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Millennial Farmers

Exploring the push—and pushback—of technology on the family farm, and how one young ranching couple (who met on an “Aggies” pub crawl) is finding their own way.

By Sean Moore

When the phone rang at 5 a.m., Graham Tapley felt the bottom of his stomach drop. Fire had jumped the road and was now burning the family farmland, threatening everything he and his wife Kristine had invested in to convert an abandoned gravel quarry into pasture: their cows, their savings, their young business.

“It’s scary when you’re that helpless. You’re really at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he says. “There is no high-tech stuff that can really help in that situation, nothing that can replace going into the field.”

Kristine [BSc(AgEcol)/12, MSc/16] stayed back at home with their newborn son, while Graham and his in-laws sped across acres on ATVs, searching for their cows. In good weather, with sunlight, it usually takes weeks to gather all the docile Angus-Hereford crosses they breed. On this day, they corralled all 320 cows in four exhausting hours and the ordeal ended with a water bomber drowning the flames—a technology the Tapleys have a new appreciation for.

In recalling the incident, Graham [BScAgric/11] wears a reserved smile that shows his relief. The stress of farming is still a touch foreign to him. He’s originally a city boy. He grew up in St. James, Winnipeg, but his grandparents had a grain farm south of the city and he loved it, wanting to spend every minute there and hating that school got in the way.

Before Kristine talked him into ranching, the 28-year-old had never touched a cow. The couple met at the U of M, on an “Aggies” pub-crawl in 2010. Kristine is a fifth-generation rancher. As a young girl, her job was to blow-dry the ears of newborn calves so they didn’t freeze in the February chill.

Her life is cows, and now Graham’s is too— the art on the walls of their sunbaked house near Langruth, Man., depicts only ranch scenes. Their dining room table, which Kristine made, is reclaimed from her family’s old corral.

It’s around rural tables like this that Manitoba farmers are talking about the drawbacks— and benefits—of infusing more technology into the family farm. Some technologies bring efficiencies while others bring burdens and breakdowns. Rather than investing in gadgets, the Tapleys would prefer to buy more cows, which virtually guarantees a financial return, although nature occasionally plays trump cards. This past April, cow 81, a family favourite, chased a bear away from its calf and was fatally slashed, leaving an orphan to bottle-feed.

“At the end of the day, I don’t see a robot replacing a rancher.”
Graham Tapley

Predators. Droughts. Floods. Fires. Disease. Trade wars. The mutable struggles farming brings don’t seem to deter youth. Indeed, between 2011 and 2016 the number of Canadian farmers under the age of 35 increased by three per cent, the first bump in this age category since 1991, Statistics Canada reports. Also since then, more females have steadily entered the agricultural industry. Female students have outnumbered males for the last four years within the U of M’s Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences.

Manitoba has 14,791 farms and the second-youngest farmer population in Canada (Quebec is youngest), with many millennials pondering how to do things differently than the generation before. Do they buy out their parents? Do they rent or purchase land? Do they crop-share (a practice where the farmer and landowner bear the risks and divide the rewards of each harvest)?

In the 1980s, a ranching family could live off of 200 head of cattle. Today they need about 800 because 200 would net less than $18,000, which is why Statistics Canada found the vast majority of ranchers in the cow-calf sector rely on other employment.

The Tapleys’ goal is to ranch full time. Until then, Kristine’s day job is with Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), although she’s currently on maternity leave with their 10-month-old son.

At DUC she works to create partnerships between the organization and the ranching industry that result in programs like wetland restoration, and she sits on the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. She says her family put no pressure on her to become a rancher and only asked that she get a good education. And after travelling to Mozambique and South Africa to guide ranchers on sustainable practices, she earned her master’s at the U of M.

Graham also works 40 hours a week advising grain farmers for Shur-Gro Farm Services, and he’s not convinced high-tech meets the needs of all farmers equally just yet.

“On the grain side, what I work in at Shur-Gro, high-tech is where things are moving to: a guy sitting at a desk controlling his whole fleet of robotic equipment,” he says. “In more intensive livestock operations, like pigs and chickens, technology is huge: automatic feeders and milkers and infrared technology to detect sick animals. But there’s a big difference in the cowcalf sector because there is no technology that is going to help you when a cow has a calf backwards and you’ve got to flip it around before it comes out. At the end of the day, I don’t see a robot replacing a rancher. It’s more grassroots, if that’s the right word. But maybe I’m not thinking outside the box enough. I don’t know.”

The technologies the Tapleys have incorporated are ones that give them back time, like solar-powered watering stations for the cows; a new machine that plants rows of corn to feed the cows through winter; and smartphone apps to expedite paperwork in calving season, although Kristine has yet to find one she likes.

More specialized technologies can be bought, like computer networks that read electronic tags in a cow’s ear to record when and how much it eats and drinks.

“It’s really cool,” Graham says. “There’s not enough of a return to pay for it though. Long-term, I don’t think we’ll see a huge adoption of digital technology in the cow-calf sector, which I don’t mind.”

Harvesting Technology

In the annals of agricultural technology breakthroughs, two devices stand out: the heavy plough and the horse collar. They enabled the population of Europe to double between the years 1000 and 1300, an achievement more remarkable than the Magna Carta, argued medieval historian Philip Daileader. The new plough gave farmers access to fertile clay soils, and the horse collar introduced horsepower, freeing farmers from the slower, dumber oxen. Productivity skyrocketed, food increased, the population boomed and society changed forever.

Then came the “green revolution” that began in the 1940s with Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug creating bountiful, disease-resistant crops through crossbreeding, saving countless people from starvation. Now, controversially to some, scientists continue this work through direct genetic modification.

An illustration of a farmer's field with a solar panel in it.

 

The biggest shift in modern farming, genetics aside, came in 1996, reckons Don Petkau [BSc(AE)/85, MBA/99, PhD/14], an instructor in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, who grew up on a cattle farm in Elm Creek, Man. That’s when John Deere, the largest farm equipment manufacturer, first installed a global-positioning system (GPS) in their vehicles. To understand the impact this had, Petkau says we have to look at history.

For millennia, farms were relatively small and a farmer could tend to individual plants if needed. Then, the mechanization of farms in the 1940s and 50s allowed for vast acreages, and it no longer made sense to be precise with fertilizer or water, so farmers treated the entire plot the same, inevitably wasting resources. Then came GPS, enabling farmers to locate exact areas in their sprawling fields. They could, for instance, give unique treatment to a specific section that has drier, or more nutrient-deficient soil. Now, combines use GPS to drive themselves in perfectly straight lines while computers seamlessly turn on and off the individual nozzles of a spray boom hanging over the crops, optimally treating each square foot of a humongous field. This is called precision agriculture, and it’s the future.

It’s made possible by new, affordable sensors that analyze everything from soil chemistry and moisture to sunlight levels. Petkau teaches his students how to program these Internet of Things (IoT) technologies in his Innovations in Agriculture course, which Bell-MTS seeded with a $500,000 gift to the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences.

The sophisticated suite of electronics and drones Petkau and his students experiment with allow farmers to swiftly fly a drone over sensors embedded in a field and quickly upload the data to decide their next move. (On a lark, some robotics researchers at Harper Adams University in the UK even grew a hectare of barley last year without a human ever stepping on their field—they used only drones and a robotic tractor.) Those who can’t afford this technology look for workarounds, like farmers in India currently using smartphones attached to large helium balloons for aerial shots of their plots.

“People aren’t buying this tech yet because we’re not at the stage of being able to understand and utilize it,” says Petkau, looking at a field’s data map—an intimidating blur of colours— his students created. “But the further we go down this road, the more we understand how to use it, and it’s getting cheaper and cheaper. Lots of this stuff we’re going to be doing in the near future.”

Sensors may also finally help young farmers surmount an enduring global problem: spoilage.

Grains have formed the foundation of the human diet for thousands of years, yet we’re still not great at preserving them. Post-harvest losses continue to range from nine per cent in North America to 50 per cent in developing countries. Two main culprits are to blame for this food loss—heat and humidity. Distinguished Professor Digvir Jayas [MSc/82], former Canada Research Chair in stored grain ecosystems and vice-president (research and international) at the U of M, studies the complicated interplay between these variables. And now his colleague, Jitendra Paliwal [MSc/97, PhD/02] in the U of M’s department of biosystems engineering, is developing sensors that can remotely monitor the health of grain in a field, or be tossed into a silo to provide data in real time, giving farmers who can afford it the crucial information they need to take pre-emptive action to prevent rotting and increase profits.

The Business Case

Money keeps Kristine up at night. Farmers are entrepreneurs. Acreage is a pension so land is not just handed down. Young farmers have to find and buy their own fields if they come of age before their parents decide to sell. The Tapleys used a provincial program that reclaims derelict land, and they are still converting parts of the old quarry into good pasture. In 2015 they received the Manitoba Beef Producers Environmental Stewardship Award for their efforts.

“I think money is any entrepreneur’s issue. You’re at the beginning. You’re borrowing a lot at the beginning and it’s hard,” Kristine says.

“To me, every time I talk to someone who’s not from a farm, as soon as you start about technology and science and efficiency, they think, oh, you must be a giant factory farmer. They romanticize the idea of the farm. They forget we’re a business and in any other business you would want to be more efficient, produce more with less, all of those things. A good example is growth hormones. That’s a really important technology for the beef industry that makes the animal grow 10 or 20 per cent bigger with the same resources. And a lot of people hate it. That’s what technology looks like. I don’t use growth hormone right now but I don’t have a good reason to not. The cost to gain is a win-win.”

Health Canada and the World Health Organization both say growth hormones are a safe practice and do not harm humans. The process involves a small implant under the skin of a cow’s ear that slowly releases estrogen, directing growth to muscles instead of fat. According to Alberta Beef Producers—an industry lobby—and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a serving of meat from an animal raised with growth hormone has 1.9 nanograms (ng) of estrogen, compared to 1.1 ng from an animal raised without. For comparison, a can of beer has 15 ng of estrogen and a small glass of soy milk has 11,250 ng.

“It’s not going to be an easy conversation and it’s going to take time, but this conversation has to happen. We need to tell people what technology is and how it will help us all,” Graham says. “We spray [herbicide] not because we’re brainwashed but because it helps…. It has saved tonnes and tonnes of soil because before this, weed control was a cultivator.”

A U of M team, however, has found a third option. The Natural System Agriculture research group, headed by plant scientist Martin Entz [BSA/78, MSc/81], runs Canada’s oldest organic-versus-conventional crop comparison study. Working closely with farmers, the group wants to fundamentally change agricultural practice by leveraging natural systems, something even conventional farmers are keen to do now that many weeds are developing resistance to common herbicides. Among their findings, they discovered how grazing animals and specific crop rotations naturally manage weeds, and they are even experimenting with autonomous weeders. But for stubborn plants that resist all these methods, like Canada thistle, they are testing a machine called the CombCut that kills without chemicals, or tilling—which many organic farms do too much of.

Only about one per cent of Manitoba’s farms produce organic products (the national average is closer to two). But most of the world’s farms are small, unmechanized plots in developing countries that rely on organic systems because they can’t afford synthetic chemicals. Entz and his team work with them a great deal, but they are also changing things here, driven by consumer demand: 58 per cent of Canadians buy organic products every week, the Canadian Organic Trade Association reports.

Young farmers will ultimately decide if organic or conventional methods are best for their business, but either way they face the same mounting pressure from society: researchers in the December 2016 issue of the journal Precision Agriculture note “the agricultural sector is supposed to fulfil several goals and societal values simultaneously (e.g., increased food production, preserving and developing cultural heritage, biodiversity, climate change and recreational values), while at the same time being both sustainable and economically viable on a long-term basis.”

The Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences contends with these lofty expectations.

“We’re producing food for people. The end game is always that,” says Dean Karin Wittenberg [BSA/75, MSc/77, PhD/85]. “We are counted upon by society to provide a healthy food product. What society wants as food may change, but at the end of the day it’s a fundamental need and it’s a key responsibility that our farmers have, and members across the industry have, to create healthy, safe food at reasonable prices. It’s a big responsibility.”

Balancing Act

The modern farmer, journalist Geoffrey Carr argues, must be adept at matrix algebra. They must juggle variables such as soil moisture and chemistry, weather and climate, pests and disease and the costs of taking action against them, global markets and local trends.

“If you come from a farming background you develop a love of the land and that is everything that has to do with that land: biology, ecology, soil chemistry.”
Karin Wittenberg

They have to be environmental stewards, mechanics, marketers, accountants, husbands, wives, parents, community members and citizens devoted to our high ideals so we can eat and then casually complain about the cost of lettuce.

Farmers can deal with this pressure, Wittenberg thinks, because they have a strength of character that is bred in the bone.

“I can share with you that if you come from a farming background you develop a love of the land and everything that has to do with that land: biology, ecology, soil chemistry,” she says. “You start to understand more about how you can use science to manage the land and the diversity of the land. Some people like Kristine get really involved and if we didn’t have people like her managing that land, it could fall into ruin. That soil won’t be reclaimed. We teach our students the technical side, we have to, but the love is something they bring.”

Kristine does love the land, though cautions this love alone isn’t necessarily enough to keep young professionals like her and Graham on the farm. Her ancestors may have worked non-stop, but she seeks greater work-life balance.

Her son Walker helps punctuate her exasperation by throwing cottage cheese on the floor from his high chair. She gives him a smile, cleans it up, and continues.

“I think people romanticize farming to the point that they lose the concept that we’re people who want to put their kids in gymnastics, or whatever you do. I think our generation demands more of their workplace—people want more holidays and to work less to enjoy life. That’s pretty hard in agriculture, but people are making that work too, which I think is really exciting for the industry because that is what will keep the industry sustainable, if people want to be here, be part of the rural community.”

Outside their home, you hear only the wind and songbirds. No distant cars or boats or planes to break the silence. Butterflies flap between wildflowers.

Down the highway, Graham sits in the office of his day job, overlooking an abandoned gas station in Westbourne, Man. He reflects on his commitment to ranching and sighs.

“There are definitely days when I wonder, ‘What the hell am I doing? This is hard’…but at the end of the day it goes back to that goal, that lifestyle. You put in a long day’s work but at the end of it, you are working for you. That means a lot to me.”

3 comments on “Millennial Farmers

  1. Darren Anderson

    How great it is to read such an engaging story about rural issues. Well done UM Today. I look forward to pieces by Sean Moore each edition.

    Reply

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