Can a sustainable farm be a profitable farm? A conventional farmer and an organic farmer weigh in

A conventional farmer and an organic farmer weigh in how very different farming techniques can fall under the category of "sustainable farming," and look at whether farm practice can be sustainable and profitable at the same time.

'Small farm versus big farm, we all have an acre of land that we have to make money on'

Sustainability means different things on different farms. Some farms don't till at all, while others practice crop rotation, among other things. (Tory Gillis/CBC)

Consumers have been asking for years to be better informed about where their food comes from.  

Some people just want to know which region or farm is the source of their beef, lentils or vegetables. But other people are more interested in the specifics of farming techniques, pesticides and environmental impact. 

CBC Saskatchewan asked two farmers on either side of the farming world — one practising conventional farming, one using organic techniques — to share their thoughts on sustainable agriculture.

Nicole Davis took over ownership of Daybreak Mill near North Portal in southeast Saskatchewan in 2012 after working there for a year. The farm has been producing organic food since 1890 and was one of the first farms in the province to get an organic certification. 

Nicole Davis took over ownership of Daybreak Mill in 2012, after working there only one year. (Submitted)

Jake Leguee farms 13,000 acres with his wife, two young children, parents and older sister in the southeast part of the province, near Fillmore, Sask. He has a degree in agriculture from the University of Saskatchewan and worked as an agronomist before moving to farming full-time.

Here's what they had to say. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jake Leguee worked as an agronomist for a couple of companies before moving to farming full-time. (Submitted)

Would you say your farm is sustainable?

ND: I do my best to practise sustainable agriculture. I think becoming a farmer has made me realize I'm never going to know everything. I'm always going to be learning.

There are different methods I'd like to try on my farm. You can actually do no-till organic farming. So I'm going to talk with a few farmers in Saskatchewan that are already doing it to see how we can be better.

There's a lot of pressure on farmers to make decisions that the rest of the world thinks is right, when in reality, the rest of the world doesn't know what goes on on a farm.- Nicole Davis

I think the mindset of our farm isn't just to be sustainable. It's to leave the farm in better condition then when we took it over so it can continue to provide for future generations. 

JL: Dad started avoiding tillage back in the early '90s. We call it "no-till" — basically, just not cultivating [and] direct seeding, so seeding directly into the ground without ripping it up first.

Our goal is very much the same as Nicole's. We're not trying to leave things as good as they were when we took them on. We're trying to make things better.

The great thing about agriculture is we're never done learning. There's always new ideas and so much technology coming. I think we try out best to be sustainable but really, it's about making things better. 

How are you protecting your soil?

JL:  No-till. No-till means we just don't put iron in the soil except for our drill, which we need to be able to seed the crop. We try not to do anything to that soil if we can help it. We seed right into crop residue.

The main advantage is moisture conservation. Every time you open that ground up, moisture leaves. We're in a dry climate here. We don't get a lot of annual precipitation. We have to manage every drop of water that we get. So we can't allow for moisture loss from tillage.

Another benefit to no-till is you're not ripping that soil apart. So you're letting all kinds of life grow in that soil, in the roots that you've got down there, in the organic matter that you're building up. It's just allowing things to grow and reproduce and expand the diversity of life in that upper soil zone. 

ND: One big thing we do on our farm is we have a strong crop rotation plan. So we don't plant the same crop on a piece of land two years in a row. We would wait even more than probably five years to plant the same crop on the same piece of land. For example, we planted wheat on a piece of land that hadn't had wheat in 20 years.

So when you have that diverse crop rotation, it doesn't give the pests a chance to propagate within that crop. In the time I've been farming, we've never had pest problems because of that.

We do use tillage as weed control. We let our land rest — so we don't crop back to back. Lots of times, when we're letting the land rest, we'll have it planted to clover or peas or buckwheat, and then that gets plowed back into the soil to add to the organic matter, build up nitrogen — there are various things that it does.

We are conscious about our tillage. This year I went to till one of our pieces of land, but it was super dry, creating a lot of dust. There were weeds out there but we felt that we were better off to leave those weeds alone and not till it when it was super dry, because that would contribute to soil erosion and it wouldn't be as good for our crops. 

When it comes to being sustainable and making money, can you do both? It this an either-or question?

ND: I would say the economic factor definitely has to be there. You're not going to continue doing something if you're going broke. You do have to be able to make a living doing it. I think it would be nice to see things like — I know they do subsidies in the US — maybe something to promote farmers to plant more tree rows, provide free trees, or give them some kind of breaks for doing things that are seen as environmentally sustainable.

If we can't have this farm survive the next generation, it doesn't matter how good of a job we do environmentally.- Jake Leguee

I care about the environment, but it's also a business. I think there's a lot of pressure on farmers to make decisions that the rest of the world thinks is right, when in reality, the rest of the world doesn't know what goes on on a farm.

People need to keep in mind, farming is a very stressful job. A lot of things are out of your control — you could have a hail storm, you could have a flood, you could have things happen that destroy your crops that you can't do anything about. Everyone thinks they know what needs to happen on a farm, even if they've never been to one.

JL: I would say we're doing that today. Sustainability, environmentally and economically — one can't exist without the other. We have to have both. We wouldn't be here today if we weren't practising both of those things to the best of our ability.

If we can't have this farm survive the next generation, it doesn't matter how good of a job we do environmentally. If we're out of business, it doesn't do anybody any good.

How do you preserve natural land?

ND: We have quite a few tree rows on our land. We leave those alone, they never get farmed. That's good for preventing erosion and also provides habitat for wildlife.

We don't use any chemicals that would potentially harm the insects or anything like that. We don't till our sloughs to farm them, we leave them alone.

And in order to be organic certified, I have to have 30-foot buffers between my land and conventional land to account for over drift. So those 30-foot buffers are left alone and are also buffers for wildlife. 

JL: Where we farm, it's kind of pothole country. We don't have nearly as much permanent slough wetland. So if we get into a wet cycle like we did in 2009 to almost 2013, we lost 100 acres off a 400-acre field from flooding. We can't leave that as permanent wetland because it dries up. When they dry up, a lot of that we will work them down and seed them.

When it comes to permanent wetland, we do farm some land that has that. We generally leave it alone. There's not a lot we can to do about it unless we go on some major large-scale drainage projects, which are extremely expensive and complicated to set up.

We don't have any tree rows or shelter belts — we never have. If we decided to go do that, you're talking about a row every few hundred feet — we talking tens of millions of trees. It's not feasible. It doesn't work on massive areas. We just try to leave our permanent wetlands alone. We have lots of deer and moose and lots of living things out here.

When it comes to cost and output, are small farms and big farms really that different?

JL: We do have to invest a lot of money into what we do. Small farm versus big farm, we all have an acre of land that we have to make money on. Whether you've got 10 acres or 10,000 acres, your investment per acre is going to be really similar if you're really small.

That's because you still have to buy equipment, put inputs in. It's not really any different — you're just doing it on a smaller scale. 

Is the family farm still a thing, and will it be 100 years from now?

JL: We are a family farm that has corporations because that's what the Canada Revenue Agency told us we needed to do. Farms have been decreasing in number ever since we settled Saskatchewan and Western Canada in general. Farm numbers are going to continue to decline because it's not an easy way to make a living.

But we don't go out and buy out a bunch of little farmers and put them out of business. That's not how it works. Guys retire we take on their land and we hire more people to help us. So there's no net loss of people 

ND: I farm 540 acres, my dad farms a couple thousand. We share-farm together. And I hope [the farm will continue]. I would love to see that. I would love to see it able to be farmed.

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.