By Andrew Campbell
Southern Alberta is such a unique and beautiful part of the country. Part of what makes it so unique is its climate, and the fact that parts of Southern Alberta get very little precipitation, making it difficult to grow certain crops. But thanks to a plan several decades ago, farmers can utilize the snow melt from the Rockies to use this otherwise fertile land to grow food for people in Canada and around the world. Rod is one of the farmers that uses irrigation, and in this tour, talks about why he needs it and what he does to conserve this water source and only use the water his crops need. Plus, we get a look at the four crops he grows: flax, yellow peas, durum wheat and hemp.
We are in beautiful weather here in Southern Alberta. I’m standing here with Rod- you’re outstanding in your field Rod!
You’re always out standing in your field, I’m sure. What kind of field are we in?
We are in a flax field.
A flax field. In behind you, there is a pretty fancy contraption, a very large fancy contraption. What is in the field with you?
It is used to irrigate crops. This is a center pivot run by natural gas pumps and generators, with no outside electricity coming in. And it is a half mile long.
A half mile long and it is watering your flax?
It is, and this water comes out of the Rocky mountains. It is collected from snow melt and then runs through a diverse irrigation ditch system set up about 60 years ago by the Alberta government.
Oh really? So now why water the flax? Why not rely on rain?
In Southern Alberta, we don’t get enough rain for the crop to reach its full potential, so you need the water. On dry land, a crop might yield only half to two thirds of the yield of a crop using irrigation.
Some people might wonder about the environmental friendliness of irrigation. What do you do to manage water?
I consider water a precious resource. I feel very lucky that we have access to it through the irrigation system that was built. This irrigation system has dropped tubes on it. Instead of the old-style irrigation where they would sprinkle from above the machine, this system applies water through tubes, which leave it less accessible to the wind. We have a lot of wind in Southern Alberta. This system drops water from a much lower height, causing less evaporation, less loss to the atmosphere. So we don’t need to use as much water with this machine as we would with an old style-machine. We also leave all of our residue on the field.
Residue is the leftover straw from the previous year’s crop. So in my hand, I’ve got durum wheat from two years ago, and then we’ve got pea straw from last year.
So basically you’ve taken the grain out of those previous crops and leave all the leftover straw on top of the soil. Why do that?
It creates a mulch on top of the soil and that mulch protects the soil from wind erosion. It also stops evaporation of the precious irrigation water and keeps it in the soil where the flax plants can use it.
So you basically mulch this enormous field for the same reasons that I mulch my garden. Pretty impressive. Weed control too?
Yes, definitely weed suppression.
You said peas, durum, flax and hemp are the four crops that you grow. This is always kind of an interesting question. Why aren’t you just a flax farmer? Why are you an “all kinds of crops” farmer?
There’s benefits to one crop following the other. If you grew wheat followed by wheat followed by wheat, in the second year, the wheat yield wouldn’t be as good as the yield of a wheat field that followed flax. So it’s the benefits of what the previous crop does to the microbiology of the soil. It’s a different food for the worms and bugs. The peas are a legume and legumes leave nitrogen in the soil naturally. That’s a third source of food for the soil. And then the hemp, I don’t quite understand what hemp does for the soil, but it all seems beneficial and works together.
I want to talk about the irrigation system because I can feel a bit of the moisture coming off on a windy day like this, and the machine is actually moving a little bit. How do you control a system like this? Do you know how much you’re watering the crop? How does that all work?
We use a handheld coring machine that digs down and we do a field test, which will tell me if the soil moisture level. We just won’t irrigate if we’re within the range of soil moisture level for the crop at its crop stage.
So just because you have this here doesn’t mean you would use it necessarily. You’re only using it here today because it’s dry today.
Yes. And we want to keep ahead of how much water the flax will use as it gets bigger. The cost of natural gas and the cost of equipment also keeps us from just wasting it.
You don’t want to waste it. If you could, you wouldn’t use it. It’s a case of really benefiting the crop. For this flax field, what are you going to do with the flax when you harvest it?
We will take it back to the yard and have it cleaned. Then we will load containers for different countries for export, because I export most of what I grow.
Which countries are you sending them to?
Currently, most of this flax goes to China. Markets change though. We will load the ocean going sea cans in our yard, and then they don’t get opened until they hit the port of China where they’re used for human consumption and pen ink.
Maybe we can just take a quick peek at a couple of the other crops you’ve got. What are we looking at here?
We are looking at industrial hemp.
I wouldn’t have actually guessed that. It kind of has the look of cannabis to it, but it’s hemp. What is hemp?
Hemp is from the same family as cannabis, but it has had the THC levels bred out of it. We are going to grow this mainly for hemp hearts, which is the seed. Then the seed is de-hulled and turned into hemp hearts or many of the other hemp products you see in grocery stores. The straw will be saved for other fiber processes like clothing material, or bio fiber products like injection molding pellets.
We found the third of your four crops. What crop is this?
This is a crop of yellow peas, even though they have a white flower. We are growing them for pea soup for human consumption.
Really? When I buy pea soup, it’s yellow peas and it could have come from your farm.
They also grind it up and use it for pea powders to add protein to lots of different products. A lot of peas are exported whole as well, to mix with different products. But if you look deep into the pea vines, you can see the same mulch that we leave from the previous year. So this is the wheat crop straw, and it’s on top of the soil. It is food for the soil, bugs and food for the worms. What comes out of a worm is 17 times better to grow a crop in than what went into the worm. That’s just them eating, chewing and leaving little castings in the soil.
Worms are very good!
We want earthworms and we want a situation where they’ll reproduce and they’re just wonderful little workers.
Across the road, Rod, the wind is whipping through a crop. What crop is this?
This is our durum crop that is used to make pasta.
So durum is a type of wheat used specifically for pasta. Is that the only thing that it’s really used for?
When you grind durum wheat flour you get semolina. Semolina is what makes spaghetti and the rest of the pastas. They do use it in a few other things, but its main use is for pasta.
What makes durum different from any other kind of wheat?
Flour structure. Durum wheat has a higher protein level than other varieties of wheat which makes it excellent for making pasta.
Well, it’s a beautiful spot in the country, Rod. Four beautiful crops. Thanks very much for hosting us.
You’re very welcome. Glad you could visit.
Watch Fresh Air Farmer, Andrew Campbell’s full video here