Good Results Come with Challenges

Harvesting Strive Soybeans

I am a 4th generation “seedsman.” My great grandfather was a Scottish immigrant who established the Wm. Ewing Seed Co. in 1869 in Montreal. My father expanded the business (from garden, horticultural and agricultural seeds and supplies) and moved it to Vankleek Hill in the mid-’50s where he developed a custom seed cleaning and processing operation (using six “Clipper” cleaners) for agricultural seeds.

Eastern Ontario was known for forage seed production (timothy, clovers, trefoil, etc.) and this was an ideal location to provide this service for the region. In addition, large quantities of processed seed were shipped to the US, UK, Germany and other European countries.

I must admit that “organic” farming was not on my “radar” when I gave up a 30-year career in Forestry to return to the family farm. Initially, I began farming conventionally in 1997 and maintained an off-farm job until the decision was made to “bite-the-bullet” and begin farming organically, fulltime, in 2009. I have not looked back since!

My interest in organic farming began after a number of years operating the farm conventionally and marketing my crops (wheat, barley and soybeans) locally, getting very little in return (after expenses), I decided something had to be done! After attending my first Eco Farm Day in 2005 and meeting a number of producers (Dick Coote in particular), I realized that “I can do this and I have most of the equipment too”. Transitioning was a bit of a challenge. During my first inspection I was informed by my inspector that a pocket-sized notebook for recording field information was insufficient. My record keeping skills have much improved since then!

Spring Wheat with Compost applied

Much of my crop production has remained the same since I began, however, over time some crops/ varieties have not performed as expected, resulting in modifications to my CRP (crop rotation plan). Without an on-farm source of manure (having no livestock) and relying solely on “green manures” e.g. clover and buckwheat, weed competition has become a major challenge affecting crop yields. Barley and field peas have not performed well and thus have been reduced in my CRP.

As an organic farmer. I initially relied on the CRP recommended in COG’s second edition of the Organic Field Crop Handbook: For an Ontario Farm Without Livestock. (This Handbook is a “must have” for all organic field crop producers). I am currently producing soybeans, Spring wheat, buckwheat, Fall rye, red clover (and formerly a barley and an oat/pea mix). These crops are reliable, with respectable yields and in certain conditions can compete with most weeds. The latter crops are less competitive. At present, I have a market for organic soybeans, Spring wheat and Fall rye. Soybeans are my “golden nugget!”

I am having good success with the Strive variety of soybeans; a consistent yield of 1.0 MT/acre has been achieved. Spring wheat (both Nass and Walton varieties) are quite competitive, but yields are variable (from .6 to 1.0 MT/acre). Common Fall rye, if unaffected by winter kill, has recently yielded approximately 1.2 MT/acre. Single-cut red clover is my primary source for nitrogen fixation.

With respect to farm labour, I’m a One-Man-Band! If I run into a crunch, I may hire a tractor operator (retired), but it is very rare. Spring field work hinges on which fields are dry and ready to begin working – most of the farm was tile-drained back in the early ‘60s. Fields that remain “moist” are left until later. This allows me to schedule tillage work without creating too much of a backlog.

I am very conscious of the negative impact of excessive use of soil tillage equipment, but I cannot eliminate the need for discing and cultivation in order to reduce surface trash and prepare an acceptable seedbed. I do not plough and try to avoid tillage depths deeper than 10 cms. (4”). In the spring, a conventional disc is used to kill, mulch and mix-in (2 to 3 passes) red clover growth, followed by 2 passes with an S-Tine cultivator fitted with a trailing rod harrow.

This also applies for cereal stubble. I will allow the field to sit for approximately one week to 10 days before I conduct the final pass with the cultivator. The field is then seeded and packed (similtaneously). The first pre-emergent weed-control pass with the flex-tine weeder is done shortly after seeding (3-5 days) but before the crop emerges. The first post-emergent weed control pass with the weeder is completed when the crop has reached its 3-4th leaf stage.

Einbock weeder

This is when you are looking over your shoulder from the tractor seat and thinking that you have just destroyed your perfect looking crop of Spring wheat or Fall Rye!! You will be pleasantly surprised however, on how the crop springs back to normal within days. A second post emergent pass with the weeder may be necessary thereafter. The only traces of the treatments will be the tire tracks.

Direct seeding is not in my plan at present (due to lack of suitable machinery), but some larger organic operators are having success with no-till seeding of soybeans into a flattened (crimped) field of actively growing Fall rye. Spring seeding of red clover into fall rye is as close to direct seeding as I get on my operation. This is accomplished when I am conducting a second post-emergent weed control treatment with the flex-tine weeder, along with a front-mounted cyclone seeder to over-seed the clover.

The farm operation is based on a 6-year crop rotation and the fields are organized into 6 compartments. As an example: for a specific compartment, in Year-1: Soybeans are planted. In Year-2: In the Soybean stubble, a short fallow “weed control” season is followed by buckwheat (mulched before flowering) followed by Fall rye. Year-3: In the spring, red clover is overseeded into the Fall rye (the rye is harvested for seed). Year-4: Red clover is allowed to grow for the season (occasional “topping/mowing” is done for weed control). Year-5: Red clover is disced and mulched-in, Spring Wheat is planted and harvested. Year-6: Wheat stubble is worked in, barley or oats/peas may be planted.

After the 6th year, the Crop Rotation Plan reverts to Year 1. The other 5 compartments follow in a “staggered” fashion. I try to stick to the CRP, but persistent weed pressure may require a change of control measures. Portions of a field may have to be set aside for mowing or fallow weed-control tillage. My primary source of green manure is the use of red clover (for 2yrs) and buckwheat (mulched-in before flowering).

I began applying compost in 2021. I exchange my wheat or rye straw with a local beef farmer who uses it for winter bedding, then mixes/turns it to create finished compost in the Spring. This mutual arrangement works well and both of us benefit.

June ’21 Fall Rye

The biggest challenge I have as a certified organic farmer is controlling persistent annual and perennial weeds: e.g. Canada thistle, milkweed, giant and green foxtail, wild mustard and to a lesser extent, ragweed, curled dock, hairy Gallinsoga and burdock. Some of these weeds can be controlled by manual “spading” e.g. curled dock and burdock. I have even attempted to prevent thistle from flowering by using a cordless hedge trimmer! I cannot control foxtail and mustard effectively and will allow it to ripen with the crop (wheat). The rotary seed cleaner is very effective in removing these weed seeds before the crop is stored.

My soybeans are sold locally (St. Albert, Ont.) to R.D. Legault. Fall rye has been sold to Le Semences RDR in Nicolet, QC. Spring wheat has been sold to Dodds & Erwin in Perth, Ont. Oats and peas in the past were sold to a local organic dairy farmer. Homestead Organics was considered to be the “One-Stop-Shop” that a great many Eastern Ontario organic farmers relied on for buying seed and selling their harvested crop. Since its closure in the spring of 2018, I have made contact with some of their former seed suppliers for supply and marketing of crops. In terms of farm income, I consider it higher than if I was farming conventionally, despite the challenges that I have mentioned above.  

If you are planning on converting to organic crop farming, expect weed competition eventually. Most if not all conventional implements (tillage/harvesting) can be used. Highly recommend purchasing a flex-tine weeder and possibly a rotary hoe (for compacted surface aeration – e.g. in clay/loam soils). A self-propelled swather is highly recommended in order to allow the crop (and weeds) to dry thoroughly before harvesting. A combine mounted “pick-up” head will be required to harvest the swathed crop. A two-stage rotary grain cleaner is needed for removal of smaller sized weed seeds e.g. foxtail, mustard, ragweed etc.

Properly sized grain storage bins are essential for harvested crops awaiting transportation to markets. Aeration systems are beneficial if the stored crop develops a higher-than-normal moisture level. Should markets show signs of dropping (demand and $$ offered), the grain can be safely stored until markets improve. Buy a good quality vacuum cleaner to remove remnant seed and weed seeds from equipment (to clean out seed drill, seed cleaner, etc.) and an air compressor (for cleaning grain storage bins, combine engine-rad-headers, sieves, chaffers and straw walkers, etc.).

Rod Ewing

Dalkeith ON

Growing Certified Organic Field Crops