Holistic farmers strive to keep their balance By: Geoff Geddes

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If you thought juggling kids and a career was tough, try balancing the needs of animals, the environment and society-at-large, all while turning a profit. It’s no small challenge, but one that Blain and Naomi Hjertaas have tackled full force on their way to earning the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association (SSGA) 2018 Environmental Stewardship Award. Inspired by passion and guided by a unique management style, this couple has achieved a rare feat: sticking their necks out while keeping their balance.

On their 800-acre farm near Redvers, SK, Blain and Naomi own 40 cows and custom graze another 130 pair for the grazing months.

“Farming is the best job in the world,” said Blain. “Both of our families have had dirt under their fingernails for over 100 years, so I think it was in my blood from an early age.”

As it turned out, that dirt figured prominently in two of the couple’s most impactful decisions. About 20 years ago, they switched from grain to grass farming, and their primary motivation was improving soil health.

Ahead of his time

“Back in the mid-1960s, my dad took soil samples from where he was spraying and sent them to be analyzed. He wanted to know what his actions were doing to the soil. I was 10 at the time and didn’t think much about it, but it stuck with me that maybe it does matter how we treat the land. When I began farming myself and seeing my soil health decline, I thought there must be a better way.”

That thinking sparked a shift from annual cropping, a practice Blain calls “unnatural,” to growing perennials. Most importantly, it led to a rejection of continuous grazing. “Just because you opt for grass and perennials doesn’t mean soil will be healthy. You need photosynthesis happening above where plants are making sugar that is entering the roots and feeding the microbiology of the soil.”

By moving their animals every day, they give the land 100 days to recover before grazing again in the same spot, allowing the grass ample time to re-grow and return to health. This maximizes solar capture of the sun’s energy, and the more they capture, the more successful they will be.

Here comes the sun

“Solar capture is what makes and builds soil. We call it regenerative agriculture. We have the potential to capture solar energy for 200-250 days per year.” Regenerating the soil, while also generating a profit, prompted Blain to study holistic management in 2003 and adopt its principles.

“Holistic management is a better decision-making system. While it generates profits that are equal to or greater than conventional approaches, it also considers the effect of our practices on spouses, kids, neighbors and customers. Then it asks a critical question: ‘What am I doing to the land and environment? Am I building it up or destroying it?’ While holistic thinking can make decisions more challenging, it also ensures that choices are environmentally, sociologically and financially sound.”

Footprints tell the tale

One of those critical choices occurred in 2011 when Blain began measuring carbon sequestration levels in agricultural soil. Under the guidelines of the Soil Carbon Coalition, he monitors 20 sites in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but it’s the results from his own farm that may be the most telling. The average person in Canada has a carbon footprint of 18.9 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. Blain calculated that his farm sequesters 22.88 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, so every hectare he operates more than sequesters one Canadian’s footprint.

“It adds up to $219,648 per year in ecological goods and services that we are providing to society for free. Imagine how cattle raising and pasture management would change if we were rewarded for carbon sequestration. As well, every gram of carbon that goes back into the soil holds an additional 8 grams of water. This is where a farm becomes much more resilient as it is able to hold more water in wet conditions and release it as the plants require in dry times, resulting in healthier and more nutrient dense food.”

The results caught the eye of SSGA, and the award caught Blain and Naomi off guard, but in a good way.

“I have been speaking for years about holistic management and some people probably wondered what I was smoking. Being recognized by your peers is a big credibility boost and a great honour.”

Crunching the numbers also goes a long way to strengthening their case. Simply put, they are more profitable than most operations their size because they produce 2-2.5 times more grass per hectare than anyone else. That allows them to run twice as many animals per hectare with no additional costs, and the benefits for the bottom line are easy to compute.

Still, the financial benefits are more of a means to an end for the couple. Over the course of their 39-year marriage, they raised three children: Martin (36), Alan (34) and Kathleen (29). Martin and his wife, Thyra, started farming alongside their parents 10 years ago, grazing a flock of over 500 ewes. Blain and Naomi are now in the process of transitioning the farm to their son and daughter-in-law, and the operation’s success has made that possible. If Blain has his way, the holistic approach that his son has now adopted will continue to bear fruit.

“We base all of our decisions on our belief that we are only stewards of the land, and we need to do everything we can to improve its quality for our grandchildren and future generations. My grandkids are very special to me, so I want them to have as good a life as we enjoy today.”

Source: Canadian Cattlemen Association

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