Change is hard. Uncertainty can be stifling. And there is always risk in the unknown. So when we at Prairie Son Acres, a 4th generation family farm in central Saskatchewan, Canada, decided to transition from a conventional farm to a regenerative one it felt like a big deal.
Prairie Son Acres (https://www.prairiesonacres.com) is an 11,000 acre farm owned and operated by three brothers (Colin Hilderman, Shane Hilderman and Trent Hilderman) and the semi-retired family patriarch (Ron Hilderman). Traditionally, we have grown cereals, oils seeds and legumes but no animals. Our average frost free growing season is 105 days. We receive around 225 mm (9”) of rain per year and around 75 mm (3”) of snow melt for an average total of 300 mm (12”) of precipitation per year. Temperatures range from -40C in deep winter to a few days of 35C in high summer. We do not irrigate.
It was around five years ago when the concept of regenerative agriculture made its way to Prairie Son. A common topic of intrigue and discussion at first, we soon began to attend regenerative agriculture conferences and seminars while continuing to research the science and practice behind the movement. After a year or two of increasingly serious discussions we decided to move into regenerative agriculture.
Now, Prairie Son is a large operation and like any large operation change is slow. As such we knew this was going to be a long term effort with our transition likely taking years to fully realize.
In the beginning, uncertainty remained over the efficacy of certain regenerative practices in a region as cold and dry as central Saskatchewan. As such the decision was made to begin trialing a number of regenerative agricultural practices.
To help give structure to transition we adopted a transition strategy we credit to Joel Williams (https://www.integratedsoils.com/). Williams suggests three broad goals should be considered in all aspects of decision making on a regenerative farm. We refer to this approach by its acronym, ESR:
- Efficiency: Improve input efficiency
- E.g. reduce fertilizer application rate and usage; increase nutrient efficiency/availability
- Substitution: Substitute inputs with softer options
- E.g. compost, AMF, biostimulants, humics
- Redesign: Rethink and redesign current systems towards agroecology
- E.g. cover crops, intercropping, crop rotations
With these foundational principles in mind, we moved the transition forward on three fronts. First we set out to find viable chemical alternatives. The goal was to re-evaluate our chemical additives – mainly fertilizers, soil treatments and inoculants – and replace them with soil friendly options. When viable these options were instituted across all acres.
A few of our substitutions include:
- Liquid compost was applied directly into the furrow with the seed while vermicompost was used to inoculate seeds
- Penicillium Bilaii added during seeding to increase phosphorus uptake
- Ligno Humate, a natural carbon source was added to spray water, as well as in furrow
- Low salt fertilizers was used to reduce harm to seed and microbes
- AMF products to inoculate soil with beneficial microbes to increase fertilizer availability
- Fulvic Acid was also added to the spray water to function as an additional carbon source.
- Humic Acid was added to fertilizer to help improve nutrient availability and improve water holding capacity of the soil
Our second front was to begin experimenting with cover crops. While this sounds straightforward the sheer number of options and available techniques involving cover crops can be a daunting task to undertake. With few regional models, our first few years consisted of cautious experiments with the ultimate goal of increasing plant/root diversity and keeping a living root in the ground for as long as possible.
We began with companion crops such as silage peas/canola and flax/soybeans. Companion crops are two cash crops planted and harvested together with the seeds sorted after harvest.
This was our first real set towards regenerative farming and while it was only a baby step it served to help familiarize the more skeptical members of our team with the concept of regenerative agriculture. Bringing everyone on board and making sure we were all comfortable with the proposed changes was an important step for our family business which is ruled by consensus.
In subsequent years, we have continued to experiment and scale up the number of acres we cover crop. Both intercrops (e.g. 640 acres of silage peas/canola and soybean/flax) and traditional cover crops (e.g. 320 ac perennial grazing mix of 12 species, corn/vetch, flax/clover) have both been trialed with varying results. Our northern climate does limit the number of plant species we have access to and we are still working to find optimal seed mixes suitable to our location.
With our short growing season and cool temperatures, perennial grasses (e.g. tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, fall rye, etc.,) have proven to be particularly useful in keeping a living root in the ground for as much of the year as possible.
Our third and final front was animal integration. As our operation has traditionally been grain only, this was the biggest move outside our comfort zone. However, we wanted to promote cows on our land, regardless if they are ours or not. We recognize cattle as an integral part of incorporating and recycling nutrients at a much faster rate than if we were to focus solely on cover crops.
We began by fencing off several quarters of land and arranged for local cattle farmers to graze their animals on our land. This was an easy way to get cows on our land in our first year with only a minor investment in fencing.
In the following years we slowly began to integrate our own cattle operation, investing in animals, equipment and infrastructure. Now, three years in, we have nearly 1000 acres fenced off for grazing and run 80 head of cattle in a labour sharing partnership with a few local cowboys. There is plenty of room for expansion.
Additionally, we started a small honey operation. With only a few colonies on an easily accessible piece of land this project is operated by our young, ‘farmers in training’. It’s proven a great project for our adolescent kids, helps out our pollinators, and provides a tasty treat.
One final project Prairie Son Acres undertook was the creation of our blog — https://prairieserf.com/. We recognized early on the importance of sharing knowledge and experience in the regenerative farming community and this blog is our modest attempt to contribute to the movement. The fourth and final Hilderman brother (Dustin Hilderman) was recruited to write the blog.
Now for a moment of brutal honesty. The transition so far has been tough. Our successes have been small and our failures large. Much time, money, and effort has been invested and the results aren’t easily visible. The last few years have been abnormally dry in our area, and while this undoubtedly has hampered some of our efforts we have come to think of our current situation as the mid-transition hump; that point in a change where one is neither the thing they were nor the thing they will become.
Hardpan soils are only partially broken, soil biology is improving but lacking in density, AMF networks are growing but still far from their potential. Our soils are improving but they are still vulnerable. The restoration of our natural processes and mineral cycles is at a delicate point — better than they were but not yet at the point where we can see positive gains in yield or profit.
The mid-transition hump hurts.
And we make this point not to scare or deter anyone, but with the recognition that farming is a business and that family farms need to be prepared and transition in such a way as to not jeopardize their livelihood or legacy. We are keenly aware of this and while we encourage others to experiment with regenerative farming we also caution everyone to be aware of possible repercussions. It’s that old adage: hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
At this point in time we don’t know whether or not Prairie Son Acres can be called a regenerative farm. We still monocrop close to 70% of our acres while our trials continue but have shifted to incorporate as many regenerative techniques and practices (e.g. chemical substitutions & animal integration) as we comfortably can while keeping Prairie Son Acres on a sound economic path. Nonetheless we aspire to do more.
What we do know, in the years since our transition has begun, is that we have adopted a purely regenerative farming mindset (i.e. ESR). Every decision made is made with regenerative farming principles in mind and with the ultimate goal of restoring soil health. We as farmers have changed; our principles, our philosophy, the way we think about the soil and the ecosystem as a whole. While Prairie Son Acres might not be considered a regenerative farm just yet, we who work the farm have become regenerative farmers.