Organic experiment sparks farm rethink

Livestock are an integral part of the production system on Harris Farms. Photo: Gord Leathers

By Gord Leathers
Glacier FarmMedia contributor

It all started with a request from a neighbour selling them land.

About seven years ago Paul Harris, of Harris Farms near Stony Mountain, Manitoba, and his son Andrew bought some land.

The land was organic so the previous owner asked them to keep it that way. They honoured that request and wound up re-envisioning the way they farm as a result.

I’d say we’re learning every day. There’s always something new. – Paul Harris

“That got us thinking about what we were doing,” explains Paul. “The way I see all the chemicals going on the fields, I think there’s got to be some health benefits in not having all those chemicals there.”

They started moving their 1,400 acres over to organic production as a result. Currently they’re still farming 260 acres conventionally with 660 acres fully organic and 455 in transition. Organic farming is a more labour-intensive process so, with so many more tricks to the trade, transition can be quite complex.

“I’d say we’re learning every day,” Paul said. “There’s always something new. You’ve got to process things more, figure things out and find out how you’re going to do them.”

One of their new tricks is intercropping, planting two different crops in the same field. In one stand they have wheat planted alongside flax which does a number of things. Planting them together makes a denser canopy so weeds have a tougher time within a more competitive crop. The disease pressure should be lessened as well when there’s a living barrier between plants of the same species.

“It’s also good for soil health having more than one species growing,” Andrew’s wife Patty explains. She practises the same thing in her vegetable garden where she looks for companion plantings, species that do better in proximity to each other.

Another transitioning field has acres of alsike clover blooming. Honeybees work the blossoms, readying for seed harvest in a few weeks while the root nodules nitrify the soil. The plans are to let the field grow back next year so they can plow down the clover as a green manure and the transition to organic will be done. They always try to start a new organic field after a green manure plow-down.

There is some cow manure available as well from a small herd of crossbred beef cattle. Not only do they provide beef, they’re also used for soil treatment through controlled grazing.

“We seeded 70 acres of oats and peas and we just finished grazing the standing oats and peas,” Andrew said. “Our goal is to get 50 per cent trampled and 50 per cent eaten.”

To get that 50/50 split he uses portable fencing. When the cattle trample the plants they’re crimped and killed so they’ll form a protective mulch over the soil. In time the plants will decompose and refresh the soil organic matter. It’s what Andrew calls his experiment in soil management.

“It’s not huge scale, it will be about 20 acres so we may get to the end of December for grazing,” he said. “When we figure out what works for us we’re going to increase our cows and integrate that into all our other green manures.”

Integration is the important word here, because everything influences everything else and there are a lot of moving parts to this farm. There are cattle and green manures for soil conditioning and plant intercropping for better overall performance. It’s also important attention paid to the foundation of every farm, the soil itself and its diverse biota.

“There are microbes with different purposes and it’s really about getting the environment in balance,” Patty said. “Once the environment’s in balance, I believe that the nutrients pass better and the crops can grab the nutrients better. Healthier soil is the beginning of a healthier crop.”

This article was originally published in the July 19, 2018 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator.