Monday, 3 October 2016


Four days into our trip and I'm already behind.

Day 1: Home to Moose Jaw (8 hrs drive)
Day 2: Moose Jaw to Brandon (4.5 hrs drive)

My friend Liz lives in Brandon, and her job is as an agronomist with DeKalb. An agronomist is an expert in plant science (she's hopefully getting into a Masters program soon), and DeKalb is a division of -- MONSANTO. Yes, the great Satan everyone seems to hate -- well, at least those who don't have degrees in plant science, but instead from "Google University".

We were hoping for a tour around the exciting town of Brandon ("Wheat Capital of Canada", and home to the Brandon Wheat Kings), but instead got invited to come with her to "take off some test plots". Lessons in where your food comes from, I guess.

We drove north from Brandon and picked up her weigh wagon -- from a place where crop dusters are based! Meaning there was an Air Tractor AT-502B being cleaned.
Airplanes! Up close!
We drove 50 km north to a field where a farmer was growing soybeans (the ones grown here are primarily used as feed for use in the hog industry). The grandfather of the farmer who's field we would work in grew up in a now-abandoned house on the property.
My friend Llisa would love to photograph this place
This is not a "factory" farm, owned by a big corporation. Those basically don't exist here.

Liz convinces the farmer to try growing 5 different types of soybeans side by side as an experiment in yield mazimization. DeKalb gives the farmer the seed, the farmer lets them use his land, and the farmer gets the soybeans to sell when he harvests them.  In turn, the farmer learns which soybean seed variety has the highest yield, which is most resistant to weeds, and in general which is best to grow on his land. His part of the bargain -- because he was going to plant soybeans anyway -- is to let Liz be there when he harvests, and harvest the plots in a specific way to insure Liz knows exactly how many acres he's combining.  For each plot, the farmer gets to treat it just like he would treat anything he planted there, so for him, there's no "extra" work during the season, just during seeding and harvesting.

The seeds are set out in strips of specific equal widths.  GPS data is used to know exactly where the strips are.

Marked for passers by, not the farmer. See the colours?
So Liz brings out her weigh wagon, which is little more than a small grain hopper with sensitive weigh scales built into it.
Liz and her wagon
The farmer then combines specific swaths of the strips...
Liz watching
...returns, and dumps the harvested seed from the specific plot into the weigh wagon.
Pulling up 
"Spilling the beans"
The process
Liz then takes samples. With a cool device that's just this side of magic, she determines the moisture content of the beans.
Playing with the thing 
Carefully measuring using Tupperware
From above 
When in doubt, bash it
So this process goes on for 5 strips.
Strip #3 
The plant ready to harvest 
The combine shreds the stems and empty seed pods 
A funny looking field when done
Liz uses the acreage, weight and moisture content, cross referenced with the GPS data, to calculate yields for each product. And the winner was...24-10RY, which on this plot yielded ~10% more than any of the other DeKalb seed varieties, and almost 20% more than the Pioneer competitor that this farmer used to plant. In farming, 10% more is gold. 20% is like winning the lottery. 

Liz spends 12 hrs a day, 7 days a week during harvest doing this. She has 35 test plots; soybeans, corn and others in test, and when it comes to harvest, everything happens at once. Her territory is 150 km by 50 km, so 7,500 square kilometres. She lives in her truck.

It was really interesting for us to watch the operation. I know exactly squat about farming, especially grain farming, and we thanked the farmer Mike for letting us come watch, and it was great getting insight into life as an agronomist, too. Thanks, Liz

Next post: 2 solid days of driving.

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