Outstanding young farmers making most of soil
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MINTON, SASK. — When Derek Axten goes to work in the morning, he might be in one of the farm’s expanding base of fields, or he might head over to the nearly finished food-processing plant rising from the rolling prairie landscape south of Regina.
Derek and his biology-teacher wife Tannis had no idea the quest they began 16 years ago to better-manage moisture in this drought-prone region of the Prairies would put them on the map as leaders in regenerative agriculture and ingredient suppliers to international boutique food processors. Or that it would result in them being named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers in 2018.
They were simply looking for ways to address the most limiting factor to their productivity. The further he dug into it, the more Derek realized that while eliminating tillage was a key first step to conserving moisture, there was much more they could do.
They began intercropping — growing two crops in the same field at the same time. If one of those crops was a nitrogen-fixing legume, there was the added benefit of adding fertility to the soil.
Intercropping commonly creates a phenomenon called “over-yielding,” where the symbiotic effects of the combined crops yield higher than yields would have been from just one. Farmers practising this have documented less disease, less insect pressure insects and lower fertilizer requirements.
At a time when crop rotations in the region are narrowing towards cereals and canola, the Axtens typically grow up to 14 crops, including a mix of heritage grains, mustard, flax, and pulse crops such as chickpeas and lentils.
“A lot of what we’re doing is less in terms of inputs but more in terms of diversity,” Derek told a group of visiting farm writers Sept. 30.
Snow is perhaps their most lucrative harvest, captured every winter by the knee-high stubble they leave intact to trap it.
When Tannis pushes a shovel into a harvested field of the heritage durum variety Khorasan, she turns up dirt that looks spongy and moist at a time when much of the west is bone dry and looking for rain.
Living their motto “loyal to the soil” has led to soil health gains by every metric. The Axtens apply composted manure, not to fertilize their crops, but to support the soil’s microbiology, which in turn supports crop growth. Tannis says they have reduced commercial fertilizer applications by 80 per cent.
But it doesn’t happen overnight. “Change is so slow. I think that’s what makes it really hard for people,” she says.
While the research isn’t robust yet, there’s evidence to suggest that crops produced on healthy soils are more nutritious too.
But how do you capture value from “regenerative,” which is described by one industry insider as a “hundred-letter word that everyone can pronounce and no one can define?”
Answering that question led to another watershed moment for the Axtens.
“If we were going to get the value from those things, we had to kind of create our own stream,” Derek says.
They were already invested in equipment that allowed them to separate their intercropped harvests into separate bins. It seemed a natural offshoot to build their own flour mill in a location so remote that it’s either in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of everywhere.
“People don’t know what to do with whole grains, but they do know what to do with flour,” he said.
For Derek, it’s another step towards their goal of selling what they grow as food rather than commodities. It also creates local jobs. The customers for their HACCP-certified plant include wholesalers, manufacturers, a specialty spice store in New York, direct to consumers and even dog food makers.
Having their own plant allows them to supply according to customer specifications. Oh and they also just bought a neighbouring farm to help supply the plant.
What’s next? Derek doesn’t have an answer for that, but he does know he’s looking forward to it.
“The big difference is that this is more fun,” he says. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.