Prairie farming: ‘a lifetime apprenticeship’

On the Farm: West-central Sask. farmer says he faces many challenges but enjoys learning something new every day

Making a living as a grain farmer in west-central Saskatchewan can be a challenging and stressful occupation.

Between weather problems, disease pressures, insects, market disruptions, transportation issues, rising production costs and activism by consumer groups and environmentalists, the list of factors conspiring against the prairie farmer can sometimes seem endless.

Yet Jim Wickett has no regrets about his career choice.

“I still enjoy every day that I’m out here,” says the fourth generation grain grower from Rosetown.

“You’ve got to be able to deal with the highs and the lows and get yourself through the lows. But I have no regrets, and I certainly still enjoy it.”

The Wickett family has deep roots in the Rosetown area.

Jim’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the area in 1909, and the Wickett family has been involved in farming ever since.

Wickett himself has been growing cereals, pulses and oilseed crops for the past 35 years.

In the mid-1980s, he rented his first piece of land from his father.

This spring, he will plant about 3,100 acres, growing a variety of crops including spring wheat, barley, red lentils and flax.

Wickett’s wife, Michelle, along with daughters, Brianna, 18, and Madison, 16, lend a helping hand on the farm when needed.

The Wickett farm is located about 20 kilometres southeast of Rosetown.

The land in the area is expansive — flat and treeless with sight lines that stretch for miles.

The heavy clay land is very productive, but hot summer temperatures and lack of moisture during the growing season are limiting factors.

Average rainfall during the growing season is typically 180 to 230 millimetres.

In 2019, for the first time in several years, Wickett will take canola out of the farm’s rotation.

Canola can produce profitable yields in the area but only if the weather co-operates.

Like many other growers in the Rosetown area, Wickett depends heavily on red lentils to pay the bills.

The crop is ideally suited to growing conditions in west-central Saskatchewan and has been a staple on the Wickett farm for many years.

Until recently, durum was also a mainstay in Wickett’s rotation.

However, a series of wet years — most notably 2016 — resulted in high fusarium levels, prompting some growers to convert durum acres to spring wheat.

“I got out of durum simply because we literally had three years in a row that were a disaster with fusarium,” Wickett said.

“We felt we needed some type of genetic improvement. A lot of the newer spring wheat varieties seem to have a better level of resistance, but we haven’t seen that yet with durum.”

“Until we can straighten that out, or dry out a little bit in this area, I decided to go with spring wheat.”

When Wickett is not driving his daughters to dance competitions or working on the farm, there’s a good chance he’ll be working at his other occupation — farm advocacy.

In 2010, Wickett began his first term as a director with the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association.

Three years later, he took over as chair of the organization, a position he held until just recently.

Wickett described his time as a WCWGA director as rewarding but time consuming.

“It was rewarding but it can be frustrating as well, especially when you’re dealing with an urban central government with little or no understanding or care of western Canadian agriculture.”

Industry irritants such as unreliable rail transportation, international trade disputes and most recently, the introduction of a federal carbon tax, continue to destabilize the prairie agriculture industry and erode farm profitability, he said.

Even the growth of global activism is taking a toll on farms in rural Saskatchewan, he added.

“I do feel there’s a growing industry out there that’s basically an anti-everything industry. And I think they’re capitalizing on a lack of knowledge,” Wickett said.

“That’s definitely a worry. When you see some of our most important production tools … (potentially) being taken away based on some kind of hysteria, that’s kind of frustrating.”

Despite a growing list of challenges, Wickett still sees a bright future for western Canadian growers who produce safe, high-quality food in a responsible and sustainable manner.

“The world’s population is still growing, so I do feel that we (farmers) are producing something that the world needs,” he said.

So what’s on Wickett’s wish list for the western Canadian agriculture sector? Stable, secure markets and meaningful investments in the country’s transportation infrastructure, either by government or by the railways themselves.

“It (farming) is a good career but it’s not for everybody,” Wickett said.

“It’s a lifetime apprenticeship.”

“There are always new challenges, and you’re learning something new every day, every week, every month and every year — whether it’s in marketing, genetics, disease patterns or in farming practices themselves.”

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