Champion-area operation shows hard work is the one constant
The sun was shining in a typical Alberta blue sky, littered with fluffy white clouds that appeared to be taken out of The Simpsons cartoon. While driving to a southern Alberta, farm fields looked like block art with varying shades of deep green, bright yellow and of course, light-brown wheat.
And it was hot.
Ryan Flitton jumped out of his big white truck in his work boots, Wranglers, and a blue T-shirt at Twin Valley Farms’ headquarters near Champion to start the harvest season, gearing up to work despite the temperature reaching 28 C.
Flitton remembers helping out at the farm when he was younger, though he admits he also spent a lot time playing sports. “Farming has changed a lot, even since I grew up,” he says.
After high school, Flitton moved from the farm to Calgary to get his degree in commerce at the University of Calgary while playing hockey.
After graduating from university, Flitton stayed in Calgary and began working for multinational packaged foods company Dare Foods. Starting in sales, he eventually moved into an account management position before he and his wife decided to start a family where Flitton grew up.
“My wife’s a city girl, and she said she would jump in, give it a chance,” he said of their move back to the farm in 2010, where Flitton traded his business suit for jeans to work full-time as a farmer. The couple now has three boys, five, seven, and nine years old.
Although it was only July 28, Ryan says the fourth generation of family farmers needed to get started early this year because there was a lack of rain at the time, producing a less than desirable crop in some areas. They planned to start harvesting one section of field peas before moving on to two nearby half-sections.
“And then,” he says of crops which are performing better, “we’ll have to wait before going out again.”
A section is 640 acres, or, one square mile. Flitton says with all three combines in the field, it will take them two full days just to harvest just one section. In total, Flitton says Twin Valley Farms owns roughly 13,000 acres of crops to harvest, including field peas, faba beans, barley wheat and Canadian Prairie Spring wheat, which is mostly used for animal feed.
In order to harvest efficiently, Flitton, his three siblings, their spouses and the farm’s hired staff need to be available for long days. Even with advancing changes in technology, harvest season requires all-hands-on-deck.
On July 28, Flitton, his brother Noel and their staff drove three combines from the main farm to the field of peas ready for harvesting. Before setting up the header — which cuts and pulls the crop into the combine —the men performed safety checks on each machine.
Once the farmers were ready, the combine drivers attached the combine to a 40-foot header (which is designed to follow the contour along the ground), lifted the wheels from the header, and after nearly an hour after arriving at the fields, harvesting was underway.
In the field, the driver levels out the header and sets up the yield monitor and GPS tracker to label the field they are currently harvesting. Although the computer-generated measurements aren’t perfect, Flitton says they are typically a good indicator of the crop.
Flitton explains how the combine works, which he controls from a joystick and touch-screen computer. Knives on the header cut the crops before pulling them into the piece of machinery. A moving canvas brings the crops to the middle of the header, which is then pulled into the combine by a chain with beater-bars and through the rotor (a massive cylinder that spins on an angle). Concaves, which are grates found outside the rotor, pop the peas out from their pods.
Typically, Flitton says a grain cart comes up beside the combine while the combine continues to harvest so there is no stopping during the process. This time around however, Flitton and his team realize there are too many green peas, which is a red flag.
If field peas are green, they have too much moisture, which will rot everything in the elevators where they will be stored. Instead, farmers look for pale yellow peas when they harvest. Flitton says, “16 per cent moisture is the requirement” for peas to be sold to Vulcan’s elevators.
One of Flitton’s full-time staff, Isaak Klassen, takes a random sample from the harvested peas, and says although this group is still within the moisture requirements, they should stop to prevent more green peas from entering the crop.
Harvesting stops for the day, but Flitton will return in a week to check again.
As far as crops go, he says unfortunately, this year is one of their worst due to a lack of rain in the spring after farmers finished seeding early due to the warmer weather. While rain seemed to fall every day in Calgary in July and August, the Calgary Herald reported April 13 that spring rainfall in the area between Calgary and Lethbridge, and as far east as Medicine Hat, had received 40 per cent less precipitation over a two-month period compared to last year.
“Compared to the pea crops that we normally get, this is as close [to a bad crop] as we’ve come for a while,” he says.
Flitton looked at the yield monitoring system in his combine, which is also equipped with air conditioning and radio equipment, and said they were seeing about 21 to 24 bushels an acre. He said a good crop would typically yield 60 to 80 bushels per acre.
Harvesting takes a long time, even if the conditions to harvest are perfect. “If we could go steady, no weather interruptions or anything, it could take just under two months,” Flitton says.
Once harvested, the field peas will head to the Vulcan elevators to be sold around the world, although Flitton says field peas are especially popular in India, which is where his peas will likely end up.
The three combines Twin Valley Farms owns were a year old when they bought them last year. He says each machine cost $420,000, although the total worth of farm equipment at Twin Valley is much more.
“On this farm, we’ve probably got $4½-$5 million, tied up in machinery.” But Flitton says it’s worth it if a farmer has enough crop to farm and sell.
“The equipment is so expensive now, that you need a lot of acres to run this machine over, to make it efficient, and to pay for it.”
Twin Valley Farms became a corporate farm for tax purposes, but Flitton says it is still a family operation.
“Everybody thinks there’s these big corporate farms moving in, but farmers have had to get bigger to survive.” Flitton says corporate farms aren’t necessarily taking out small farmers, but rather, small farms need to become bigger, especially since some families are noticing their kids don’t want to continue in the same agricultural tradition as their parents.
According to Twin Valley Farms’ website, the Flitton family settled in Alberta in 1906, purchasing their first 640 acres of bare land. Over the years, the farm has grown and changed, although some aspects, like harvest meals, remain the same.
“There’s four families basically working together. We shut down at about five o’clock. We do supper a bit earlier just because the day’s long. So, it’s kind of a nice break,” Flitton says. Typically, meals are prepared before they head out for the day so the family can stop to eat in the field where they are harvesting, and then get back to work.
Flitton has used his business background to market and sell crops.
“It’s a little bit of a game,” says Flitton says, who watches the market for price swings. They try to market specialty crops — like canola — for the following year if the price is right.
Flitton says farming is like any other business, and that it evolves based on economies of scale. In comparison to the business aspect of farming, he says harvesting is the easy stuff.
“Our big challenge is trying to educate people” about safety issues and chemicals or pesticides that are used. One way of educating people is by inviting Grades 1 and 2 students from Calgary to the farm for lessons in how to sift wheat, milk a cow, and of course, take a ride in the combine.
After a family friend brought her daughter to the farm, she was convinced other children would also learn from the experience. As a teacher, she was able to get her school to support the initiative so now children have been visiting Twin Valley Farms.
Flitton says the kids have a great time and call him “Farmer Ryan,” but surprisingly the parents also walk away with a better understanding of a 21st century farming operation.
For the parents, it’s good to understand how much it takes for a farm to be approved for operation, and learn the process of spraying crops. He says even though farmers don’t all milk cows the same way, “it’s good for [the children] to see it isn’t a jug that just shows up in the grocery store.”
Flitton explains how their farm desiccates the crops about one week before harvesting to kill weeds. Over an entire acre, they will use approximately one litre of glyphosate diluted with water.
Prior to having the ability to spray weeds, farmers would have to work and till the soil. “We would be going over the crops a lot more, and whenever you turn the soil, you basically lose moisture, and break up the organic matter that Mother Nature has put into the dirt.” And by breaking up the organic matter, crops yield much less.
Back on July 28, Flitton and his team continue moving peas from the combines into the grain tractor before they head back to the main farm and continue working.
In a matter of months, these crops will be moved from the field, into an elevator, on to trains, into stores and eventually into our homes. Although harvesting is an ever-changing process, it still requires long days and hard workers. And that isn’t something we can take for granted when we sit down for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Thumbnail by Deanna Tucker