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Watching for bears

Change Makers: Saskatchewan’s Franck Groeneweg defends his farm against factors that prevent him changing as fast as he needs to

Franck Groeneweg is a young, progressive agri-businessman from central Saskatchewan, and like most of his neighbours, he accepts the fact the only constant in life and in farming is change. “There is always going to be change, and I try to embrace it,” Groeneweg says. “I look at it and ask, what is the opportunity here? Something is different or changing, so how can I use this to my advantage?”

But Groeneweg was born on a family farm in France and then farmed and worked a few years in Iowa before coming to Saskatchewan in 1992.

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And part of what he learned along the way is to watch for bears.

It’s true that these bears aren’t exactly your usual, four-legged bears. Rather, the 39-year-old admits, for him “bear” is a euphemism for the kinds of fears and hazards, real or perceived, that can get in between a farmer and the key decisions they need to make.

“I have always remembered what this older farmer in Iowa told me several years ago,” says Groeneweg. “When you’re young, you don’t see any bears in the bushes. But as you get older, you start to see more, and perhaps one day there is a bear behind every bush.”

Nor was that Iowa farmer talking about real bears. Instead, it was all about a way of thinking that he wanted to pass on to the young Groeneweg. Don’t give in to your fears. Don’t let them become bears. Take charge of them.

As Groeneweg talks, it’s apparent that he has survived a couple of minor bear attacks, and that he is no worse off because of them. Probably he’s even a little wiser after the encounters, and a fair bit better at farming.

The Groenewegs also have a better sense of balance, as he and his wife Kari and their four young children look over their 7,500-acre operation, called Green Atlantic Farms, with a focus on opportunity, not a preoccupation with their fears.

Should he aggressively add acres? Should he look at farming elsewhere? For him, Groeneweg says, the key is to excel at managing change in the field while he works out his answers.
photo: Mike Raine

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to guard against, and his experience with tile drainage makes an instructive, point-by-point case study of his overall management philosophy.

Big on Groeneweg’s screen, after his dozen-plus years of farming in Western Canada, is the changing pattern of weather in central Saskatchewan. When they first bought land near Edgeley, about half an hour northeast of Regina, most growing seasons were generally considered dry.

“Then we had a wet growing season in 2009 and we figured, well, this is probably a one-year thing,” says Groeneweg. “Then in 2010 it was wet again, and the same in 2011. And now it is 2016 and for the most part we’ve had more moisture the past six or seven seasons. I don’t know if I am a climate change doubter, that may be another discussion, but I have to ask if this is a longer-term cycle. We could be dry next year, but then again we could see another 10 years of this.”

After the first two or three higher moisture growing seasons, Groeneweg considered adapting to the change in weather patterns. He was familiar with tile drainage systems from his years in the Iowa corn belt. So in 2011 he bought a tile plow and put it to use.

Unlike parts of Eastern Canada and the U.S. where tile drainage is applied to the whole farm, Groeneweg considered it a water management tool he could apply to specific problem areas of his farm. “On a quarter section (160 acres), it is pretty typical here to have several low spots on the quarter — perhaps 30 to 40 acres — that hold water,” he says. “These areas have the potential to be the most productive land. So our approach has been to use tile drainage to remove this standing water.”

Groeneweg believes in the benefits of using tile drainage, but he is also very aware of the need to keep the bigger picture in mind. “I see this as proper water management,” he says. “It is not like we are intending to drain land and send this big gush of water over to Manitoba. It is using a well-planned system on these problem areas where water is carried away in a trickle.”

Tile drainage is new territory for Saskatchewan, so regulations need to be developed to accommodate the practice. And as a director of the Saskatchewan Farm Stewardship Association, one of Groeneweg’s interests is to help guide the regulatory process.

“We can’t secretly install these systems and hope no one finds out,” says Groeneweg. “We shouldn’t hide it. There is nothing wrong with proper water management. We need to understand the benefits and develop the appropriate regulations.”

Really, there are only two options. The wet areas could be left to become weedy and perhaps saline. Or they can be managed to produce crops that use moisture.

He likens it to the evolution of conservation farming practices such as zero till and direct seeding over the past 25 years. In the early days there were people who believed in tillage and were reluctant to accept the concept of continuous cropping and direct seeding.

Many farmers actively opposed it, and it took time for that to change.

But, says Groeneweg, if Western Canada is into a higher moisture growing season cycle, new water management practices need to be considered. “If Phoenix started running into winters where they were consistently dealing with two-foot snowfalls, someone is eventually going to buy a snowplow,” he says.

While the sometimes excessive moisture comes with its share of problems, Groeneweg also sees it as his responsibility as a farmer to look for ways to turn it into an opportunity.

“If we can do what we can to properly manage the water, we have potential to become very consistent producers of 70-bushel canola crops,” he says. “If we make the best use of our resources — the moisture and most productive land — with proper management, then it becomes a win-win for producers as well as society.”

Change is underfoot

Groeneweg also talks about the somewhat complex role of crop selection and rotation in adapting to change and managing risk on the farm.

A typical rotation on his farm has included spring wheat, durum, canola, flax and fababeans. He has tried growing grain corn, and hemp was fairly successful but it is a crop that struggles with marketing issues — he can grow it but the market isn’t consistent.

“Just because you can grow something doesn’t mean you should,” says Groeneweg. “You have to be profitable.”

Now, newer changes affecting rotation include increasing levels of herbicide-resistant wild oats (and concerns over herbicide resistance in general). Wild oats resistant to Group 1, 2 and Group 8 herbicides are common, and wild oat resistant to glyphosate could be around the corner, he says. “It is a warning we heard over the past several years and I’m as guilty as anyone else,” he says. “But with herbicide-resistant wild oats, we weren’t sure how to deal with it. And now it is a real problem.”

Groeneweg says he is using newer tools such as Avadex and Edge (older chemistries that have found a new role in recent years) but that adds another $15 per acre roughly to input costs, which racks up to about $100,000 bill on his farm. At the same time he tries to restrict his glyphosate to a pre-seeding burn-off.

With weed issues and a weakening wheat market, wheat is getting moved to the back burner of his rotation. Fababeans have a good fit since pulse markets are decent and it’s a crop that can handle moisture fairly well.

Soybeans are another crop showing more potential in his area. He could grow more canola, but pushing that rotation has its consequences too with the potential for higher disease pressure. “Ideally you should be following a four-year rotation with canola, but we have cut that to three years,” he says.

His plans are to include more pulse crops such as fababeans and peas in rotation and reduce wheat acres, and maintain flax and canola. “Herbicide-resistant weeds are a new challenge, a change, so how do you manage that and also consider proper agronomics, and at the same time consider you have to grow a crop you can market for a fair price to remain profitable — it can be a real juggling act.”

Groeneweg says from a crop production standpoint his best risk management tool is to use good agronomic practices and pay attention to what is happening not only in Western Canada but other parts of the world.

“It is important to have good research locally, provincially and in Western Canada,” he says. “I also need to pay attention to what is happening in the rest of the world… the crops may not be the same as I am growing here, but what can I learn from their experience?”

Groeneweg says his farm will always need to change. While their children are still quite young, he has to think whether they will be interested in farming. That opens a whole other box of questions. Should he expand the farm base near Edgeley, look at farmland in Alberta or Manitoba or some other part of the world?

Does he want to have a 20,000-acre land base? If yes, he knows it would come with its own set of challenges.

And the questions continue.

“And the advice varies too,” Groeneweg says. “Some people say you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket, while others say it’s better just to have one basket, but watch it closely. So there is always something to think about.”

“We can do the best job we can today and look at the opportunities that change provides. And as the next generation comes along we’ll have to look at the options then.”


Interest grows in tile drainage

With a succession of wet growing seasons across Western Canada, tile drainage is moving to the front burner for more farmers, researchers and ag businesses.

It’s hardly a stampede, but it’s getting more thought after recent wet years.

One person fielding more questions is Joel Classen, an owner with Northern Plains Drainage based in Elie, Man., a company with its roots in specialty crops. “The biggest shift,” Classen says, “is we are seeing more grain farmers asking about tile drainage.”

Now, Classen is probably dealing with 15 to 20 new clients per year, mostly grain farmers, looking for equipment or systems to treat problem areas ranging from between 100 to 300 acres.

Interest also comes from higher land prices. It becomes a better option to invest in draining wet areas rather than looking to buy more land.

Avery Simundsson, a project leader with the Prairie Agriculture Machinery Institute (PAMI) in Portage la Prairie, Man., says interest in tile drainage is definitely on the rise. She points to a recent Manitoba farm conference where a tile drainage session was packed with producers looking to learn more.

One of her first projects with PAMI has been to do a literature review of tile drainage systems, and she, along with others, say one of the key issues with tile drainage may be to develop appropriate regulations.“Once you start moving surface water around, everyone gets concerned,” Simundsson says.

In Manitoba, for example, water and drainage issues are handled on a local municipality basis, so there can be a wide range of regulations. Specialists in Saskatchewan say there are no specific regulations for tile drainage, so any projects are reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the provincial government, but if interest in tillage drainage systems continues, it appears likely that all provincial jurisdictions will be looking to develop appropriate regulations.

About the author

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Lee Hart is a long-time agricultural writer based in Calgary and a contributor to Country Guide.

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