By Toban Dyck, farmer and writer
CANADA, LIKE ANY other country, has borders. We talk about these borders as if they’re real in the same way stubbing your toe on a chair is real, but they are not. Canada doesn’t exist to a soybean plant, and it certainly, and sadly, doesn’t exist to plant disease. Weeds don’t stop at the border. They don’t wait in line at the border. And border officials are not equipped nor mandated to refuse them entry.
It’s only natural for organizations like Manitoba Pulse & Soybean Growers to connect with its sister groups across Canada – Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, Alberta Pulse Growers, Ontario Bean Growers. These research-focused groups are friends, as well as a support network. They can offer a deeper level of service to the farmers they represent because of their cross-Canada connections.
There is, however, another framework through which the agricultural industry could redraw its boundaries. We could create new networks that may, in the end, do a better job of accounting for regional growing conditions, different soil types, various climate zones, and area-specific disease pressures.
We are strongly tied to the provinces to the east and west of us, but a significant area of Manitoba south of forests and west of the Canadian Shield is also a part of the Great Plains, which is a huge swath of land home to many farms situated between the Rocky Mountains and the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Those who live and work in this area share too much to ignore. In fact, there’s a case to be made for Manitoba farmers developing closer relationships with our neighbours to the south, with whom we share an awful lot. Agronomically, we have a lot in common, and when they flood, our Red and Souris rivers do, as well. We are tied to them in a myriad of ways.
“I think so many of our producers face similar challenges,” says Stephanie Sinner, executive director of the North Dakota Soybean Council based in Fargo, a city that has been revitalized over the past 10 years and one she knows quite well.
Sinner’s optimism towards developing a closer relationship with MPSG is evident. She and her husband, who is also involved in the soy industry, travel to Winnipeg often. “It takes the same amount of time for us to drive to Winnipeg as it does for us to go to Minneapolis. We like Winnipeg.”
Her organization, which publishes the magazine The North Dakota Soybean Grower, met with MPSG prior to the pandemic to start the process of building stronger ties between their two like-minded organizations. Sinner is enthusiastic about picking up where things left off.
“In North Dakota, and I think it’s similar in parts of Manitoba, we have farmers in the northwest and southwest corners of the state who are adding soybeans to their farm rotation for the first time,” says Sinner. “And that’s unique among our U.S. colleagues and peers where soybeans are well established. We’re seeing that soybeans are a profitable option for farmers in North Dakota, and it’s very exciting to have check-off funded research available to help them work soybeans into their rotation. The global demand for soybean is huge. It’s an opportunity both Manitoba and North Dakota producers are pursuing.”
As Manitoba’s farmers become more comfortable embracing soybeans in their rotations, disease and pest pressure will grow. This is something Sinner and her council are aware of. She knows what they are experiencing will eventually make its way to Manitoba. There’s an inevitability built into that south-north model that doesn’t exist in the same way when we view agriculture in Canada through the east-west lens.
“Noxious weeds like Palmer amaranth and kochia don’t recognize a national border, so sharing information and resources across those lines is beneficial,” says Sinner. “We’re just trying to stay ahead of some of those pressures by learning from our fellow producers and producer groups in the southern Midwest states. Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas have been through this and learned from it. We can learn from them and be aware and proactive so that our farmers can continue to grow good quality crops.”
The North Dakota Soybean Council does a lot of work on soybean cyst nematode (SCN) and they focus a lot of their attention towards awareness campaigns – equipping farmers with the tools needed to identify and stay ahead of production losses associated with, say, white mould, Palmer amaranth, kochia, waterhemp, and other challenges that arise, depending on moisture levels heading into and during the growing season.
“Insect pressure, disease pressure, and weed pressure are all growing as we get more and more soybean acres in our region,” says Sinner. “We can become more and more susceptible to all of these things as soybean producers, and these things don’t know the border. Our diseases, weeds, and pests will become issues that Manitoba producers face too. Any time we can leverage information and resources to help our farmers, that is always a really good thing.”
Dwayne Beck agrees.
On paper, Dwayne Beck, Ph.D, is retired, but in practice he’s anything but. Beck is a professor in the plant science department at South Dakota State University and the former research manager at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, South Dakota.
If you’ve been involved in the no-till movement, you’ll likely know who he is. If you’ve ever researched biodiversity, you’ll likely know who he is.
Beck was preparing supper when we spoke. The clamour of pots and pans could be heard in the background. “I’m cooking cod – not that great walleye you have up there in Manitoba.”
He and his wife live in South Dakota, but he knows Manitoba better than most, and I mean that. The second I heard his voice, it was clear that this is a person who, A) likes to chat with interested people, B) knows an awful lot about agriculture, and C) is full of zingers.
When asked how he’d like to be referenced in this article, he said, and I quote, “You may call me anything, but don’t call me late for supper.” In case I hadn’t heard that from my dad, he felt compelled to tell me it was an “old farmer saying.”
Beck believes there’s value in this regional approach to agronomy, and by regional, he uses words such as “parkland,” “lacustrine,” “tallgrass prairie,” and more. These are ecosystems, soil types, geographical areas. This is Beck’s world and his wheelhouse.
“There are a lot of commonalities across the Great Plains,” says Beck. “One of them is crop rotation, or lack thereof, and I think the other one is the need to increase the amount of residue that we have. After growing a pulse or soybean crop, there’s nothing left.”
Beck recalls attending an agronomy- related conference in Winnipeg in 2014 and chatting with someone about a discussion they had years ago.
“You told us we could grow corn in the Red River Valley, and we didn’t think we could,” Beck recalls his colleague
“Well, now there’s a lot of corn there,” says Beck, adding that soybeans are going through a similar process of disbelief
Beck points out that the American corn belt, which spans many states in the Midwest, deals with a lot of the same problems as we do in Manitoba due to short rotations. “I think observing agricultural practices in regions similar to your own is a good idea,” says Beck.
NORTH DAKOTA SOYBEAN BOOM
North Dakota is in the throes of a soybean boom, according to Sinner. The number of acres dedicated to soybeans is growing. Farmers are becoming more confident in the crop and the state is about to be home to three crush plants, two of which are currently under construction and almost operational and a third slated to break ground soon.
Driving this market surge and this, as Sinner put it, “180-degree change in the North Dakota soybean market” is the U.S.’s skyrocketing demand for renewable biodiesel, the primary feedstock of which is soybean oil.
According to the January WASDE, the USDA expects 11.6 billion pounds of soybean oil to go to biofuel production for 2022-23, a number representing a year- over-year increase since at least 2020.
“The products we’re now marketing and moving out of state is really exciting,” says Sinner. “Years of check-off investments have helped get us to this point, where biodiesel and renewable diesel are in demand like they now are. We see similar things happening in Canada with canola being able to respond and participate in that biofuel space. Hopefully, soybeans can remain and stay a big piece of that feedstock because I think it’s just it makes complete sense
for the end fuel user as well as for the producers who are growing soybeans.”
LONG-TERM FARMER INVESTMENT PAYS OFF
This surging demand for soybean is, according to Sinner, the result of about 30 years of hard work – growing demand for biofuels, ensuring diesel blends meet specifications and can work in a myriad of engines, working with engine manufacturers, and helping operators understand that these fuels are better for their machines and the equipment. Farmer investment dollars also went towards working with communities looking for options to help improve air quality.
With the excitement surrounding soybeans happening within arm’s reach of Manitoba’s farmers, and with the commonalities the province’s growers share with vast areas of the Great Plains, there’s a case to be made for paying more attention to what North Dakota is up to. Diseases don’t recognize a national border. Perhaps we’d make better agronomic decisions if we didn’t either.