

TD: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t the tech. I look forward to seeing what the brilliant minds behind this industry come up with next. I’m excited to see new markets and crop types emerge, new agronomic practices take shape and, to be honest, I’m excited to see how the ag sector adapts to survive the current climate of tight margins, low commodity prices, high input costs, high land values and even higher machinery costs. I’m not being disingenuous. I mean it. Agriculture will survive because it has to and I’m excited to see how it does.

Follow Toban on Twitter @tobandyck.