Dustin Williams learned at a young age that doing the right thing for the environment is also good for the pocketbook.
Dustin Williams was just a boy when his father Wayne parked his cultivator for good and plunged into what many considered the foolhardy business of no-till grain farming. But he’ll never forget the reaction it caused.
“For sure, we were those guys,” the 35-year-old Manitoba farmer recalls with a laugh. “Every time we ran a new piece of equipment, the neighbours would be parked on the road just so they could see what we were up to now.”
Dustin garnered more than a few looks himself two decades later when he outfitted his air seeder with a strange-looking array of silver tubing to pump tractor exhaust pipe into the soil.
The two initiatives are connected – by the idea that environmental stewardship isn’t just about doing the right thing; it’s also key to creating a financially viable farm business.
“I’ve learned that you have to pay attention to your land,” says Dustin, who operates Ash Haven Farms, a 4,700-acre grain farm near Souris, with his wife, Laura McDougald-Williams.
“The guiding principle on our farm is as much about reducing costs as increasing productivity. If you can find a new or better way to do things and reduce your cost base, then those are dollars in your pocket.”
The couple was chosen the province’s Outstanding Young Farmers last year, but their farming career almost ended before it got started.
“At the beginning, the strategy was just survival,” says Laura, who grew up on a small cattle operation south of nearby Brandon, and met Dustin through community service work in high school.
“It was just trying to pay the bills and keep at it. I guess we were just optimistic that eventually we would get our head above water.”
The couple began farming in 2001. Dustin had just earned his ag diploma and Laura was about to head off to law school in Montreal. Wayne Williams had built what was, at the time, a massive operation. By renting several small farms, he had expanded to 5,500 acres, but he encouraged his son to start his own operation rather than work for him. So the couple rented a few hundred acres, and Dustin did custom work for neighbours, trading his labour for the use of his father’s equipment. Oh, and to speed things along, they started a cow-calf operation.
“We thought the cattle would be a good way to diversify and not have all our eggs in one basket,” says Laura.
“We were in the cattle business for four months when BSE hit,” adds Dustin. “We didn’t even have our first calves on the ground when BSE changed my business plan. But it turned out to be one of my best business lessons. I learned you can only plan out to the next fork in the road.”
The experience convinced the couple they needed something to tilt the odds a little more in their favour, and Dustin’s father’s experience with no-till offered an answer.
The land in their area is sandy loam and highly erodible, which was why Wayne had always limited his tillage. But once he stopped altogether, father and son noticed other benefits. Soon, the soil was teeming with earthworms and the surface became home to a host of insects that dined on the straw residue. Those bugs were a food source for other insects, such as lacewigs, and having resident bands of carnivorous insects in their fields proved to be a real boon. When pests that attacked crops or spread disease showed up, they were immediately assailed by the “good bugs,” which reduced, and often eliminated, the need to spray.
“I didn’t want to have to be spraying every time I turned around, and I realized it was really more of a Band-Aid solution a lot of the time,” says Dustin. “By improving soil health, we could improve crop health and avoid a lot of these issues in the first place.”
This line of thinking is evident in many of his farming practices. His alma mater, the University of Manitoba, has the country’s longest-running organic cereal field study and Dustin took a keen interest in that work, including the use of green manure, cover crops to control weeds, and intercropping legumes and cereals.
“I considering going organic but it wasn’t a fit for our operation,” he says. “But I’ve tried to take these organic or low-input practices and make them pay on a commercial scale.”
Many of his ideas now come from fellow farmers. Dustin attends as many conferences as possible, always seeking out innovative producers and asking what’s working for them. He’s also a past president and networks with members of the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers’ Association (mandakzerotill.org), the pioneering organization his father joined when the idea of farming without tillage was widely viewed as an impractical, fringe philosophy.
This has led him to adopt new practices. For example, he’s found that applying small amounts of micronutrients directly into seed rows gets plants off to a fast start by encouraging root growth and uptake of macronutrients. These types of efforts have allowed him to reduce nitrogen rates by 20 to 30 per cent in the last five years, he says.
The other lesson he learned from his father’s experience with no-till is the value of patience. Today’s farmers have a plethora of high-tech equipment to precisely plant seeds into stubble, and manage crop residues and weeds. In contrast, early adopters of no-till experienced all kinds of frustration, learning by trial and error what worked – and what didn’t – on their land and modifying equipment in order to get better results.
Dustin is now going through the same process in his experiments with injecting tractor exhaust into his soil. Only a few hundred farmers are using the technology, but proponents say it boosts seedling growth by stimulating soil microbes, which convert nutrients into forms that a plant can take up. Dustin spent $30,000 to outfit his tractor six years ago, and says he has been able to reduce his fertilizer bill without sacrificing productivity.
“There’s sound science behind it,” he says. “When I looked at the potential to reduce my nitrogen by 30 per cent, I thought it would be one of the best investments I could make. I’ve kept experimenting with it year after year and I think I’ve got a system now that will provide consistent results – although there’s still some work to be done in the shop this winter.”
The focus on long-term planning and sustainability extends beyond agronomic issues. The couple rents half of their acres from non-family members, partly because land in their area rarely comes up for sale and partly because they don’t want to rack up millions in debt just to own every acre they farm.
But renting land is about more than cutting a cheque, says Laura, a specialist in agricultural real estate.
“Obviously, the primary concern of people who are renting is the economics and generating revenue, but there are other factors involved, too,” she says. “They want to know the land is being cared for and I’ve found they also want a relationship with their tenants.”
They never mail off the rent cheque, for example. Instead, Dustin hand-delivers it, and usually ends up sitting down for coffee to chat about what happened on those rented fields last year, and what he’s planning for next.
“In these days of email and instant communication, we sometimes forget that people want that social interaction,” says Laura. “Sustainability is central to our whole perspective in life and you want sustainability in your relationships with the people you rent from, too.”
But there’s a difference between sustainability and getting stuck in a rut, the couple says.
“We’re always searching for new ideas,” says Dustin. “I don’t ever want to be in a position where we’re coasting and just doing the things we did last year.”
In fact, the couple, who have two young daughters, are considering the biggest change on the farm since it was homesteaded by Dustin’s great-great-grandfather in the 1880s.
“A community group spent several years looking at building a biodiesel plant in Souris,” says Dustin. “Ultimately, we decided we couldn’t do it, but it got me interested in what we might do on our own farm.”
They first looked at producing their own biodiesel for use in their equipment, and then whether it would be feasible to operate a farm-scale crushing plant to produce vegetable oil and canola meal.
“The idea was marginal if you just sold canola meal into the traditional marketplace,” says Dustin. “But that’s when the idea of aquaculture came up. There’s a method for converting canola meal into concentrated canola protein that you can feed to fish.”
It would be a multi-million-dollar undertaking and require bringing in an equity partner.
“So for now, it’s on the shelf but when the time is right, we wouldn’t be afraid to take it further and see where it leads,” Dustin says. “We want to be low-cost, and we want to be sustainable. But we want to move ahead – and that means we don’t allow ourselves to be afraid of change.”