When Dustin Williams and Laura McDougald-Williams received their Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) nomination, they were pretty surprised. “It came out of left field,” says Laura. “We usually focus on ways to improve our practices, so we hadn’t thought of being recognized in this way,” adds Dustin.
Ironically, it’s that focus on improvement that helped earn them the title of Manitoba’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2012.
Dustin and Laura run Ash Haven Farms Ltd., a 4,000-acre cereal and oilseed operation along the Souris River in southwestern Manitoba. Dustin is the fifth-generation Williams to farm this land and he appreciates having worked alongside his grandfather and father while growing up. He still works with his dad and hopes one day to work with one or both of his daughters.
With that kind of family history, it’s natural to want to leave a successful, sustainable farm legacy to the next generation. By focusing on environmental stewardship and innovation, the Williams are doing just that.
Thinking way outside the box
To improve production, the Williams bring innovative thinking to their farm. “Fortunately, there is a lot of good research in our industry to draw on,” says Dustin. “You just have to find what fits into your operation.”
As long-time zero till farmers, environmental stewardship plays a key role in their operation. “We farm a lot of highly erosive soils so we need to respect that,” says Dustin. For them, this includes protecting riparian areas and ensuring water runways are grassed.
A key goal is to maintain tight control over crop inputs. “That reduces our environmental impact and also cuts costs — a win-win situation,” says Laura. They achieve this a number of ways. For example, about eight years ago, they started intercropping peas and canola. Both are seeded at a 2/3 rate and treated as one crop. “The peas don’t lie on the ground and I can cut the amount of fertilizer I use per bushel of canola,” says Dustin. “The net benefit is a yield gain of 10 to 15 per cent over growing the crops separately.”
The Williams also use seed-placed micronutrients so they can use low application rates per acre but still benefit the crop. In addition, they use cover crops as an affordable way to keep the ground green and the soil healthy. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of encouraging volunteers; other times we need to go in and seed,” says Dustin.
Acting beyond the farm
Having both grown up in the Souris area, the Williams have retained a strong sense of community. “We believe public service is important,” says Laura. Both have been, and still are, involved in various community organizations. Among other activities, Dustin is a past president of the Manitoba/North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association, and Laura is currently chair of the Brandon University Board of Governors.
But it’s not only serving in organizations that sets this couple apart. Neither Dustin nor Laura hesitate to step forward when the community needs volunteers. Laura is involved in the local women’s shelter, the YWCA and a daycare. When the the Souris River overflowed its banks this spring, Dustin spent many long hours sandbagging to help protect the community.
Canada’s OYF program is an annual competition to celebrate and recognize farmers that exemplify excellence in the industry. As the Manitoba regional winners, the Williams are enjoying participating in the OYF program. “We get to go to events where we are sitting in a room full of like-minded people,” says Dustin. “It’s a great arena to network and share ideas.”
In November, they will travel to Charlottetown for the OYF national event. Here, two national winners will be selected from among the seven regional winners. “We see a lot of great young farmers,” says Dustin. “It is an honour to represent them for a year.”