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LARGE SCALE ORGANIC GROWING IN SASKATCHEWAN
by Irene Hortness
Concerns about health, economics and the state of the environment led the Ruttens of Carlyle, Saskatchewan, to change from conventional chemical farming to organic methods on their Double R Charolais Farm. This 2500-acre family operation is living proof that organic growing is possible on any scale.
Larry Rutten, his wife Beverley and his brother Kelvin are in partnership to grow organic grains, run a certified seed cleaning facility including dehulling and destoning, and raise cattle, hogs and poultry. With help from Larry and Beverley's teenage sons, the Ruttens keep the whole operation running smoothly without hired labor.
Standard prairie crops are wheat, oats, barley and rye. In addition to these, the Ruttens also produce white wheat, durum wheat, hulless oats and barley, golden flax, millet, radishes, peas, sunflowers, canary seed, buckwheat, rye, alfalfa/brome and sweet and red clover.
About 300 acres is in pasture and hay for the animals. The cow/calf operation of purebred Charolais, the hundreds of hogs and flocks of poultry provide an excellent blend of manure which is composted and used in conjunction with microbial additives.
The Ruttens farmed conventionally up until 1981, when they started their transition to organic with a few acres of 15-year-old hayfield. They added more fields each year, and in about six years were able to get all the fields certified through OCIA. The livestock is not certified at this point in time. Kelvin stresses the importance, especially for large operations, of a gradual transition rather than a "cold turkey" approach; begin with the best fields to ensure the best results, he advises.
Going organic meant a change in marketing as well as growing procedures. Although the local grain elevators can recognize this superior organic produce, they are limited by Wheat Board restrictions to grading grain by looks rather than quality (i.e., amino acids). The Ruttens now market their products through brokers both in Canada and the United States for shipment locally and abroad. They assure healthy, clean products by using their own private, on-farm, all-steel sanitary storage facilities right up until the sealing of the container for shipping to the actual consumer.
The Ruttens high quality crops and excellent yields are the result of careful long-term planning. In choosing crops to grow, they take into consideration factors such as type of soil, previous years' weather conditions (amounts of snowfall, rain, etc.), certain weed infestations, market demands, seed availability, manpower, finances, availability of specialized equipment, and more.
Kelvin is presently Chairman of the Crop Improvement Committee for the South-East Saskatchewan Chapter #1 of OCIA. His understanding and past practices of encouraging and stimulating a proliferation of microbes in the soil make him a natural for the position. Kelvin uses all the conventional and biodynamic techniques known to be beneficial, enhancing these with liquid compost from Modern Organics, a Winnipeg company. He believes that as we feed the varied microorganisms in the soil, so too will they release the proper nutrition for the crops.
Certain crops produce better following certain other crops. Last year, the Ruttens' wheat, grown after a crop of clover, contained 14.1 per cent protein when tested by Minot Grain Inspection. In the same year, another field of wheat grown on summerfallow only tested 11.8 per cent protein. One specific rotation used by the Ruttens is rye/oilseed/sweet clover/wheat. The rye brings the weed population into a controllable balance, facilitating the growing of a high-revenue crop such as flax, which is undersown with sweet clover for green manuring the following year. This sweet clover may be cut for hay if needed.
Green manures are an important part of the Ruttens' rotation. They have found that sweet clover is best cut at 33 per cent flower. Last year they rented a Loftness shredder, manufactured in Minnesota, to shred their standing clover and lay it back on the surface; the clover is then disked into the soil as a green manure after 48 hours.
The Ruttens avoid ploughing as it can kill vital microorganisms in the soil. The sod-turning action of the plough brings anaerobic microorganisms to the surface and buries aerobic ones, to the detriment of both.
Occasionally, to pick stones or level the land, the Ruttens need to remove the crop cover to get at the surface of the soil. They will use a green manure the first half of the season and blacken the soil the last half, but they never uncover a large area at one time because of the danger of wind erosion. They blacken long, narrow strips in the field, preferably at right angles to the prevailing winds.
Hardpan, a layer between topsoil and subsoil which acts as a total barrier to plant roots or moisture penetration, is one of the major causes of crops burning up in July in the prairies. To compensate for this, the Ruttens have added deep-rooted German oil radish to their rotation. Its deep-diver roots penetrate hardpan before it is set up, allowing sub-moisture to rise to the topsoil in July. These roots make the hardpan porous for shallow-rooted crops for at least two more growing seasons.
To control specific weeds in crops, the Ruttens cultivate before sowing the crop and then rodweed prior to germination of the sown crop. The fi-nal step in this operation is to harrow with a wire-tine harrow. This pulls out any remaining weeds, levels and packs, ready for crop emergence. They are currently looking for a 30-foot rotary hoe.
"A good way to control weeds over the long term," says Kelvin, "is to sow down hay and work it up after four or five years you'll end up with a field that's very clean for a few seasons."
"You don't have to buy certified organic seed to produce a certified organic crop yet," says Beverley. However, organic growers would never consider buying treated seed. The Ruttens are continually striving to upgrade their own seed through natural selection, or back-crossing. Their extra seed is in such great demand that it has become another source of revenue.
A hidden asset of their seed cleaning program is that the ground cleanings make excellent feed for their animals. The mineral supplement they add to their own ground grain is the only feed input the Ruttens buy.
"We must learn to work with nature and the microbial life that presently lives in our soil," says Larry. "Then our benefits will increase and so will the health of the people who consume our products."
Irene Hortness is a freelance writer living in Redvers, Saskatchewan.
Copyright © 1993.Irene Hortness
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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