40,000-acre farm goes organic

WALDRON, Sask. — There are 25 grain bins in Travis Heide’s farmyard, including six massive ones with a capacity of 70,000 bushels each.

In total, the bins can store around 550,000 bu. of grain. That’s enough for 10,000 acres of spring wheat, assuming an average yield of 55 bu. per acre.

For most prairie farmers, 550,000 bu. of storage would be more than enough. Not for Heide.

He has two other grain storage yards — one near Stockholm, Sask., and another by Whitewood, Sask.

Heide needs a massive number of grain bins because he farms 40,000 acres of cropland in eastern Saskatchewan. Again, for most growers, that would be more than enough.

Not Heide.

He’s converting all 40,000 acres to organic.

“We’re half and half this year, between organic and conventional,” said Heide.

“We’ll be 75 percent organic in 2019, and if we don’t add anything else, in 2020 we’ll be 100 percent organic.”

If all goes according to plan, Heide will have the largest organic farm in Canada and possibly in North America.

“I have never heard of anything like that,” said Laura Telford, organic development specialist with Manitoba Agriculture.

“That’s kind of out of the ballpark. The biggest one I’ve heard of before is maybe 20,000 (acres).”

Telford and other players in Canada’s organic sector haven’t heard of Heide because he’s been quiet about his transition to organic. He’s created a company called Organics Canada Ltd. and will be producing a list of organic commodities, such as barley, oats, lentils, peas, wheat and hemp.

The size of the operation is impressive and it’s more remarkable because Heide just started farming full-time in 2014.

Heide, who’s in his late 30s, grew up on a farm near Moosomin, Sask., and is the oldest of four brothers. He was involved in the farm as a kid, and as a young adult he earned a business degree from the University of Saskatchewan. Like thousands of other young men and women from Saskatchewan, Heide moved to Calgary in the 2000s.

He took a job with a commodity trading firm and then started his own grain trading company.

Around 2007, Heide’s father wanted to retire and asked his sons if they wanted to take over the family farm. Heide and his siblings weren’t interested so his father ended up selling the farm.

At that time, Heide was in his late 20s and he decided to travel to Africa. He was still interested in agriculture and helped start a farm in South Sudan.

“I was really on a journey to see how I could help and serve people.”

After returning to Canada, a family friend in Moosomin asked Heide to help with the harvest. He ran a combine for the neighbour in the fall of 2010.

“That’s what really whet my appetite for farming,” Heide said.

For the next couple of years he did custom combining in eastern Saskatchewan and managed a farm for a local group. Heide then met Robert Andjelic, a Calgary businessperson who runs Andjelic Land Inc. and now owns 203,000 acres of Saskatchewan farmland.

“A realtor that Robert had bought some land with … gave my number to Robert,” Heide said.

“He (Andjelic) had bought this land south of Whitewood and needed it broke, a good chunk of it was in pasture.”

Heide agreed to do it and found people to help him.

“We broke 17 quarters in (about) two and a half weeks.”

Andjelic recognized, immediately, that Heide is a hard worker.

“He puts his nose to the grindstone,” he said.

“He doesn’t give up until the job is done. That’s what impressed me.”

Soon after that, Heide and Andjelic met at a Tim Hortons, where Andjelic asked Heide to manage farmland around Waldron and Whitewood.

Heide agreed and in the spring of 2014 he seeded 7,000 acres of cropland with his brother, Garret.

“We looked after machinery, people and all that,” Heide said.

“He provided us the land and access to the inputs.”

Andjelic bought another parcel of land around Stockholm, south of Waldron on Highway 9. That land was also in pasture and Heide decided to farm it organically because the previous owner hadn’t used pesticides or fertilizer.

“That was kind of the beginning of the organic journey,” Heide said.

Heide grew up on a conventional farm and wasn’t opposed to pesticides, genetically modified crops and the other tools of modern agriculture. However, what he noticed upon returning to farming was the price of inputs.

“Being away from it … I couldn’t believe the costs, how they had increased.”

Did you know?

With 40,000 acres of cropland, Travis Heide of Waldron, Sask., likely has the largest organic farm in Canada.
In comparison, the entire province of Manitoba had about 50,000 acres of organic field crops in 2016.

Since he was managing freshly broken pasture land on part of the farm, Heide soon realized that the economics of organic were better than conventional, especially when crops such as organic flax are selling for $37 per bu.

“In organic, our costs were far lower, and because the value was up there, it just made sense,” he said.

“Conventional doesn’t make sense unless you have the best land in the area.”

The economics were right, but another important and more personal factor pushed the decision along.

His wife, Amy, grew up on Vancouver Island in a family committed to local, organic food.

Amy and Travis, who have three young girls, had many conversations about organic versus conventional after they began farming near Waldron.

“I remember saying, ‘you can’t do it just because of money. You have to believe in it in order for it to work,’ ” Amy said.

Heide didn’t say if that argument ever won him over, but he admitted that he now thinks differently about crop production.

What’s more obvious is that he wants to accomplish something that others claim can’t be done.

“There’s a whole bunch of status quos these days: you can’t start a farm from scratch nowadays, you can’t do a large organic farm because there’s too much tillage.”

Since beginning with 7,000 acres in 2014, the farm has rapidly expanded.

Heide began buying land and Andjelic bought more property. Soon, they had accumulated 40,000 acres on three parcels at Waldron, Stockholm and Whitewood.

“When we started with that 7,000 acres, it was never (the plan) that we’re going to grow a 40,000 acre organic farm. Never.”

Last spring, Heide was considering keeping half of the farm in conventional because he was planning to grow canola and soybeans. However, managing a conventional-organic operation is not easy because equipment must be cleaned for organic certification.

“We had done it the year before and it was a lot of work,” Heide said.

“Last minute (we) decided to transition everything. We’re not fence sitters…. We kind of felt we had to go all in. If we’re going to do this, let’s dive right in.”

Jumping in the deep end and managing 40,000 acres requires people. Heide, along with his brother, Garret, have about 15 full-time employees.

Most of the employees are friends and acquaintances who moved to eastern Saskatchewan to work on the farm.

“Initially, it was friends of mine from New Zealand,” Heide said.

“It just kept on being more friends of friends. Lately we’ve got (a few) South African families helping us out. We’ve got a couple from Olds, Alta. … so we’ve really become a collection of families.”

Some of the employees have experience with livestock, and Heide is considering adding cattle to the operation, mostly because livestock are critical for getting phosphorus to the soil. They may need 40,000 head of cattle to maintain soil fertility on 40,000 acres, Heide estimated.

An organic farm with 40,000 acres, 15 or more employees and potentially 40,000 head of livestock is an incredibly complex operation. Nonetheless, Heide is committed to doing something big and meaningful.

He envisions a future where some of his employees start their own organic farms, in other parts of Saskatchewan, and the Waldron operation becomes a hub to discover and develop best practices for organic production.

“If I’m only creating opportunity for myself, then what’s the point?” Heide said.

“If we can create opportunity for other people, create employment … that’s what we’re excited about.”

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Comments

  • S.G.

    Fantastic news!

  • bufford54

    Good luck growing 55 bushels of wheat per acre organically.

    • Verna Harnett

      Is it not worth more?

    • Terran

      Why does he need to?
      Wheat is going for 7.90/bu
      Organic wheat is going for 18.50/bu
      If he grows 23 bu/ac, he is making the same amount.

    • Welderone

      I cannot understand why people want to grow so much wheat only to ruin the price. So 55 bushels an acre at 6 dollars a bushel makes 330 dollars an acre. Organic at 20 dollars a bushel only needs 16 bushels an acre to make the same profit as conventional growers. As far as seeding stubble the conventional growers just need this extra crop to cover all their expenses.

  • Denise

    This is wonderful news!
    Saskatchewan is very fortunate to have you investing in their province.
    There is a huge demand for organic food. Many people are sick (literally) and tired of eating grains and pulses tainted with pesticides.
    Quality always beats quantity when it comes to our food so you will be rewarded for your efforts.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      Got any proof for that “sick (literally)” crack?

  • dario

    I wrote that
    this road is the best if done well not with the idea of taking a higher
    price than conventional products, but to create a new agriculture made
    of techniques especially mechanical cleaning from in festivities and
    paying attention primarily to the quality of the products. Today
    I believe that in Italy this is a very important direction especially
    in the south where small companies have no chance to try
    pseudo-industrial production. And the highest quality products like
    fruit, durum wheat are transforming the territory and ever higher is the number
    of young people who choose this path. People love good food and good
    products that have allowed one of the highest longevity in the world
    with our Mediterranean diet.
    On courage this is a great choice !!!

  • Denise

    Please leave some natural habitat in place for species at risk.

  • Frank

    Way to go Travis!
    It’s so great to see Saskatchewan lead the way in the most Organically grown acres!

  • Happy Farmer

    Hmm, 40,000 head of cattle for 40,000 acres. That will use every acre just to feed that cattle. None left for humans except meat, and pleasant aromas!!
    Still wish him all the best.

    • Yes, I suspect those numbers are off or they plan to buy 40,000 + more acres or they grow some really amazing pasture where he is. A typical stocking rate is a cow-calf per acre if you have really great pasture.

  • RobertWager

    I wish him luck.

  • Verna Harnett

    Organic generally tastes better.

    • Debbie Cottrell

      To you, maybe. Do you have any evidence that’s true for most people?

  • Dayton

    Sorry farming 40,000 acres organically isn’t new. Back in the day all farmland was organic. Just takes a lot of labour and good weather. Hopefully fuel,labour and equipment costs don’t go up significantly. We farmed over 40,000 acres organically. Took 25 years to do it with the 2 of us. But then we were efficient and not so greedy. Wish you luck!

  • Welderone

    But Terran, you are high with your price of non-organic wheat. I called an elevator in southern Saskatchewan yesterday. Number 1 wheat 11.5% protein is selling for $5.22 a bushel. So pathetic! So bufford writes about growing 55 bushels an acre wheat. This will be true. But so do wheat farmers in the United States and Australia and Europe and Russia grow 55 bushels an acre non organic wheat. Thus we have the wheat price that is decades old because of grain farmer overproduction.

  • Harold

    The growing popularity and sales of the Organic industry could be an indicator. The fact that many celebrity Chefs recommend organic produce could be an indicator. Do you have undeniable evidence to the contrary other than your liking? Organic does taste better and I don’t have to be reminded by you that it is me saying it, or that it is my opinion. It is interesting that you believe an opinion is only valid if it is supported by the many – which is also known as the tribal mentality. If you don’t like Organic you simply don’t eat it; do you need a committee’s approval to help you decide? What do I think about majority opinions? The newspapers and the majority of the public believed that man would not ever fly and they chanted their slogans and religions but two brothers in their undying persistence proved everyone wrong. Majority supported opinions have never shaken the world, in fact have stagnated it. For good or bad, history has a whole host of similar stories and they didn’t care what was “true for most people”. More to the point, you can grow all the organics you want but if it doesn’t move you go broke and that is a risk in any business. What are appalling are the ones who do not wish this farmer and family a great success but hope for a hindrance or its failure. Is that how we treat the productive members of our society? The government is pumping a lot of taxpayer money into agriculture and it is your money, and is it to prop up GMO, GE, and etc., or is it to prop up the organic industry? The organic Industry does not need propping up and it saves taxpayer dollars but the propping up is the secret costs added to the modified products creating the illusion of its low pricing. If Government would get out of our business and minded their own business like they ought to, we would know what the true pricings are. You pay the cheap pricing with one hand and with the other hand you pay the remainder in taxation and the Government in turn gives the money to the food modification Industry. In this regard, Consumers are choosing whether to support low taxation or high taxation but of course it is without their knowledge isn’t it? The corporations are raking in an obscene amount of cash so therefore it is their University for their own success and they ought to be paying for all of it. A mechanic has to buy the tools for success and the corporation should be no different.

  • Without a study, no one can say whether it is true for “most” people. But there is a lot of evidence that if you put out food side-by-side, the organic will run out faster. And if you put out gmo and non-gmo feed for livestock, many of them will not touch the gmo feed unless they’re starving. Another indicator is that when I finally found an organic farmer and asked to buy his produce, he did not advertise and could not sell me any because 100% of what he grew was already committed to upscale restaurants around Dallas, Texas. I asked if they advertised that their food was organic and he said not one of them did. The chefs bought it for the taste.

    • MaryAnn

      Gail, what you are saying about GMO food and livestock is simply not true. Do you realize that ALL food and ALL our livestock is “GMO?” By that I mean that specific mutations have been captured (this started thousands of years ago when a mutation allowed wheat NOT to shatter) and maintained in our crops and livestock, for our benefit. I just wish that all the “Anti-GMO” folks, all the people who have made this like a religion, would take some agronomy courses so they could understand crop breeding and production, take some animal science courses so they could understand and believe how DIFFERENT our farm animals are from ancient breeds, and how all this can happen quite naturally and those natural occurrences are BASICALLY no different from man-made mutations. The fallacy that the “Religion of Mother Nature” clings to is that Nature= Good and Manmade= Bad. And that’s too simple.

      • It is propaganda to conflate wild mutations that occur in individuals with the intentional manipulation of genes between species that could never reproduce in the wild. Just stop that.

        There is a HUGE difference between creating hybrid plants by crossing different varieties of the same species and sticking genes from one species into another.

        Do not assume you can pull that wool over the eyes of people with common sense. It simply will not work.

        And, by the way, I live on an organic farm where I assist with the planting, raising, harvesting, and putting up produce. And I have bred Thoroughbred horses since 1978. I know a lot more about genetics than the average person.

        GMO will eventually contaminate the entire world. A study in 2016 showed that wild stands of alfalfa were already 25% contaminated. No more alfalfa for my horses. Nor corn, soy, linseed meal (not even approved, but escaped).

        Now there is gmo Kentucky bluegrass. And gmo rye grass. Good luck keeping those out of your pastures when your neighbors next door plant it.

        I am glad I am old enough to hopefully be gone before there is nothing safe left for my horses, dog, or me to eat. If you want to eat that crap and feed it to your children and animals, that is your choice. What kind of flowers would you like on your graves?

        • Denise

          So sad to hear alfalfa is contaminated with GMOs.
          Is that in the USA?

          • Hi Denise,

            Lately I’ve undertaken to point out some instances where I, as a journalist, see the potential for misinformation to be spread online.

            I hope you find my observations below to be of interest/use.

            Gail Gardner (this may or may not be the poster’s real name as the Disqus software we use allows one to create a “username” of their choosing) said in her post, “… that a study in 2016 showed that wild stands of alfalfa were already 25% contaminated.”

            I think I’ve found the study she refers to, and you can see it for yourself in its entirety here:

            http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0143296

            Incidentally, the study linked above was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

            Not all journals are created equal. The h-index (a debatable but generally considered useful measure of a journal’s “impact” or “prestige”) for PLoS ONE is 114 – that puts it 25th out of 100 in Google Scholar’s rankings:

            https://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=top_venues

            I’m not saying 114 is good or bad, just wanting to make sure folks understand that some journals are, generally, regarded to be “better” than others.

            The journal “Nature,” for example, has an h-index of 366.

            The study above also includes in its “Discussion” section this quote:

            “Our results supported evidence that feral transgenic plants could spread transgenes to neighboring feral plants, and potentially to neighboring non-GE fields. Further research is needed to confirm that feral populations are self-sustaining, estimate the frequency of transgene flow and assess the consequences of varying levels of AP in non-GE seed fields resulting from feral transgene movement.”

            The use of words such as “potentially” and “Further research is needed…” would indicate to me that this study is clearly NOT trying to say that this is ABSOLUTELY the case.

            Scientists NEVER do that.

            So, when I see your response, “So sad to hear alfalfa is contaminated with GMOs.” it appears to me that you have read what the poster said, and (perhaps without corroborating or doing any further research – my assumption, to be fair, and we all know what “assuming” has the potential to do…) accepted it as fact.

            This, in my humble opinion, is just one small example of EXACTLY how misinformation can be spread on the internet.

            The original poster said, “…wild stands of alfalfa were already 25% contaminated.” And your reply was, “So sad to hear alfalfa is contaminated with GMOs.”

            There is a HUGE leap happening between those two statements – from 25% of wild alfalfa to, apparently, 100% of ALL alfalfa – a leap that may or may not be supported by science.

            Cheers,
            Paul – WP web editor

          • Denise

            “wild stands of alfalfa were already 25% contaminated.”That’s not all.
            Are we just supposed to ignore the problems happening with Monsanto’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa in the USA?
            That’s why I asked if this was happening in the USA.It is a problem there and the fear is it could soon be
            Canada’s problem,too.
            cban.ca/gmos/products/on-the-market/alfalfa

          • I’m pretty sure that she and I both mean that only in that study, 27% of wild alfalfa was already contaminated. What pro-GE people do not seem to understand is that we are not willing to consume products that have ANY contamination. So it doesn’t matter whether it is 2% or 27% or 100%. I stopped feeding alfalfa as soon as there was any GE alfalfa because contamination at some level is almost inevitable. And I cannot afford to test every time I buy. It is very expensive.

            So what actually happens is that for those people unwilling to consume GMO or feed it to their animals, any crop that has a GE variety is off the menu permanently. That is the only way to know that what we buy is non-GMO. And that applies to brands and products that have a non-GMO label.

            Did you read the article about alfalfa on Ecowatch? GMO is costing non-gmo farmers massive amounts of money. It is moving demand from existing crops to alternatives.

            Personally, I eat 100% organic and no longer eat anything that has a GE version unless I grow it and am positive it cannot be contaminated. Anything pollinated by bees and other insects could be affected even if organic seed is used and it is grown in a hoop house – but you sometimes leave the doors open.

            I used to have 70+ horses and fed tons of hay and grain every month including some alfalfa. Most of what those horses used to eat I won’t feed them anymore. No corn, soy, linseed meal which eliminates most mixed feeds. I down-sized to 3 horses and moved to where they can eat 100% pasture 365 days of the year by stockpiling forage from the summer.

            When there are few people like me, it won’t affect farmers much. But as that number grows, the impact will increase. I hope I die of old age before I run out of places to move where the pastures aren’t contaminated with GMO rye grass.

            How do you expect us to protect our pastures from that if the neighboring cattle ranches decide to plant it? I am looking at buying land so remote it is covered in trees and trying to clear only the middle and establish pasture. I hope I stay healthy enough to make that happen.

          • Yes, in the U.S. If you search for something like “wild alfalfa contaminated with gmo” you should see many results. I’m not sure if this site will permit sharing links, but I can try.

  • Thank you, Robert, for this very inspiring article about the inspiring arable farmer Travis Heide in Canada. It’s probably a very wise decision of him to go organic. Because worldwide, soil degradation becomes more and more a big threat due to wind, rain and conventional farming. And at the same time consumers ask more and more for organic. See also: http://www.sustainablefoodsupply.org/en/organic-farming-has-the-best-credentials-for-an-adequate-sustainable-food-supply/ https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ce8f63fabbd80f84e34ea676e84bb2b1600673cb65df5b84e19916d2d3e36e50.jpg

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