I was excited to participate last week in the third annual Canola Connect Camp, hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association. It was a full farm and food immersion experience! Writers, dieticians, chefs, media personnel and other food saavy folks, hailing from Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba, were on board the Canola Connect bus as we made tracks around western Manitoba (the Parkland Region) visiting farms and food production operations. We even got to tour the inside of a (circa 1976) grain elevator in Russell, Manitoba!
Without going into too much detail, we Campers saw much, did much (and, subsequently, ate much) in those three tightly packed, event-filled days. There is no end to how each of us could report on or write about given our vastly different perspectives and our overall enthusiasm for the Camp. For my post-Camp blog entry, however, I am going to shed some light on on-farm strategies and practices. This is an area of interest for me (for work-related reasons) but also because there is a great deal to know and learn about farming in Canada. So much has changed in agriculture in my lifetime alone. As a farmer, it must be hard to keep up with changes in the technology (learning, investing, etc). As a downstream consumer who may have little to no connection to the farm, it is even more difficult to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of food production especially when there is so much misinformation out there.
DAY ONE: On the very first day of Camp, the Dalgarno family invited us to their farm. In addition to enjoying tasty, catered meal in a neat-as-a-pin shop that would make any man (or woman, for that matter) swoon, we were able to question Andrew and his dad, Bruce, about their operations. Right off, we tackled the ‘elephant in the room’ -> GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Bruce and Andrew talked a bit about the history of genetically engineered canola and its introduction to the market in the mid 1990s. Prior to that, Bruce said, things were much different. Remember the dust-bowls of the 1980s?
“Farmers would have to cultivate the soil to bury the straw to blacken the ground following the previous season’s cereal crop. After that, a granular, soil-applied herbicide was spread and the ground cultivated a second time to mix the herbicide into the soil. The following spring, before seeding canola, we would have to cultivate a third time to activate the herbicide. After the Canola had been seeded in May, we would then have to use a tank mix of 1 or 2 herbicides to control the remaining weeds during June.”
These kind of activities took time and represented huge expenses for farmers – diesel fuel, cultivator shovels, wear and tear on equipment and labour. More importantly, the soil took a real beating. As Andrew says:
“With repeated cultivation, the soil was more exposed to wind and water erosion because the straw was no longer able to protect the ground.”
So, how does genetically engineered Canola and its ‘supposed benefits’ fit into this? The introduction of these new varieties twenty years ago represented huge changes for on-farm management. Less herbicide applied less often meant that farmers were able to more easily adopt environmentally-friendly, soil-conservation practices like min or no till.
Herbicides, which are a class of pesticide, often get ‘bad press’ but they are a necessary part of the food production process. Check out what Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, has to say in his blog entry “Pesticides: probably less scary than you think”:
“…[W]ithout pesticides our farms would be far less efficient in terms of resource-use-efficiency (land, water, fuel, fertilizers, labor). That is why both organic and conventional farmers often need to use pesticides.” – Steve Savage
(You can check out glyphosate’s toxicity level relative to other common household consumables here. It is less toxic than caffeine, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and even Vitamin D!)
DAY TWO: On day two of the Canola Connect Camp, we stopped for a ‘meal in the field’ hosted by Pat and Paul Orsak (‘shout out’ to the Miller family at Silver Creek Bison Ranch for providing the bison for the bison burgers! YUM!)
Paul, his son Owen, and a hired hand (and nephew) Jake were harvesting wheat that day. Paul took some time from his busy harvesting schedule to talk about his operations. The Orsak family runs a tight rotation of wheat and canola. Why? It’s a business decision. Farming is a business and in order to keep that business solvent, farmers have to make decisions based upon the marketplace, crop genetics and the climate.
“We respond to the market and grow what we think will provide the best return. Some of the crops we used to grow have not provided sufficiently attractive pricing opportunities on a consistent basis to make it worthwhile. For other crops, disease control became as issue. Our climate has become wetter since the 1980’s and 90’s and as a result some crops do not do well in our location.”
Paul also pointed out that the genetics of both wheat and canola have improved relative to the other types of crops. This tips production in their favour.
And how about those GMOs, Paul?
“…GMOs are just another method of plant breeding, something we and nature have been doing for centuries. Genetically engineered or modified crops are simply new and different varieties of existing crops. As knowledge of reproduction and genetics grew, it allowed plant breeders to more rapidly breed new varieties by crossing specific plants to achieve a desired end. Genetic engineering is simply a more precisely executed extension of that knowledge. The goal is to improve crop genetics and achieve traits that are desirable.”
[note: there is no genetically engineered wheat on the market]
It‘s not only the genetically engineered seeds that have revolutionized farming. Farm equipment (size, GPS functionality, auto-tracking, etc) allow for greater efficiencies but most importantly – PRECISION – in the placement of seed, fertilizer and pesticides. This all greatly reduces farmers’ input costs and allows for greater sustainability in operations.
It was a fantastic few days connecting with fellow food and farm enthusiasts on the Canola Connect Camp tour! We not only visited the grain farms (above), we also visited a bison operation (this was a first for me), a cattle ranch and a bee farm!
So much to write about and so little time! ;o)
Want to get to know that “Farm to Food” connection a bit better? Check out these resources:
- Canola Eat Well (MCGA)
- Ask a Farmer (on Facebook)
- Understanding GMOs (a short (easy to read) article by me for the latest issue of Alberta Milk’s Nutrition File)
- David L. Katz on Cooking oils, Overcooked: a look at canola oil and diet