For Gord Green, “ag in the classroom” is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year opportunity, whether the classroom that he happens to be in at the moment is in the field, in a lecture hall, at a community centre or on a bus tour.
In any setting, Green wants to learn, and he has made it a key strategic goal of his operation.
It’s one of the reasons why Green speaks so highly of the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA). For him, the association represents a constant opportunity to share new ideas and concepts with peers and like-minded individuals.
“I started going to meetings when I was kid with my dad,” says Green, who’s currently the OSCIA president. “You tag along, and other kids maybe did a little too, so I started off that way and I was always a member when I was farming. Then in the 1980s, someone approached me to be a local county director and I did that for 10 years. A few years went by and I was asked to be a director for the provincial board and that was 2008 or 2009.”
A fifth-generation crop and livestock producer, Green, his wife Laura and his son David, farm the family operation —named Greenholm Farms near Brooksdale, between Embro and Stratford, Ont.
His great-great grandfather began farming in 1843, with Gord starting his career in 1977, farming alongside his dad. A few years later, he began slowly taking over the farm, and nearly 40 years later, the same thing is happening with David slowly succeeding Gord (although he keeps the books to monitor the business at various levels).
Laura also helps out feeding the calves, but her role is part of the succession planning too, and she is trying to step back from those duties.
Together, they own 750 acres and rent 75, and are blessed with what can be a very forgiving Bennington silt loam soil. Green holds to a four-year rotation, with two years of corn (one year silage, the next year grain corn), then soybeans followed by either wheat or a forage. He also milks 210 cows at any one time, and has 15 head of beef cattle, as well. Interestingly, there’s also an anaerobic digester on the farm, with a Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) program contract for it.
Unique learning experience
Time can be a hard-to-find commodity with both dairy and field cropping operations, yet for his involvement in OSCIA, Gord is only too happy to free up what is required. Maybe it means spending fewer hours than he’d like on other activities, but he feels the benefits he derives from his time with the association are undeniable.
“It’s a general information sharing organization and that’s where all of the newer ideas on cropping come from,” says Green. “It’s the material that’s presented at annual meetings, and that kind of stuff intrigues me, so I’ll always look forward to the meetings and get the latest information. People share their information very well in the organization, so if somebody’s doing something unique and they’re getting bumper yields, they’re more than happy to talk about it if you ask them.”
Growers perform their work on small plots or there’ll be a number of different farmers working on the same thing, so everyone learns from those relationships. What makes his involvement in OSCIA even more enjoyable and beneficial is the depth of involvement of the Oxford County SCIA. There’s a bus trip every year that Gord and Laura try to join, as well as information meetings through spring, summer and fall. As an example, the fall meeting occurs the night before the start of Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show and features explanations of why local fields yielded as they did, or what’s coming for soybean harvest. As with other county chapters, there’s usually a host of locally conducted crop trials on members’ farms.
It’s another opportunity for shared learning, and Green gravitates towards that because he’s always looking to improve his operations, whether it’s through innovation in the milking parlour or trading ideas and suggestions with like-minded farmers.
“If I do something, I like to do it because it’s the best way to do it,” says Green. “I started farming with my dad, and we were conventional tillage and plowing, and you’d go to the meetings and hear about no till, especially no-till wheat. They tried that and it worked, and they had their own drill, then rented on and then went back to their own. But then I went to a few meetings and heard about the advantages of not burning off organic matter, and I decided that we’d better try no till, so one crop at a time I got into no till about 20 years ago.”
The process was a one-crop-per-year progression, with no-till corn being the most worrisome. Green finally settled on strip till for corn, and they’ve been doing that ever since. He’ll even no till forages in because he’s tried it and it works for him, year after year.
He may not do everything that dedicated no tillers subscribe to but he’s tried different practices and found what works best for his farm.
“I like to think I’m innovative but there’s also a danger where sometimes you can be on the bleeding edge and not on the leading edge,” says Green. “There’ve been leaders before me who’ve developed these ideas, and they’ve shared their information and I thought it had merit, so I’ve tried it and I’ve been doing it. There are other approaches I haven’t tried yet, and maybe I will and maybe I won’t. But I’m watching and seeing how they’re getting along it.”
Always willing to try
A perfect example of a “tried-and-tested” practice at Greenholm Farms is the use of cover crops. After corn silage, Green plants forage rye and harvests that in the spring for feed. After wheat, he plants oats which he harvests for feed in the fall. They could use a more complex mix for cover crops but forage rye and oats both yield well for feed, and they’re both a decent cover crop. Other species and blends may do better at breaking up a plow pan, but for what he needs out of cover crops/forage crops, he’s getting it.
“I think some of the fundamentals like forages and a good crop rotation are very valuable,” says Green, noting the importance of a return to the basics of farming, while also paying attention to technology, including precision ag systems. “Maybe we’ve let some of those slide in the past. It’s simple to have one or two crops, so we tended to gravitate towards that — and some of the technologies like Roundup Ready allowed us to. But the more crops we have in the rotation, the better.”
When he talks about some of the newer technologies like split applications of nitrogen using Y Drops, he’s interested in learning more, even though he has yet to try the system. One of the reasons he hasn’t is due to the age of his equipment as well as the rolling topography on the farm. He could pay more for a system that can adjust to the terrain, but isn’t prepared to make that investment right now. For one, he has manure that he’s applying, which releases nitrogen in a manner that’s more effective for his management needs, plus something like split applications of nitrogen can run into his hay cropping schedule.
It all comes back to what’s best for Green’s farm, his farming practices, and his time management situation.
As Green begins to slowly scale back his involvement on the farm, he considers what’s ahead for the industry and sees the impact that government and consumer-based special interest groups are having. Even though he concedes that accountability is increasingly important, the way the rules are changing isn’t always for the better.
“We have to demonstrate that we’re being responsible, but that takes time and resources,” says Green, and even though it can increase the stress levels for farmers, it’s a fact that’s hard to sidestep. “We were doing a good job before in the dairy industry, as far as producing the product. But now we have to do a lot of paperwork to show that we’re managing that way, as opposed to before when we did it our own way and they didn’t pay attention to it.”
Green believes that to be the case across the agri-food industry, and even if cash croppers aren’t seeing the same accountability freight train approaching in the distance, it really is coming. What concerns him even more is that some older farmers are exiting the industry in order to avoid staying and incorporating any new directives.
“They’re leaving for the wrong reason, and it’s almost like they’re being regulated out of the business,” he says.
Still, he’s focused on the tasks at hand, which means more learning and perhaps even broadening that definition of “the classroom.” He considers himself a conventional farmer, in that he uses science-based practices and technologies, including fertilizers and herbicides. But it’s well within reason that conventional farmers could learn a thing or two from organic producers, and vice versa. There are also opportunities to learn from other sectors, such as horticulture, or from other regions, other countries, from government extension personnel or university trials.
“Always have your eyes open and be watching and learning,” Green says. “Be willing to try new things, or at least be willing to consider them. Learn from others and mentor others. I think we can learn a lot from each other.”
This article first appeared as ‘The big lesson’ in the January 2017 issue of the Corn Guide.