SR ORganic Farms
Chetwynd, British Columbia (Peace River region)
700 acres of grain (some in plough-down)
800 acres of managed wildlife habitat
100 acres hay
Mostly cereals. Barley, wheat and oats are fairly common in their rotation, with other grains slotted in, including flax, lentils, hemp, spelt and emer.
Jed and Amber Franklin transitioned to growing organic grain already convinced that the advantages of this business model outweighed the risks. “I don’t know of any business with a surer certainty than agriculture,” Jed says. “Even if there’s a drought or a disaster,” as long as he succeeds in limiting input costs in his organic system, “I will have more return for my work going in,” he says. For example, for an organic crop yielding 15 bushels an acre, “it would take 45 bushels in conventionally farmed grain to pay for the inputs” to arrive at the same gross income, he says.
Special care during transition to organic production methods is “where the danger is,” Jed says, mostly because of weeds. Jed wouldn’t recommend implementing the weed-suppression strategy he used to get his farm’s land switched over to organic production. Initially “I was a big fan of growing alfalfa for hay, then transitioning land in,” he says. “But I’ve since realized that during all those years, I was selling phosphorus off my farm. While you only need 30 pounds of phosphorus to make a decent grain crop, alfalfa takes 250 pounds of P”; oftentimes, available phosphorus in surface soils is already quite limited.
A preferable approach, he thinks, is to “identify crops you are willing to grow” that offer the benefit of reducing weed pressure, without depleting phosphorus in surface soils. “Grow a crop for seed, maybe red clover or alfalfa for seed—there’s a big demand for that—or grow crops for forage or silage if you have animals,” he suggests. “If you want to sell something, oats can be really healing to your land, but be aware that you have to rotate because oats on oats leads to serious weed pressure.”
Jed’s rotation is mainly based on needs predicated by weed pressure, rather than a set schedule. “I really fight with wild oats, so I’m trying to avoid black fallow,” he says. Over the years, he’s tested different annual clovers and hairy vetch with the intention of keeping the ground covered and improving soil. Jed’s favorite cover crops for soil building and intercropping with plough-downs are sweet clovers and red clover; “red clover will do well in a wet year and sweet clover does well in dry year,” he says. “There is nothing like seeing huge cover crop, usually yellow blossom sweet clover, that’s taller than you.” He has to pass over it with a heavy disk, then a medium disk to cut it down and chop it up; the mat left behind is three inches thick and very effective at preventing weed germination while it decomposes.
“This year, we had a bunch of test strips in, an experiment with tillage radish,” he says. Tillage radish winter kills and has a suppressive effect on early spring weeds; Jed is also interested in tillage radish’s potential to bring phosphorus up from the subsoil through its long tap root, and the fact that it is relatively high in calcium.
“Experimentation is important to me because it shows me the best way” to operate on his farm, Jed says. “I have several different seeders, and each one does a different crop in a different way.” For example, when he tried planting hemp using his Noble Seedovator—an air drill dating from the late 90’s—he discovered “there’s a lot of risk of dehulling,” and with plants coming up too far apart in rows. “This year for hemp, I went back to using a 30-ft grain drill with double disc openings. It seeds beautifully—everything came up uniform,” he says. “I have a hemp plant every 4 inches in 6 inch rows, even when I cut my seeding rate. This is not a no-till drill by any means,” he notes—for this approach the soil has to be worked. “Others might find they can do a great job using an air precision seeder—the key is to “find different tools for different jobs that work for you.”
Newly transitioning farmers should consider all the characteristics of any crop they think they might want to grow, from planting through to harvest and cleaning. For example, farmers some might be tempted into growing organic flax because of its value as a niche crop, but flax is “a terrible competitor” with weeds and can lead to long-lasting weed problems; flax is also difficult to clean to meet product specifications. It’s important to be aware that “crops worth a lot of money often have very picky buyers. You may be growing a crop, and you think everything looks good, but a buyer might come back saying ‘we can’t take this because it’s only 99.93% clean.” New organic farmers can avoid unnecessary stress if they remember that “niche demands come with niche products,” Jed says.
“Ask lots of questions” Jed suggests. It pays to reach out. In selling your crops, don’t hesitate to get multiple bids. Through internet searches, Jed came up with 200 names that he called to get answers and exchange expertise, explore new production methods and tools and to identify buyers. “We have to always be learning, talking with friends, and trying to figure out how to do the best we can with the crops and situations we’ve had each growing season.”
Figuring out where to market crops gets easier over time, Jed says; networking can be extremely helpful in terms of organizing grain transportation, trucking and rail access. Even though organics is relatively small scale, efficiencies can still be found. For example, having found that selling grain by the pallet was “a lot of nuisance relative to using an augur and a train,” Jed purchased a rail loading facility. “This kind of investing in agriculture is necessary, and helps us to be reliable sellers,” he says.
Thinking of what people work for their whole life in order to be able to retire,” Jed says, “I’m already doing it; this is what I want to do when I retire—I’ve already achieved my dream in life.” “I like to do what I’m doing and I get a fair return. Managing ~800 acres of land in wildlife and forest habitat, “I have hawks and songbirds, and creeks, rivers and lakes on my farm, which is unique in this area—the Fort St. John area is fairly dry. Fawn, bears, moose with new calves in the willow patch, coyotes and wolves: I’ve seen all of these while I’m working,” he marvels. “I’m working together with nature and with God.”
View addition farm photos at: https://www.onedegreeorganics.com/SROrganicFarms
Interview and profile by Amy Kremen
Photo credit: Sondra Houghton