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Definitely the road less travelled

Taking to organic in crops and in hogs takes trust, vision and teamwork

“If we stay together as a unit and focus on that common vision of where we can get to, we will eventually get there,” says Brett Israel, here with grandfather Carl and father Jamie.

Brett Israel is looked upon as a young, entrepreneurial producer with one eye firmly fixed on the road ahead, while honouring and respecting those who have come before him. It can be a bit of a tightrope walk for Israel, whose family has been farming on the same concession in Wellington County for six generations. He’s the fourth generation to be operating on the same farm south of Drayton, not far from Conestoga Lake. 

It’s often the younger generation on today’s farms that is seen as the driving force, returning from school or a job outside of agriculture, supposedly taking the reins and convincing their parents or grandparents that there’s a better way. Israel knows there are better ways, and the key to his success — and that of his family — is more than just yield or paying strict obedience to the way things have always been done.

Brett Israel. photo: Supplied

“My grandfather Carl and my father Jamie and I run the operation together and they are just as integral — if not more — in the day-to-day and long-term vision and planning than I am,” says Israel. “The whole operation is run under organic management, and 112 of our 540 acres are certified as of now: the remaining acres will be positioned to be certified next year, given that it’s a three-year process.”

That means that outside of some unforeseen challenge in the next few months, the entire farming enterprise, including the 170-sow, farrow-to-finish operation, will be certified organic in 2019. Israel emphasizes the benefits of what the hog farm has provided, including good soil fertility and good to high soil organic matter levels in their clay and clay-loam fields.

Their crop rotation is corn followed by soybeans and then either winter wheat, spring barley or mixed grains, with the occasional planting of winter barley as well. How those cereals are planted depends on how the Israels decide to split their soybean acres. They are big believers in getting their winter cereals planted early, which means a good portion of their soybeans must be harvested early, even if it means they’re giving up some soybean bushels.

“That’s why we tend to split the bean maturity to allow for roughly half to two-thirds of our bean acres to get winter cereals in, and the remainder are full-season beans,” says Israel. “We can push the heat units on those because we don’t have to worry about putting in winter wheat or winter barley afterwards. We can push the yields and then grow spring barley or a barley-oat mix for sow feed, and have some decent value.”

Since they’ve begun the transition to organic farming, they’ve had to redefine their rotation, with a focus on becoming less corn-centric.

Family first

If there’s a key to success on the Israel farm, it’s that no one seems to have the lion’s share of power. Everyone has a say and everyone has an idea on how to manage the farm. The important thing is to bring those different ideas to the table and find a common workable approach. Israel likes the idea of finding resolutions by establishing a basic idea, recognizing an alternative, and then developing a synthesis by getting everyone’s ideas on the table.

That said, each individual has a different perspective and a different set of life experiences, so conflicts, whether mild or pointed, are inevitable.

“We know that we’re not going to get there overnight, so we have to have that growth mindset, understanding that there are some things that we don’t know,” says Israel. “But if we stay together as a unit and focus on that common vision of where we can get to, we will eventually get there.”

In that sense, Israel doesn’t necessarily see himself as an innovator — it’s more a case of the operation being innovative.

“Carl, who is 77, is probably the most innovative 77-year-old out there, and I think my dad would be of the same lot among his contemporaries,” says Israel. “So challenging the status quo and saying, ‘Hey, is there a different way of doing this?’ might be better, as opposed to always looking at our consumers as being under-informed. Can we see what’s important to them?”

The “whole-family” aspect is another important facet in managing the farm for the Israels: it’s not just the men who have a role in the operation’s success. Israel’s mother Anna works in the barn while his grandmother Carolyn has been involved for years and still keeps the books. Israel’s girlfriend Riley is a teacher, and while she may not be directly involved in the operation, she’s certainly supportive of the family’s endeavours.

“That’s one of the great flaws of our industry in the past, not adequately appreciating the fact that it takes a team to be successful, and it’s not just the men who are part of the team,” says Israel.

Challenges of organic farming

The transition to organic farming has come with some stark realities but also with some intriguing discoveries. With organic operations, there is the tendency to assume that yields will be lower, yet overall, Israel maintains they’ve had good success from a yield perspective, and have employed a variety of strategies to achieve that.

“Our cover crop program is one of the more complex in our area, so we’re using multi-species mixes following our cereals,” he says. “But then we’re also trying to utilize cover crops inter-seeded into our grain corn and our soybeans. All of our corn and soybeans are planted on 30-inch rows to accommodate for inter-row cultivation for weed control. On our last scuffle-pass, as long as the year allows for it with adequate soil moisture, we will inter-seed a cover crop into all of the corn acres, and we’ve been experimenting with the bean acres.”

The blend they use following cereals is crimson clover, berseem clover, peas, fababeans, radish, hairy vetch and then some sunflowers, with oats on occasion. Israel finds that less is more when it comes to seeding rates: they’ll bale the straw off the cereals for bedding, then broadcast the cover crop blend, apply a coat of manure, and finally incorporate it all.

“We need to prove that we are good stewards of the land, and that includes keeping our soil where it should be.” – Brett Israel, Drayton, Ont. producer. photo: Supplied

When it comes to inter-seeding into corn, they’ve used a blend of crimson clover, berseem clover and hairy vetch. In soybeans, they’ve tried hairy vetch just before canopy closure.

The goal of that is to help alleviate some of the issues they’re causing by having to till the soil for weed control. Plus there are other benefits to the practice: one is that during a year with tougher harvest conditions, the cover crop provides a mat on which they can drive and keep mud off the tires. The other is that many of the species they plant blossom, attracting a larger number of beneficial insects to their farm.

“In 2018, there was a time when I was concerned with aphid pressure in our beans, and it looked as though we were at threshold levels which conventionally would have warranted a spray,” says Israel. “But our beneficial insects came in and cleaned up the problem to the point where our total farm soybean yield average was more than 50 bu./ac.”

For weed control, the Israels use an inter-row cultivator — or tine-weeder —that’s camera-guided with a hydraulic side-shift so it can shift from side-to-side to pick up the rows. Since they can’t use any sprays, they go through their corn and soybeans just before emergence. The fine tines on the unit rattle through the soil and disrupt weed seedlings before they can emerge.

Israel concedes that organic farming is very demanding, and like many non-conventional approaches in agriculture, it’s up to the individual to determine what works best for their own operation and management capabilities. He knows how lucky he is to have the support of his parents and grandparents, particularly in the transitioning from conventional to organic farming, including the importance of advanced planning.

“To do organic well, you really need to be forward thinking, where you need to have next year’s plan completed before this year’s seed goes in the ground, because the decisions you make now will impact the field’s future for years to come,” he says. He acknowledges that even in transition, they weren’t getting yields of 200 bu./ac. on their corn. “But I think more farmers need to look at the net impact on their bottom line. We can’t use any synthetic fertilizer, so the bulk of our nitrogen comes from our own manure or cover crops fixing nitrogen.”

Challenges, and a silver lining

Israel acknowledges the give-and-take or the “more-or-less” aspect of farming life. In his area of Ontario — often referred to as “the Heartland Region” — there are a lot of picturesque farming operations, with many livestock farms and a large number of those being run as family operations.

“One of the challenges that we’re facing then is being able to keep that tradition going,” says Israel. “Commodity prices haven’t been all that inspiring, and you see land prices continuing to rise. Those are major challenges in our area…it might not be totally unique, but it’s certainly felt by those in our community.”

The other challenge is ensuring they maintain their reputation as good stewards of the land and do all they can to minimize high nutrient loading while reducing the potential for nutrient run-off. Their proximity to Conestoga Lake, which has cottages and camping facilities surrounding it, demands that commitment. It’s a challenge they have to meet if they’re to strengthen and solidify the public trust.

“If we can accurately and adequately convey our story through our stewardship, that’s the best way to keep consumers’ trust and faith,” says Israel. “We need to prove that we are good stewards of the land, and that includes keeping our soil where it should be, keeping it diverse in its biological makeup, keeping the water clean — but it also means keeping these resistance issues to a minimum, whether it’s on a weed front, or disease or pest front.”

Israel is also more aware of the impact of climate change, and although some producers may not want to talk about it, there are changes taking place that require action.

“It seems as though those nice quarter- to half-inch rains have been replaced by extended periods of drought and then four inches of rain in half a day,” he notes. “It’s the reason for building a system that’s more resilient in the face of more challenging weather conditions.”

Partnering, networking

Looking ahead, Israel is eager to join up with the Ontario Soil Network this year. In 2018, the family was engaged in building a new barn, taking most of the time not covered by their cropping and livestock duties. He appreciates the idea of a network of like-minded farmers who’ve come to realize the value of combining the fundamentals of agriculture with the benefits of the technology of today, and then sharing those experiences. Technology is fine, says Israel, but it must be tempered by employing the fundamentals associated with good soil health.

He’s also a believer in continuous improvement (the “Kaizen principle”) and in never being satisfied with the “good-enough-because-it’s-worked-in-the-past” approach. Farming requires constant review that seeks to improve on the overall operation of the business, whether it’s to improve performance or sustainability.

A couple of years ago, Israel heard a conventional grower at a conference say the ideal for agriculture is “high-yielding organic no-till” farming. That, he believes, is a goal worth chasing.

This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of the Soybean Guide.

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CG Production Editor

Ralph Pearce

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