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The short version is that 2017 hemp crop was overtaken by wild oats and could not be harvested. I’ll tell you the long version to flesh out the story to provide some insights into organic hemp farming and entrepreneurship.
On the morning of Friday, June 2nd, Al and I began seeding the hemp while Chad drove the final stretch from Edmonton to Breadroot Farms. While Al made the first few passes on the field in the tractor pulling the seed drill, I met with our Saskatchewan Crop Insurance (SCIC) Adjuster. Ben from SCIC and I reviewed the weed control and nutrient process implemented on our field. As you may recall, in 2016 The XY Hemp Corporation grew a cover crop of peas and fava beans to fix nitrogen in the soil and control weeds. I described this process to Ben as we looked at the current moisture in the field and discussed the operations that had been completed on the hemp field prior to seeding. The moisture was about a centimeter below the surface, the soil was warm and conditions looked great for the hemp crop.
A few weeks later, Al and Helene sent Chad and I pictures of a beautiful green blanket covering the hemp field. The hemp seeds germinated nicely and covered the field. A few large noticeable weeds such as thistle and plantain were visible but otherwise the crop looked promising. F*$k Yeah!
A few weeks after that, things changed. Grasses started appearing over the hemp plants and the hemp seemed to stop growing, getting stuck at about 15cm to 20cm.
Ever the hopeful farmers, Chad and I continued to aggressively search for someone to harvest the hemp. This was the other major challenge we faced: no one wanted to be paid to combine a 75-acre hemp field. I spoke with every custom combine company and family in Saskatchewan and followed up with all of their recommendations. Given hemp’s reputation as a challenging crop to harvest, our relatively small acreage and our somewhat remote location (even for Saskatchewan), some people I spoke with were offended I even asked. Many were regrettably already completely booked, and some were intrigued and interested, but everyone I spoke with was ultimately unwilling to combine the field. Possibilities such as buying a vintage John Deere, customizing it to harvest hemp, and reselling after the harvest were being seriously considered.
When we spoke with Al and Helene again in early August, I was still hopeful we would find a saviour to harvest the field. However, the outlook on the hemp field was grim. In their assessment, it was worse than our 2015 crop (which had not been meticulously prepared like our 2017 field). They sent along photos that confirmed the disappointment – a field of wild oats rather than hemp.
Killing wild oats is one of the primary reasons conventional farmers use glyphosate. As organic farmers, controlling weeds is something that must be done through careful crop rotations rather than chemical applications. The conditions this year were simply better for the wild oats than for the hemp.
After this devastating conversation, I called in to the SCIC office to initiate our claim. Ben called me back right away and told me he had been concerned about the field, which he passed regularly on his commute, and that he would write his report on the field as soon as possible. His assessment echoed that of Al and Helene: many small hemp plants dwarfed by wild oats, due to dry conditions.
Chad and I are immensely grateful we purchased insurance for this crop. We invested heavily into the preparation of the field, the seeds and the machinery operations required to make it happen. The insurance claim helped mitigated our losses, exactly as intended.
Looking forward, Chad and I are committed to organic farming. We plan to grow hemp on smaller scales to increase our knowledge of growing and learn new approaches to hemp production. We are also still looking for land access in Alberta or BC to allow us to be more active in farming.
We can’t thank Hélène Tremblay-Boyko and Al Boyko enough for their guidance and mentorship. This crop marks the end of our formal business relationship and we have learned so much from each of them. Anyone looking to settle on the land and learn organic agriculture should get in touch with Breadroot Farms ASAP before their land is sold to another young family.
2017 marks The XY Hemp Corporation’s third year in farming and second hemp crop. Chad and Kayleigh traveled to Saskatchewan to seed the hemp with Al and Hélène of Breadroot farm. Kayleigh provides a quick update on how seeding went this year.
I arrived at the Farm on the afternoon of Saturday May 27th, 2017. On my way to the home quarter, I stopped to check on the soon-to-be hemp field and saw mostly black soil. I got a warm welcome from Al and Hélène when I arrived at their home and we enjoyed a beer on the front deck. The wind was a bit unforgiving, so we cut cocktail hour short to warm up inside.
I worked on my computer most of the day Sunday, as Hélène had announced that we were going to tag and immunize the calves on Monday. The cows had all finished calving the day before I arrived and it was time to identify all the babies and give them their first vaccination. Monday morning I joined Hélène, Al, and Jonathan to round up the cows and calves. This was the closest that I have ever gotten to the livestock! The process involved placing an ear tag on each calve and injecting them with one dose of vaccine. I recorded each calves’ number and the date and our team of four finished before lunch.
Tuesday afternoon I helped Hélène plant the lettuce and corn in the garden. Last summer, there were some extra peas and fava beans left over from our green manure ploughdown crop. Al was able to plant these extra seeds in two sections of the garden to provided some extra nutrients and organic material. The corn, another nitrogen hungry crop, was planted where the peas and fava beans were ploughed-in last summer. Hélène also plants her corn in the traditional “Three Sisters” grouping: peas, corn and squash are all planted close together to feed and protect one another.
On Wednesday I went out the take pictures of the weeds emerging in the hemp field. The weeds emerging at this stage could provide some indications about the soil: thistles grow in tight soil with little air, while yellow flowered weeds thrive in sulfur depleted soils (pg. 65, Barber, 2014) . In the evening, I cleaned out the seed drill when Al finished seeding the wheat. This signalled that we were getting closer to preparing the hemp field! After emptying the wheat from the seed drill, I helped Al move all the machinery over to the hemp field. It was time to confirm that we were ready to seed!
Wednesday night, Chad and I discussed our recent soil samples and the stages of the hemp field. We completed a successful ploughdown crop the year prior, including grazing a small heard of organic cattle on the land. The hemp field had been cultivated and harrowed once, and the weeds had emerged a second time. There was rain at the beginning of the week, and a long stretch of clear weather ahead. Our hemp farming mentor had suggested this precise crop rotation and assured us that even if the soil test didn’t indicate available nitrogen, it was there, mineralizing in the soil. Chad and I affirmed to one another that the hemp seeds had everything they needed to succeed. I left a note for Al on the breakfast table confirming our decision to proceed with the two final machinery operations: rodweeding and harrowing.
Thursday morning, Al left early to get started on the rodweeding. It was the hottest day yet, 30 degrees Celsius and clear skies. I worked inside on my computer and called potential custom harvesters about the fall hemp harvest. In the late afternoon, Al came in to declare a tire had gone flat on the rodweeder. He had a spare in a junk equipment pile hidden behind some trees and he loaded the generator in the truck to power an impact wrench. I came along to pass him tools and help move vehicles.
These breakdowns always take longer than expected to repair and have unforeseen challenges. I learned this lesson fixing Austin Minis on the side of the road in Saskatchewan. This was a much larger tire to remove and replace, located between sharp ploughs and harrows. I am small enough to get into these tight spaces, but not strong enough to free rusted bolts. There I was, lying in the dirt in my lululemon pants, holding wrenches in place while Al used levers and raw determination to unscrew 30-year old bolts. We managed to remove the large weights that keep the wheels from bouncing, and had almost freed the flat tire when a single bolt refused to come free. After 30 minutes of trying various strategies, we returned to the farm for a grinder. By grinding down a lip on the wheel, I was able to get a wrench in position so that it wouldn’t slip free and Al released the stubborn bolt. In another 45 minutes, the new tire was installed and Al was ready to finish the last hour of rodweeding left on the hemp field.
The forecast for Friday was mixed: heat and thunderstorms had been predicted throughout the week but the day started muggy and overcast. By the time I got up, Al had been out harrowing the hemp field for about two hours. Chad was driving in from Saskatoon and the possibility of seeding the hemp was becoming more and more real! I met with a Saskatchewan Crop Insurance adjuster in the hemp field just as Al was finishing the harrowing. Over lunch, we decided to fill the hopper with the hemp seed and start seeding in the afternoon.
Chad arrived at the farm just as a parade of vehicles was heading out to the hemp field. Al was driving the small case tractor, used to pull the seed drill, which was full of fuel. Hélène was carefully pulling the hopper of hemp seeds in the John Deere Tractor and I was following behind to pick-up Hélène and bring her back to the house. When we all arrived at the field there were hugs and handshakes then we jumped up on the seed drill to finish adding the hemp seeds. Ready to get into the activity, Chad offered to join Al in the tractor to drive the seed drill. They returned for dinner at about 8pm with 45 acres complete!
Saturday, June 3rd, was overcast and dreary but we were joyfully excited to finish seeding the hemp! Chad joined Al in the tractor again and jumped out to move large rocks and check how much hemp was left in the seed drill. With just seven acres left to seed, I came out to take pictures and see if there was anything they needed. In the afternoon, we helped Al move tractors to new fields and cleaned the remaining hemp from the seed drill. The sun came out and it was a hot windy day. I was grateful for the moisture in the soil and the straw from the cover crop holding our soil down against the strong winds.
My mantra for this year is “strong relationships and healthy harvests”. It was a pleasure to nurture our relationship with Al and Hélène of Breadroot farm by participating in all the activities on their farm. We are so grateful for their mentorship and partnership in our endeavour. I look forward to visiting them again at harvest in September for a healthy harvest!
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 2017 hemp crop, Chad and I will be responsible for harvesting our hemp seeds. This will involve renting and operating a combine, or hiring another person to work with us. To ensure we understand how to operate a newer model combine, and gain first hand experience in the event that we harvest the crop alone, I spent 2 days at Larry Marshall’s farm learning to drive a combine.
I arrived in Saskatchewan on September 18th and stayed with close family friends who live down the street from Larry. It was raining quite hard on the Sunday night, and I was worried we would be unable to combine over the next two days. Larry called at around 8pm to let me know that due to the rain, most of his team (his sons and another worker) would not be arriving early on Monday morning. It was starting to feel like I would be on a farm vacation rather than a learning experience.
However, when I arrived at Larry’s around 11am Monday, he was confident that I would be able to combine that afternoon. I was stoked! Larry made lunch in the kitchen at the back of his large shop while I snacked on grapes fresh off the vine.
After lunch, I went out to combine with Larry’s eldest son, Josh. We drove out to the field where the combine and grain truck were parked, checked the combine over and got to work. I rode next to Josh and asked lots of questions about which controls he was operating and how he decided what to do first and where to watch. Like driving a car, once something becomes a habit, it is difficult to break it down into steps. However, Josh did and excellent job explaining how he simultaneously watched the steering, the height of the table (where the hemp moves on a conveyor towards the centre of the combine) and the height of the reel (which pushes the hemp stalks towards the blades which cut the plant and move it onto the table).
Suddenly, it was my turn to combine! Josh patiently explained the controls and the order in which the process is engaged. Most of the controls are operated with your right hand, while your left controls the steering wheel. It was definitely a struggle for me to follow the line of the row (steer straight), control the speed with the pressure in my right hand, and operate the height of the table and the reel with my right thumb. When I got confused or flustered about the height or tilt of the table and the height of the reel, I found that I accidentally accelerated (slightly, as combines move at about 2 to 6 km/h) thinking that the pressure would lift the table. It was a lot to learn, and I was so grateful for Josh’s patience and even more so when he called out directions such as “Table UP!” and “Reel DOWN!”.
By 4pm I had combined about 5 rows and we had gone back over some patches that I missed. At this point, it started to rain again, so we emptied the combine of seeds, covered the grain truck and drove it back to Larry’s farm.
The next day started about the same and Josh and I went out to the same field at around 1pm. When we arrived at the field, we inspected the combine for hemp wrapped around important parts. Inside the combine, the hemp often wraps around the rotor, which can lead to wrapping in other parts, and can sometimes cause fires. I discovered quite a bit of hemp wrapped around the front axel on the right side of the combine. We used dull kitchen knives, razor blades and pliers to cut and rip the hemp out of the places where it had wrapped. Much of the wrapping was most likely due to my driving: when we drove back over missed patches, I drove over the chaffe, which is the waste left behind the combine. This chaffe is mostly loose straw and wraps quite easily. Needless to say, you should not combine over the same spot twice!
When the combine appeared to be free of hemp straw, we set out to do the perimeter of the next field. This must be done at least twice so that there is enough room for the combine to turn around. Halfway through our first round, the controls alerted us that there was a blockage inside the combine. We drove back over to the grain truck and climbed inside the back of the combine to investigate. It was clear that there was a lot of material stuck in the beater of the combine, and the only way to free it was to cut and rip until the beater could be rotated. Josh and I spent about 2 hours freeing the combine of all the hemp straw material trapped inside and had to call Larry to bring us another tool in order to use leverage to rotate the beater.
Around 7pm, the combine was all clear again and we set out to finish the round so I could combine a few rows. When we cleared a small section so that I would be able to combine, the sun was almost set. I got behind the controls and drove about 10 feet before a pulley on the feeder header (the front attachment with the table and the reel) broke. This was classic farming as I remember it: spend all day fixing things and when you think it’s time to work, something new breaks!
In all, it was an unbelievable lesson in combining and farming. It was awesome to get to drive the combine, discuss the process, learn where fibres get wrapped, how to get them unwrapped and remember that farming is hard work. I am beyond grateful for the time Larry and Josh shared with me. There was also plenty of time to discuss organic farming practices such as effective microorganisms and beneficial fungi while it was raining. It was such a valuable experience and I can’t wait to be the most annoying backseat combine driver ever!
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/