A “new conventional” approach to crop production

Derek Axten isn’t planning on becoming an organic farmer, but he’s getting closer to eliminating artificial inputs every year. Photo: Laura Rance

Organic and no-till farmers, once polar opposites on the farming spectrum, are finding common ground — in their soil.

By Laura Rance
OrganicBiz editor

Regina – Derek Axten can cite a long list of advantages to incorporating cover crops, companion planting and intercropping into his farm plan.

He has practically eliminated the use of insecticides and seed treatments, his herbicide and fertilizer use is dramatically reduced and the need for fungicides almost nil.

Our land is so fragile we don’t want to till ever. – Derek Axten

Yet his yields have never been better, his crop quality is good and his weed populations are dropping.

“I’m having more fun, I know that,” the Minton, Sask. farmer said in an interview. “I think a lot of it is reduced risk and reduced stress. I don’t have to get all that money back.”

The Axten’s began transitioning away from tillage on their clay loam soils in the mid-1990s.

“Our land is so fragile we don’t want to till ever,” he said noting that even though he’s reduced inputs he’s not keen on going organic. “I don’t want to give up the tools; I don’t want my decisions to be driven by that paradigm,” he said.

“But it’s funny, we’re getting closer to organic a little bit every year.”

Close enough that Axten was one of the keynote speakers at this year’s SaskOrganic annual meeting.

“We are still conventional farmers,” Axten told the 150 farmer in attendance. “But I haven’t had the need to use insecticides or seed treatments on the farm for six years.” The one exception has been pretreated chickpea seed.

It seems organic and no-till farmers, once polar opposites on the farming spectrum, are finding common ground — in their soil.

By improving the health of their soils, no-till farmers are finding they use fewer herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.

Organic farmers are finding they don’t need to plow as much.

“The point is, that they are both trying to do the same thing. They are both trying to have healthy biologically active soils. They are just choosing different ways to get the same endpoint,” soil scientist Jill Clapperton said in an interview.

She describes Axten’s approach as the “the new conventional” in agriculture.

“I’m talking about the farmers that are choosing not to be organic but also choosing to reduce or not use chemicals,” the former Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researcher says. “They are looking to create an agro ecosystem in their farming practices.”

“They are trying to meet in the middle where they are saying, I want every tool in the tool box just in case, but if I don’t need to use it, I’m going to choose not to,” she said.

While organic farmers will find it difficult to eliminate tillage entirely, the less disturbance they do to their soils the better their soil quality will become.

Axten told his audience he is always a little stumped by the frequently asked question: what is your crop rotation?

“I don’t have a rotation,” he said. He plants lots of different crops. “In 2016 we had 16 crops, but that’s way too much.”

His goal is to keep his soil covered with growing plants for as much of the year as possible, and with as much biodiversity as he can muster.

“Living roots and diversity is what we are shooting for,” he said. The objective is to keep Nature guessing. “So we’re making sure there’s no pattern.”

He has started intercropping pulses and oilseeds after hearing about fellow Saskatchewan farmer Colin Rosengren’s experiences with it. He’s been equally pleased with the results. He’s worked with Clearfield canola and peas, as well as lentils and brown mustard and says yields are routinely 110 per of normal yields.

“We’re spending less and getting more,” he said.

Organic farmers don’t typically grow canola because GMOs are not allowed in the organic system. But they might mix brown mustard with a pulse crop.

“I really like the idea of permaculture, where something is growing all the time,” he said.

“Plants will sequester five to 50 per cent of the carbon they synthesize into the soil,” he said. ‘That’s our goal. Carbon is what drives the system, we want to get more into the soil.”

Axten said there’s a lot of things going on in his soils that he doesn’t yet understand. “We just need to keep pushing the boundaries to find out where those lines are,” he said.