Wayne Cantelon is a lot like other farmers. He works a substantial number of acres with his father, brother and son, and he’s always trying to improve conditions and production. And just like a lot of other farmers, too, he’s hesitant to consider himself a leader or an innovator.
In spite of that reluctance, Cantelon, who farms in Huron County near Brucefield, Ont., is regarded as an innovator — and leader — and has been named the Innovative Farmer of the Year for 2014. The award is sponsored by BASF Canada and will be presented at the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario (IFAO) annual meeting, which takes place February 24 and 25, 2015 in London.
Cantelon has attracted attention among his peers and farm organizations in part because of his ability to walk a sort of tightrope, staying with what works while blending and adding new tools to Cantelon Farms, the family farming operation.
Cantelon is also quick to share the award with his father, George, from whom he’s learned many farming and life lessons, along with his son, Scott and Wayne’s younger brother Mark.
“It goes counter to my nature because I don’t like tooting my own horn,” says Cantelon, adding that everybody has their own philosophy. “We’re kind of careful of change, but we made the transition to zone tillage, and we introduced it a little bit at a time.”
It was back in the 1980s, and Cantelon remembers that the Huron County Soil and Crop Improvement Association was thriving, and that he had greater access to different farmers and how they carried out various practices on their farms. It surprised him then to see that there was no “cookie-cutter” approach in farming. Instead, he began to realize that each farmer farms according to a variety of factors, including management style, personality, soil types and rotations.
Eventually it became apparent that everyone adapts or finds ways of doing things that suit that farm’s particular demands. That’s the way Cantelon and his family have evolved.
Initially, Cantelon was not a part of the family operation, returning in 1974 after a stint in the construction sector. He planted his first crop that year, then married his wife Esther in 1975. In addition to Scott, who’s 33 and one of Wayne and Esther’s triplets, there’s also Ryan and Tim, and Andy, who’s the oldest.
Like other farmers, Cantelon learned some tough but valuable lessons during the high-interest-rate days of the early 1980s, especially financial management and durability. Those hard times taught him that little in farming can be taken for granted.
“But that’s part of the package,” says Cantelon. “Anybody who was farming in that time frame knows it was a struggle.”
As for the farming operation itself, the Cantelons run a four-crop rotation, with corn, soybeans, edible beans (mainly white beans, but he has experimented with others from time to time) and wheat. For the most part, the corn and soybeans are non-GMO. From a tillage perspective, he uses zone till for corn and is a no tiller of soybeans and wheat.
“We actually got all of the wheat planted that we were intending to this year (2014), and you can thank the white bean acres for that and the fact that we had some white beans ready for harvest in the good weather,” he says.
Caring for the soil
Managing a larger land base has provided some significant challenges for Cantelon. As the family operation has added acres, they’ve had to decide between staying the course with the equipment they have, purchasing newer and perhaps larger systems, or downsizing in an effort to increase efficiency. The first such decision was made to use less equipment and focus on improving soil management (including soil erosion and enhancing their fertility and nutrient program), with the introduction of a Trans-Till unit to their operation.
That early shift didn’t immediately pay off. In the first year of side-by-side comparisons between corn in a zone-till system versus a conventional tillage regimen, Cantelon saw a slight yield bump in the conventional side. Once he corrected for fertility in the zone till however, the corn yields were either as good or better than conventional. Raising the seedbed helped to dry the soil. And he hasn’t looked back since.
“Do you do things for the sake of change sometimes?” poses Cantelon, adding that he and his family always try to be open to new ideas. Yet sometimes the best approach isn’t the obvious or traditional one. “Conventional (tillage) might look a bit showier, but it didn’t mean anything when the combine went through it.”
Since they’ve adopted a zone-till regimen, Cantelon and his family have found other ways to improve their operation. Their Trans-Till unit was a staple for more than a decade, before he shifted from a shank configuration to a coulter setup. The Cantelons actually brought the second SoilWarrior strip-till system to Ontario, and now serve as a dealer for the company.
“It’s interesting to see that people are watching us more, that some of what we’re doing gets picked up more,” says Cantelon. “That’s part of the reason that we’re dealers for SoilWarrior, where we try things where we can, and people like to see things work on their own ground. Switching is a big mental thing — where you have to climb the mountain to get to the top. And once you get to the top or on the other side, you’re probably not going to want to go back, but for mental and financial reasons, it can be a challenge.”
An important addition to the family farm management plan includes cover crops. Although they’ve been growing red clover after wheat for many years, Cantelon explains how in September of 2013, they tried aerial seeding cereal rye into 200 acres of corn. That garnered some limited success. In 2014, they sowed an eight-species cover mix into 250 acres.
“One thing I’ve noticed on the cover crops is that when we put something green in our wheat stubble, there’s something about that combination that works and the biology must really like,” says Cantelon. “When we come back and do a spring zone (till), even the wheat stubble is gone. And the proof is there — you can see all the worm middens.”
An important lesson he’s learned from all of his family’s dealings with soil health and use of tillage is how little is actually understood about what’s happening below the soil surface. The interaction between plant and soil micro-organisms is a long-term relationship, one that can’t be rushed or simplified for the sake of convenience. Building good soils just takes time, not to mention diligence to keep the process working and thriving.
Asked what his most important challenge is, Cantelon has a couple of answers: one is marketing and the other relates to adoption of new technology. From a marketing perspective, it can be time consuming keeping up with how the markets are trending, including dealing with his IP soybean crop. But he believes much of managing that part of the farming operation comes down to developing good relationships.
“On the technical side, we’ve certainly been early adopters with GPS and auto steer, and we’ve kind of been the testers for a lot of systems,” Cantelon says. “My biggest issue with technology is that it’s quite addictive — I always want more of it.”
That outlook is part of the changes that are constant in farming: sometimes fast or slow, other times slight or extreme. The difference is in how a person deals with change when it comes. Some accept it, but Wayne Cantelon embraces it.