In 1990, nearly 30 years ago, Amos Brielmann moved his family from Germany to the Rainy River District between Fort Frances and the Manitoba border. They settled on a farm near Pinewood, first working on a beef cattle operation just north of the village.
Slowly, they began buying the farm and maintaining the herd and the land, until Amos’s son Timo, after graduating from the University of Guelph, suggested they focus on cropping instead of keeping beef cows.
That conversation was in 2013, when Amos and Timo were working with another farm, which also shifted into cash crops. Six years later, Brielmann Agriculture Ltd. operates on a 45-kilometre stretch of its own land along with custom work on fields that run past the town of Rainy River to the river’s mouth, almost to the point where it enters Lake of the Woods. In all, they cover nearly 7,000 acres, including their custom farming interests.
The soils tend to be variable, clay with sand underneath. Amos notes the cation-exchange-capacity (CEC) can be 25 to 40, although west of Pinewood, towards the hamlet of Sleeman, CEC values run as low as 12. Towards the mouth of the Rainy River, it’s more of a flood plain, with very poor internal soil structure.
“Up here, if you do something wrong in the spring, you will see it for the whole year,” says Amos, with a chuckle. “But it’s also gravelly, grey wooded soil, part of the Parkland region that borders the vast fertile Prairie soils.”
Much of the land was cleared for pasture in the late 1980s. “Farmers would try to go around the bush where it was easiest to carve out some farmland,” Amos says. “What we’re trying to do now is square it up and make it bigger.”
The crop rotation runs three to four years starting with spring wheat, after which they seed canola, followed by soybeans. Recently, they added some seed production in annual ryegrass and they’ve also started to incorporate corn into the rotation. They maintain roughly one-third each of wheat, canola and soybeans before they adjust their percentages with ryegrass and corn. They also try to maintain their rotation regardless of commodity prices, but that can come with some tough decisions.
“We don’t like to endanger our soil health and build up pathogens with a very tight rotation,” says Amos. “We have to stick with a certain methodology on our crop rotation.”
Who do you turn to?
The Rainy River District has an impressive history, first settled in the late 1800s with some farms that are more than 100 years old today.
But there isn’t the same sense of community for cash croppers that growers in regions like southern Ontario may take for granted. There aren’t local elevators every few miles or the concentration of ag retailers, agronomists or advisors.
The Brielmanns also need 100 per cent storage for all of their crops since a truck can only move 44 tonnes per day, roughly the amount that a large combine will harvest in an hour. This adds another challenge to the operation.
That kind of scarcity has taught them to be more self-sufficient and to network with farmers from other regions.
When they were cattle producers, adds Amos, there was information and other producers they could talk to and share ideas with. With grain farming, they’ve had to go to Manitoba for advice on agronomics, fertilizer needs and pest management.
“We’re doing our own testing,” says Timo. “No one else is doing what we’re doing, so we don’t always know what’s right and we have a hard time comparing ourselves to our neighbours, so it’s a lot of trial and error. We just try to make sure that we’re making money on a per acre basis.”
The Brielmanns measure the responses to their actions, keep what works and discard whatever doesn’t fit. Each new growing season brings about change of some sort.
Timo and Amos are always talking, comparing and thinking ahead.
Attaining such self-sufficiency has been a challenge, but Amos believes that to be as much a benefit as it is a hurdle. It’s not enough to ask a dealer, “What should I be growing?” For the Brielmanns, there’s the need to understand more of what goes into a growing season, from agronomics and economics to disease pressures, weed species and insect thresholds.
“I’ve always found that a challenge is the best thing for you … it makes you learn and find the best avenue,” Amos adds. “It’s not always about doing it right, but you really have to understand, and that’s the benefit of it.”
The long haul
The relative isolation of cropping in the area provides many benefits but Timo notes there are a few notable drawbacks. For one, there’s the distance to Thunder Bay: their driver makes just one trip per day hauling grains and oilseeds the 848-kilometre, 13-hour round-trip.
But he takes pride in the fact that what he does is unlike what anyone else in the district is doing. Like Amos, he takes great satisfaction in turning unused or marginal land with rocks or discarded fences into productive crop land.
Although Timo loves where he farms, there are times when he wouldn’t mind trying his hand in a region like North Dakota, where the tasks of clearing land or burying rocks aren’t as pressing.
In that sense, Timo doesn’t believe that he’s much of an innovator but more like a pioneer, taking what was once non-productive scrub land and turning it into a valued resource from which he and his dad can derive a living
One of the keys to success for the Brielmanns has been the ongoing installation of tile drainage on those thousands of acres. Amos maintains that with their soils, cropping isn’t profitable without tile drainage.
“We have 27 inches of precipitation in a year and we can have a three-inch rain on July 1, and it can’t go anywhere because the soil is flat, saturated and has very poor internal drainage,” he says, adding that it’s all Class 3 or Class 4 soils in the region. “You have to be able to get the water out to make sure the soil doesn’t get anaerobic.”
For Timo, tile drainage makes the land productive, profitable and it reduces the wait times for a patch of a field to dry out and keeps crop emergence even.
Timo recalls working one field that had been tiled on one half, and the difference between the two halves was immediately apparent, as if the tiled portion had a crop versus the half without, which struggled to yield decently.
“Right away that year, I thought the tile paid for itself,” says Timo. “It evens everything out so when I go in to spray, the whole field looks the same. You’re not saying ‘Well, this corner I can spray but that one I can’t.’ When the guys are pulling the air seeder, they can seed it from corner to corner and not have to go around wet parts.”
Drainage has to be considered an investment, he states emphatically. If he wants to buy a field or is looking to clear some land, he automatically incorporates the price of tile drainage as part of his estimate. Much of the land they have has been tile drained on 40-foot spacing. At the time, recalls Timo, the goal was to get as many acres tiled and that was the most economical option, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). But one field has been tile-drained on 30-foot spacing and Timo knows that he gets better production on that soil.
In coming years, he’s hoping to start decreasing the spacing on those 40-foot tiles down to 20.
“It’s not even a question anymore,” he adds. “To me, it’s an investment in my future.”
How to grow successfully
More than innovation, it’s their pioneering spirit that has helped them learn, adapt, adjust and succeed, Timo says. Now, Amos leaves much of the daily management efforts to Timo.
Amos trusts his son’s abilities as well as their driver and the two seasonal workers they employ, and he knows that they trust him to listen to their concerns and consider their perspectives. He also acknowledges Timo’s drive to add to their acreage, possibly up to 9,000 or 10,000 acres.
That can challenge getting the equipment they need, understanding that one air seeder is sufficient for 6,000 acres but not enough for 8,000.
In order to make two seeders more cost-effective, Timo believes he needs 10,000 acres on which to operate. That takes a careful eye on operations, including superior organizational skills.
“We have lots of people working for us and if I’m not organized and have my day planned out, I can have three guys standing around in the yard, not doing anything, and that just costs money,” says Timo.
For Amos and Timo, money is like time: wasting either isn’t an option.
This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue of the Corn Guide.