2017 is an exciting year for the XY Hemp Corporation: we will be planting our second hemp seed crop. Last year, we prepared the soil by growing a cover crop (ploughdown crop) of peas and fava beans. This processes added nutrients and organic material to the soil and will hopefully reduce weeds. We’re now ready to seed hemp and reap a healthy organic harvest!
Chad submitted our application to grow industrial hemp to Health Canada in December 2016. Our location was confirmed and land agreement signed in early 2016, so there was no reason for us to delay. The shortened application form was simple to complete and we received our hemp license a few weeks after submission. With our license in hand, we set out to review production contracts for the 2017 growing season.
We requested production contracts from several wholesale seed companies to review their terms. We were pleased with the continued upward trend in organic hemp seed prices. While our primary objective is to grow a health yield of hemp seeds, we are also interested in selling our fibres. Many of the contracts included a right of first refusal for the seed buyer to also purchase the fibres. We requested that clause be removed so that we are free to sell our fibres to the highest bidder. A developing market for hemp fibres is a long anticipated and very welcome opportunity for farmers. Will 2017 be the year of hemp fibre sales?
From May 24 to June 7, I will be in Saskatchewan to seed the hemp field, visit mentors and potential partners and catch up with friends. Our farming partners, Al and Hélène of Breadroot farms, will host us for the two weeks. They are also welcoming a new family to their land this year! This is the start of a new partnership that will see Al and Hélène move towards retirement while mentoring young farmers to continue with organic practices. We are so delighted that their search for long term partners has been successful.
The final step to complete before travelling to Saskatchewan is to arrange for hemp seeds to be delivered to our farm. The production contract we chose, with Hemp Fresh Foods/ Manitoba Harvest, provides us with guaranteed access to seeds. This is because Hemp Fresh Foods are the owners of the Finola variety we will be growing. The team at Manitoba Harvest, including Darryl McElroy, Jennifer McCombe and Clarence Shwaluk, have been extremely helpful to The XY Hemp Corporation, long before we signed a production contract. Jennifer shared her agrology knowledge with us while we were deciding on our cover crop last year and she always keeps us up to date on hemp events on the prairies. In 2015, Darryl tracked down Finola seeds for us when supplies were getting low and seeding was starting soon. From all their hard work and dedication to customer service, we are thrilled to grow hemp for Manitoba Harvest!
For the 2016 growing season, The XY Hemp Corporation grew a cover crop of peas and faba beans. The term cover crop is used to describe a crop that is not grown to harvest, but instead to cover the soil to prevent erosion, add organic material to the soil, suppress weeds by increasing competition for light and moisture, and create a habitat for beneficial insects and microorganisms. For legumes crops, like ours, there is the additional benefit of nitrogen fixing in the roots of the plants. Another term, which is commonly used to describe this process, is a green manure crop or a plough down crop. These practices are different than summerfallow, where a field is left bare between cash crops and the soil is vulnerable to erosion or excess water.
Our primary motivation for the cover crop is to fix nitrogen in our soil to prepare for the 2017 hemp crop. In 2015, we also struggled with wild oats and so weed suppression is another goal for the cover crop. The 2016 cover crop (and 2017 hemp crop) is in the field next to our 2015 hemp crop. The last crop grown on the new field was oats and our soil tests revealed that there were similar levels of nitrogen in each field following the hemp crop and following the oats crop. This means that we need to fix as much nitrogen as possible in our 2016 field to support the growth of the 2017 hemp crop.
To do this, we planted a combination of 40/10 peas and faba beans. This combination was determined after conversations with our farming partners Al and Hélène, our hemp farming mentor Larry Marshall, and various organic agrologists and seed suppliers. The faba beans were chosen because they will fix a lot of nitrogen in the soil, but they do not provide very good weed competition and they need a lot of moisture, which is not ideal if the growing season is dry. On the other hand, the peas provide better weed competition and do not require as much moisture. In order to hedge against either weather outcome, we decided to grow a 50/50 blend of peas and faba beans.
Our final strategy to increase our soil’s nitrogen content organically, in a single growing season, was to ask Al and Hélène to graze their cattle on our cover crop before ploughing (or discing) the plants and manure into the dirt. While Al and Hélène have a relatively small herd – this type of manure spreading is best done by flash grazing a large herd – the additional nitrogen from the manure, and the weed suppression from cattle gazing on wild oats, should be beneficial overall.
In late June, Nordrick’s Norsask Seeds delivered our blended peas and faba beans to Breadroot Farm and Al was able to seed the cover crop. The seeds were treated with an organic inoculant to help the plants germinate and establish in the soil. This was quite effective, as both the peas and beans grew well together and there is a lot of plant material for grazing and working into the soil. When Hélène left for a conference in Montreal, the faba beans were taller than the peas, but when she returned, the peas had overtaken the beans. As you can see above, the crop was about three-quarters the height of the yearlings when they were released into the field to graze.
Al and Hélène tested the cattle in a small area (about 10 acres) to ensure that the peas and beans did not cause bloat in the livestock. To the contrary, the yearlings quite like the peas and appear to have healthy digestion from the perfectly round patties they are leaving on the field. On August 21, Al and Hélène opened up the rest of the field to the yearlings, who have been eating the peas and the wild oats, but leaving the faba beans for the most part. This is ideal for us, as the peas should be disced-in now because pods are already formed, while the faba beans can continue growing and fixing nitrogen. The cattle have been a very effective way to selectively mow down the cover crop. As they trample the crop, they are also starting the decomposition process, which will continue to mineralize the nutrients in the soil through the fall, winter and spring. The success of this strategy is a true triumph for the XY Hemp Corporation and we are hopeful that it will be reflected in the health of our 2017 hemp crop.
In every blog post, I try to show our gratitude for the many people who have supported us in our venture. There is no one we are more grateful for than Al Boyko and Hélène Tremblay-Boyko. They have provided us with access to land, welcomed us into their home, and taught us the practical aspects of organic farming. Smart, compassionate, hardworking and funny, Al and Hélène have been the best partners we could ask for. While they have enthusiastically jumped into our hemp-growing project, their original goal was to find successors to their farm to keep their land in organic or sustainable production when they are ready to retire. In this blog post, I will give you a brief profile of Al and Hélène, and Breadroot Farm, to show our gratitude and in hopes that it might help connect them with future farming partners.
We connected by chance when I built a profile for the XY Hemp Corporation on FarmLink. After Hélène’s first e-mail, I was able to browse the website she created for Breadroot Farm, which provided me with so much information about their philosophies and farming practices. We arranged an initial phone call, to explore what each of us could bring to a partnership – and if we were interested in pursuing one, given our different goals. As we shared information about our hopes and plans for the future, a plan began to emerge for our joint venture. We continued to discuss the plan for the next four months as we developed a crop share agreement, cropping plan, financing terms and organized our first visit to Breadroot Farm. It was thrilling to be building a relationship through collaboration and we were so impressed by the generosity and understanding our future partners were showing us. It was so great to be able to find landowners who were active on this online land-linking platform, open to a new type of agriculture, interested in teaching new farmers (with no previous experience!), and willing to share the risks of our first crop together.
Chad and I were nervous about our first meeting, but our concerns quickly dissolved when we arrived in Canora, Saskatchewan in May 2015. Another libra lady, Hélène and I connected quickly through a shared intellect and appreciation for balance and partnership. A former french immersion teacher, Hélène is an excellent and patient teacher (Chad and I are also former french immersion students!). I have a deep appreciation for Hélène’s intelligence, including her knowledge on a wide variety of topics, and eagerness to learn new things. She is also highly organized and helps with the website administration of The Farmer’s Table, a sustainable agriculture initiative to sell fresh food straight from farmers to families in Regina and Saskatoon. Aware of the balance between hard work and play, Hélène is also very festive and a gracious host. She likes to engage in celebration through song and food and has welcomed musicians, chefs, and many aspiring farmers into her home.
Hélène channels these gifts into so many worthwhile causes. She is active in her compassion through her work with Development and Peace, and caring for the elderly and homebound residents in her rural community. Hélène is also very passionate about the struggle of rural peasants throughout the world and is conscious of the impact climate change will have on these vulnerable populations. She recently travelled to Paris to participate in COP21 with Development and Peace and other non-profit organizations. Through this lens, she has been able to teach Chad and I about organic farming by not only explaining how it is done, but why it is important to our world.
Al is an absolute delight; he has a quick wit and ever present sense of humour, which is so necessary given the ups and downs of farming. Like many farmers, Al has a never ending set of skills including mechanics, mathematics, negotiation, as well as a deep knowledge of organic farming practices. Al helped me set up the calculations to determine how to calibrate the seed drill for hemp, and helped Chad and I set up the experiment to ensure we were putting the right amount of seed at the right depth. He also patiently taught Chad how to drive the tractor with the harrow on the back, which was a challenge for two large men in a very small space! Al likes to tell stories, which were endlessly entertaining for Chad and I, and delivers lots of his advice in the form of short one-liners. Anyone who knows me knows that this is the best way to communicate with me. Our favourite saying was “How long COULD it take”, which helped Chad and I remember that not all things would happen on our tightly organized schedule.
Al and Chad weighing samples from the seed drill.
Al filling the seed drill.
Al and Hélène are also entrepreneurs themselves, as independent farmers, co-operative founders and former owners of a bakery in Preeceville, Saskatchewan. Al baked delicious, organic, whole grain bread almost every day while Chad and I visited, which was such a treat for us. They are also founding members of The Farmer’s Table and active members of Farmer Direct Co-op, a small organic co-operative (and the buyer of our organic hemp). Al and Hélène sell their grass-fed beef, as well as seasonal vegetables, through the Farmer’s Table and sell their grain crops through Farmer Direct Co-op. They take a really active role in their farms operations, the marketing of their products, and their community.
Breadroot farm is beautiful place in the Good Spirit region of Saskatchewan. The farmland has been certified organic since 2000 and they began raising organic grass-fed beef in 2008. Because they have worked so hard to nurture their land and maintain their organic certification, through OCIA (their current certifier is TransCanada Organic Certification Services), they are looking for partners who will carry on with sustainable agricultural practices. Some of their land will be placed in trust with Farmland Legacies, who will lease it to farmers who share a commitment to sustainable agriculture. However, Al and Hélène also believe farm land should be owned by farmers, and have held some aside to sell to future partners looking to establish themselves in the area. Lastly, there is a lovely conservation easement covering some of the pastureland owned by Breadroot Farm, which provides crucial habitat to prairie wildlife.
Al and Hélène have ambitious goals for their farm. They wish to live in:
in a vibrant community made up of a balance of young and mature families engaged in organic, sustainable living and farming,
where there are abundant natural resources including productive land with areas set aside for wildlife habitat,
where there are healthy water, mineral and energy cycles,
where a land legacy system is in place to ensure land access for future generations, and
where mentoring is ongoing and knowledge is shared from generation to generation.
We are incredibly grateful to be working with Al and Hélène on our hemp venture, and we would like to support their search for long-term farming partners who are interested in establishing a life in rural Saskatchewan. If you are interested in learning more about Al and Hélène and life on Breadroot Farm please visit their website: https://sites.google.com/site/breadrootfarm/