Fields of Dreams

THE MICROSCOPE IN TANNIS AND DEREK AXTEN’S FARM OFFICE IN MINTON, SASK., IS A GOOD CLUE THESE THIRD-GENERATION GRAIN GROWERS ARE MANAGING THEIR LAND A LITTLE DIFFERENTLY THAN THEIR NEIGHBOURS.


Derek and Tannis Axten farm 5,000 acres of land in Minton, Sask. The family keeps their acreage green for more than 200 days of the year with cover crops that protect the earth from sun and wind and feed the soil with their roots.RANDY RISLING FOR THE TORONTO STAR

A more obvious sign is found while walking the rows of flax and lentils, mustard and forage peas, chickpeas and flax. In a province known for fields of gold thanks to a monoculture mentality that prizes growing a single crop in a given area, the Axtens are seeding 13 different combinations of grains and legumes.

While many of their neighbours stay true to a 100-day growing season, leaving the land almost bare after fall harvest, the Axtens work to keep their acreage green for more than 200 days of the year with cover crops such as sweet clover, chickling vetch and oats whose main jobs are to protect the earth from sun and wind and feed the soil with their live roots.

When the couple took over Derek’s family farm in 2006, part of which his grandfather worked more than a century ago, they inherited a rich history but also some incredibly fragile soil and no dependable source of water.

The 5,000 acres they’re farming is almost smack dab in the heart of North America’s “geographic centre,” which (according to the 1931 U.S. Geological Survey) is Rugby, N.D., — 422 kilometres southeast of Minton following Highway 18.

You can’t get any farther from the ocean.

Climate variation between seasons on the prairies is among the most dramatic on Earth, characterized by repeated wet and dry cycles. With warming temperatures, future droughts are projected to be “more frequent and intense” across the southern Canadian Prairies, according to Canada’s Changing Climate Report, which was released in 2019 by the federal government.

International and Canadian researchers are predicting warmer winters for the region, potentially one of the few great news stories to come out of climate change research because it would bring a longer growing season, the promise of significantly higher yields for farmers and a big bump to the national economy. But a hotter climate without adequate moisture in the soil could also spell disaster. Moisture is a transformative element driving the physics, chemistry and biology of healthy soil. Water brings life. Without it, you’re looking at a pile of lifeless, and increasingly useless, dirt.

That’s why the Axtens are among a small but growing group of farmers across the province — some supported by commercial agricultural players known as “Big Ag” — who are working overtime on this challenge. A big part of their solution requires turning their soil into the world’s biggest sponges. MORE

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SOIL HEALTH IS FINALLY STARTING TO GET THE ATTENTION IT DESERVES

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