Weathering the Rain

Originally published in the Manitoba Cooperator October 6, 2016 

Reflections on the seemingly endless rains this past growing season. For many across western Canada, snow was added to the mix in early October and harvest continues to be an ongoing challenge for far too farmers.  Thinking of those who are struggling to get their crops from the field to bin and hoping everyone will soon be done with #Harvest16.  


facebook_1474855006708I used to be that girl, the one who would joyfully head outside when it rained. I loved everything about it. The rhythmic sound on rooftops. The patterns it made as it rolled down windows. The feel of rain on my cheeks. The way it would it soak through and soften my wild, curly hair. If the rain was coming down fast and furious, I was content to sit under the cover of the front porch and watch. But the best rains were gentle, light, perfect for walking. The air so fresh, the streets quiet and still. Those rains offered a refuge from troubles and worries. I can still see my younger self soaking in the peace and serenity of those walks.

Yet there I sat, staring at the computer screen, tears instead of raindrops, slowly rolling down my cheeks. A friend was embracing and enjoying that night’s rain. Her post on social media read, “Jammies, slippers, hoodie, book, veranda, rain! Wonderful combination. .oh yes..glass of wine.”  She was doing exactly what I believe in and strive for — embracing the moment. But instead of being happy for her, I was jealous. Not of what she had, or what she was doing, but of that feeling, that freedom, that joyful connection to the rain.

I had the comfy clothes, books and wine, maybe not the veranda to relax in; that wasn’t the issue. What really got to me was the fact that she was enjoying the rain — and I wasn’t. In fact, after almost 3 months of excessive rains, I was cursing yet another downpour that was downgrading our wheat and delaying the start of harvest.

You would think after 27 years of farming, I would be used to it, but that night the dismal weather really weighed me down. I missed being that girl and my past laissez-faire relationship with the weather.

When your income is dependent on Mother Nature, your relationship with the sun and rain becomes fickle.  Excess amounts of either, especially at critical times during the growing season, can cause anything but joy and relaxation. The hold the weather has on our lives, can at times, be tiring.

I’m rather embarrassed by my feelings that night; jealousy is not an admirable trait. And being jealous of a feeling — well, that borders on absurd. I confessed to my friend. She totally understood, but we agreed the next time that happens, I am to join her.

rainbowI spoke to another woman, who has long since retired from farming and asked her if concern for the weather ever goes away. She laughed, “No.” So I guess I’ll have to be content with my memories of that girl. Look back on her fondly and smile. Even when we no longer work the land, concern for farmers will always be there, and I will be that little old lady who politely asks, “So, was that a good rain?”

 


It helps to talk to someone who listens and understands. No matter the issue, you can contact the Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services. They offer free, confidential information and non-judgmental support, for anyone who lives on farm, rural or northern community. Call Toll-Free 1-866-367-3276 Monday – Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. After hours 1-888-322-3016

A list of nationwide resources in Canada can be found here

 

 

 

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Innovation in Oil

Originally published January 2016 in Canola Digest


Three Manitoba canola growers are bottling and marketing canola oil with flavour characteristics unique to their own farms.  As grapes produce different flavour subtleties in wine based on their “terroir” – a  French word that covers soil, topography and climate – so does canola from different regions produce slightly different oil.

Photo courtesy of MCGA

Photo courtesy of MCGA

The Manitoba Canola Growers Association (MCGA) and the Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network Inc. (MAHRN) are studying virgin, cold-pressed canola oil, meal and co-products from processing as part of a Canadian Climate Advantage Diet (CCAD) project funded by Growing Forward II.  The three-year $396,000 project is looking at how the interaction between plant genetics and local growing conditions impacts the nutritional profile, flavour characteristics and end-use qualities of Manitoba-grown canola.  MCGA has contributed $10,000 to the project with a goal of adding value and finding innovative uses for Manitoba-grown and processed canola. The venture addresses the keen interest consumers have in local food, ‘terroir’ and virgin cold-pressed oils.

The three farmers involved to date are:  Brian Chorney of East Selkirk, Jack Froese of Winkler and Larry Bohdanovich of Grandview. They all grow the same variety but, surprisingly, the look, taste and even the nutritional profile of each oil is different. The East Selkirk Vintage has a higher iron content. The Grandview oil has a higher vitamin A number, is the strongest in flavour and has the deepest gold colour. Variations also exist in the percentage of crude oil extracted (33.9 – 39.5%) and clarified oil recovered (68.14 – 69.5%).  East Selkirk has the highest rates.  (Note that cold-pressing cannot extract as much oil from the seed, resulting in a high-oil meal.)

Photo courtesy of MCGA

Photo courtesy of MCGA

These unique, cold-pressed oils were test marketed at both the retail and food service level with highly favourable results. They are being embraced for salad oils, drizzles and a Canadian-grown alternative to extra-virgin olive oil.

The 2015 Vintages, prominently labeled with each growing area, will be available in early 2016 at five Winnipeg Red River Coops as well as the Winkler Co-op. These new virgin canola oils are also part of the Buy Manitoba Program. Such distinctive specialty oils demand a premium and sell at 20 times the price of conventional canola oil.

The long-term goal of this project is to develop on-farm enterprises and small and medium-sized business product lines. “It’s always exciting to see innovation in agriculture and Manitoba canola growers are definitely excited about growing future prospects for canola in Manitoba,” says Ellen Pruden, education and promotions manager with MCGA.

DEFINITIONS

Terroir (ter-war):   A term most often associated with grapes and wine, this is the special set of characteristics expressed in agricultural products when the geography, geology and climate of a location interacts with plant genetics. As a result of this project, we now know terroir exists in Manitoba-grown canola.

Cold-pressed oils:   Obtained by mechanically pressing and grinding the seed at a slow speed. Cooling methods are in place to ensure the temperature does not exceed 60 C during this process.

 

Flooding Hurts Food Production

Originally published August 4, 2015 in the Winnipeg Free Press  


No one wants to discuss it. Even those most affected are careful how they reply when asked about it: “Do you really want to know or are you just being polite?” Because in fact, yes, flooding is still an ongoing issue around Lake Manitoba.

As I write this, gale force winds are Lynch's Point Waves - lg web sizeincreasing the lake level in the south basin by five feet or more. Significant and powerful wave action will force water inland up to two to three miles, flooding pasture, hay-land and crops. It is the fourth time in five years that an over-flowing Lake Manitoba has stolen the income of farmers and ranchers.

Imagine owning a modest, ten table restaurant. You and your family are making a decent living, able to pay your bills, look after your home, send your children to school and financially contribute to your community. Your restaurant is definitely not a get-rich-quick scheme, but you’re financially stable, providing a service along with local employment.

Then one year, the government decides to shut down five of your tables. The next year two or three. There is nothing wrong with your tables or your restaurant, they just aren’t allowing you to use them to ensure the restaurant down the road in a larger, more important centre can remain viable. You still have all your overhead costs but your ability to generate an income has dramatically decreased. How long could you keep your doors open? Would you find this government action acceptable? What would you do?

In 2013, farmers tried to bring attention to their plight with a peaceful 12-hour protest at the Portage Diversion. The government labeled them “angry, irresponsible farmers” and court orders were served. A meeting was held alongside the diversion last July when record flows of Assiniboine River water were once again thrust into Lake Manitoba, bringing it above flood level, but no other public gatherings have taken place since.

Countless phone calls and e-mails, and months of waiting are required to get a response, if any, from the departments of Agriculture and Infrastructure and Transportation. This month a joint letter from both departments to our farm stated, “To protect as many Manitoba homes and properties as possible, our government managed water flow with the Portage Diversion.” Well that management continues to cause significant financial losses for producers all around the lake. But instead of compensation, the response we received, “We recognize the impact flooding has had on individuals like yourself, and appreciate your contributions to Manitoba’s agriculture sector.” Unbelievable.

Farmers and ranchers are in the business of food production. As long as this lake is kept full and overflowing, it is increasingly difficult to remain viable and plan for the future. If the government is intent on keeping it at high levels, tell us. Compensate for losses. Buy the intentionally submerged and quagmired land that we still have to pay taxes on despite being unable to use.

An outlet for Lake Manitoba is supposed to be built by 2020 but five more years of uncertainty, five more years of being on continual wind-watch, five more years of preventable financial losses is unacceptable. A restaurant cannot operate when the government keeps shutting down tables and a farmer or rancher cannot continue to operate when their land base is continually degraded and stolen.

The 2011 Flood wasn’t a one-in-350 year event. High water levels remained in the spring of 2012. One year of recovery was available in 2013 but any hopes of forages being re-established and seeded crops surviving was once again swept away in 2014.

Farmers and ranchers have not been fully compensated. For many, the financial losses of 2011 were only partially covered and even though multi-year compensation was promised, reimbursement continues to be denied.

And what about the emergency outlet built after 2011? That is on Lake St. Martin, not Lake Manitoba (which flows through Fairford and into Lake St. Martin). It use has been sparsely used and definitely not to full capacity.

Farmers and ranchers have been taught to be patient — a necessity in dealing with mother nature — but patience is wearing thin as financial costs of this ongoing flood continue to mount. The blatant disregard by this government to the people and communities around Lake Manitoba is astounding.

Ask yourself if you would be willing to forfeit a portion of your income four out of five years, and possibly more, to protect your neighbours from flooding. Right now, farmers and ranchers have no say, no choice. Their income is stolen, with thanks for their contribution to agriculture. Some gratitude.

A GMO by any other name would smell sweeter

Originally published March 19, 2015 in the Manitoba Cooperator

The terminology used to describe modern plant breeding gives it a bad name


Canola in bloom

Canola in bloom

Google reveals a plethora of ideas for “How to choose a name.” It has suggestions for your baby, your dog, your business, your blog and more.

Have you ever wondered what the discussion would be around food and agriculture if plant scientists sought similar advice when naming genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? They’re immersed in science, their everyday field, and the terminology of their everyday language. “Transgenic plant breeding” and “biotech crops” are also used to describe the breeding methods, but the terminology has created fear, apprehension and misunderstanding for many consumers. Even when people do not know what a GMO is they believe they should be feared and avoided. For an example, see “What’s a GMO?” for Jimmy Kimmel’s take on the subject.

So instead of technology moving forward to provide solutions to drought, famine and disease it sits on a shelf while a heated public debate ensues.

But where would we be if a different name had been chosen? GMOs are a precise extension of conventional plant breeding, changing only one to three genes instead of 10,000 to 800,000. It takes less than five years to develop a new variety as opposed to five to 30 years. It is a straightforward, accurate, timely and effective process. Humans have been manipulating plant genetics for more than 10,000 years but only recently have breeding practices been called into question. Is it possible the name contributed to the skepticism?

Would have “precision plant breeding” better suited the process? Would have it instilled confidence instead of fear? Enthusiasm instead of activism? We will never know, but as the #farmtofood conversation continues to grow, perhaps we should re-examine the terminology we use and the names we choose.

If we are to bridge the gap between science, industry and consumer, care should be taken to ensure our language is building bridges of understanding not fences of fear. A name needs to be representative and descriptive but should also be clear and concise to all.

Folta alleviates fear of science

Originally published in the March 2015 Canola Digest


Agriculture and food production are in the spotlight now more than ever and GMOs are on the hot seat. But the science is often misunderstood.

Dr. Kevin Folta, horticulture professor and research scientist from the University of Florida, spoke about communicating science at the Manitoba Canola Growers Association’s “Does science belong on my plate?” event in Winnipeg in October.

Kevin Folta - photo by Tyler Jones.

Kevin Folta – photo by Tyler Jones.

Speaking to home economists, dietitians, students, food bloggers, consumers, farmers and industry members, Folta broke down the science, dispelled myths and alleviated any fears one might have had over how our food is produced.

He began by addressing the trepidation consumers have of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) despite not knowing exactly what they are or how they work. He asked the group if they knew how many crops currently use this technology. The answer in October was eight — corn, canola, soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, papaya, sugar beets and squash. FDA approval of Simplot’s Innate potatoes in November 2014 makes nine.

Folta explained that “transgenic”, rather than GMO, is a more accurate description, meaning plants contain a gene inserted using recombinant DNA technology. This is a precise extension of conventional plant breeding but changes only one to 3 genes instead of 10,000 to 800,000 that can change through conventional breeding. And it takes less than 5 years to develop as opposed to 5-30 years through conventional breeding.

Plant Breeding Chart - courtesy Kevin Folta

Plant Breeding Chart – courtesy Kevin Folta

He described how genes are transferred. It is a straightforward and effective process, not resembling at all the “frankenfood” images often seen on the Internet. And it is tested and safe. In 18 years, not one case of illness or death has been related to GMOs.

While the technology may be relatively new, he reminded us that humans have been manipulating plant genetics for more than 10,000 years. As the world’s population increases, moving forward in developing genetics and production methods will generate better quality and increased yields on the same land-base with fewer inputs. Resistance is one limitation, but this can be overcome.

Many consumers want “natural” food, but Folta advised that nothing we eat is natural. It has all changed from its original form.

Courtesy Kevin Folta

Courtesy Kevin Folta

The public is hungry for knowledge, but torn as to who to believe. Fear and risk are being manufactured and sold by so-called experts, he says. Correlation, not causation is being cited. Biotechnology is only part of the solution in feeding our growing world, but it shouldn’t be opposed for invalid reasons.

The most sobering part of his presentation was learning of available solutions being blocked because of misinformation, fear and activism.

Strawberries could be grown without fungicides by allowing a single gene within the strawberry to be “turned up” all the way, he says. Biotech “golden” rice, rich in Vitamin A, could prevent blindness and death. Root disease could be stopped in cassava, a nutrient rich root vegetable. Drought-resistant corn could be grown. The allergy gene in peanuts could be “turned off”. Black spot and wilt could be prevented in tomatoes. Oil content and quality improvements could be made in soybeans and canola. Diseases could be stopped in grapes, eggplant and citrus crops.

While this technology sits on a shelf, the benefits to farmers, consumers and the environment are being delayed. Most striking are solutions to drought, famine and disease in developing nations not being implemented because of activism from first world countries where food is abundant, plentiful, affordable and safe.

As a farmer, I believe if all concerned consumers had the benefit of attending this informative event, the debate over how our food is produced would stop. The evening was invaluable as a resource for advocacy. If we and others in the industry are able to share our stories and answer questions, perhaps we can help advance science and reason to ensure productive steps continue to taken to improve agriculture methods and food production around the world.


More information on GMOs can be found via the links below.

GMO Answers

Talking Biotech Podcast

Biofortified Blog

Genetic Literacy Project