Sask. OYF finalists choose the organics route

Allison Squires and Cody Straza appreciate the freedom to make their own decisions and the rewards of running their own business.  |  Submitted photo

The rural lifestyle is important for the young couple, who farm 2,590 acres and custom graze 100 cow/calf pairs

Allison Squires was born in Newfoundland and Labrador and grew up in southern Ontario, but she is now a partner in a thriving farm in southern Saskatchewan.

She and her husband, Cody Straza, who were one of the finalists for this year’s Saskatchewan Outstanding Young Farmers program, operate Upland Organics Ltd. near Wood Mountain.

“Being recognized in such a way is quite overwhelming and we are very grateful for this opportunity and for all the support we’ve received,” Squires said.

She and Straza own and operate a certified organic grain farm along with their three boys, Declan, Gavin and Caden.

Straza grew up on a farm in the Wood Mountain area and completed an engineering degree at the University of Saskatchewan.

Squires met Straza while completing her PhD in toxicology at the U of S. A few years after they were married they realized their dream of owning their own farm in 2010 when they bought their first land together and started Upland Organics.

They now farm 2,590 acres and custom graze 100 cow/calf pairs.

Squires said farming suits them.

“Having a career that allows us ample opportunities for personal and professional growth, the freedom to make our own decisions and realize the rewards of running our own enterprise are some of the many reasons why we have chosen farming as our career,” she said.

“Cody grew up being an active part of his parent’s farm and knew the challenges and rewards that a career in agriculture can bring.”

Squires grew up in an urban environment and knew that she didn’t want to live or raise a family in the city.

“Both of us also came to the quick realization that we didn’t want to always be working for someone else.”

The farm is also a great place to raise a family.

“Our kids will also have the advantage of growing up in a diverse farming environment,” said Squires.

“Everything from welding to caring for livestock to grain cleaning, they will be exposed to it all and learn as much about skill development as they will about life lessons.

“Most importantly, however, they are seeing how important it is to continually learn and to apply that knowledge daily to make a successful farming business, and how, when you are really passionate and dedicated about something, it stops being work and starts being what gets you motivated and excited to start each day.”

Straza and Squires participate in boards and organizations on the local, provincial and national levels and have become leaders in organic agriculture.

However, there have been challenges.

“One of the initial challenges that we faced starting our own farm was the financial burden of taking on the debt necessary for the initial purchase of the land,” Squires said.

“Another challenge is trying to find the right rate of growth for our farm. As young producers, we are looking towards the future and balancing the need for growth without taking on the burden of too many unnecessary expenses which can be difficult. We do this by looking at the net profit and ‘doing more with less’ in order to achieve significant growth and progress on our farm. We have sought out and diversified into specialized markets for many of the crops we grow, we have taken on custom farming and we are going to be starting our own cattle herd this year.”

The couple’s farm practices have evolved over the years.

“On land that had traditionally been in a cereal-fallow rotation, we started using a longer rotation that included legumes, oilseeds, and a green manure,” she said.

“For a number of years, we held to a fairly rigid rotation of cereal-pulse-oilseed-plow down, and it worked fairly well. We saw erosion dramatically decrease, weeds were held to reasonable levels and yields were decent in most years. Then we started learning more about soil microbial life. Now our focus is how we can use the five soil health principles (minimize soil disturbance, keep the soil covered, increase diversity, keep a living root and integrate livestock) as much as possible on our farm to improve the soil, decrease costs and increase revenue.

“Since we started to implement the soil health principles four growing seasons ago, we have changed many of our production practices. Instead of a set four-year rotation we use a more adaptive rotation and focus on selecting the crop that the field needs for that year. “

As well, more intercropping has become part of their annual crop planning.

“We first started intercropping by accident in 2012 when we had a significant amount of flax volunteer in our seeded lentil crop. But now we purposely select different crops to seed together and in 2018 seeded our first three-way intercrop mix with oats, mustard and lentils.”

And change will continue.

“We have the goal to be a no-till organic farm,” said Squires.

“We have already been able to drastically reduce both the frequency and intensity of our tillage and have one field that hasn’t received any soil disturbance for three years.”

However, there are always new challenges to deal with.

“One of the most pressing issues we are facing right now is a shortage of reliable labour,” said Squires.

“We live in a remote area and the closest town with reliable amenities is an almost 45-minute drive away. Our remote location means that we have a very small labour pool to draw from as it is hard to find someone who wants to move here. We are trying to overcome this challenge by offering year-round full-time permanent employment with competitive wages. We recently built a shop that will allow us to hire a full-time skilled person instead of relying on seasonal help.

“As with many other farm families we also struggle with maintaining a good work-life balance. A heavy workload leads to stress, which can contribute to mental health issues. To help alleviate this we try to spend as much time as possible as a family. We also bought a camping trailer that allows us to make spur of the moment trips away to spend quality time together without the pressures of the farm.”

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