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Constant improvement cornerstone to OYF winners’ success

When asked back in August what makes his farm unique, Matt Sawyer said frankly that he wasn’t sure.

As Alberta/NWT regional winners of the 2011 Outstanding Young Farmers’ award, Matt and Tara Sawyer were recognized for their balanced approach to production, stewardship, industry involvement and community participation. But the Sawyers say they don’t see their farm as fundamentally different from their neighbours’ — that they, like others, are simply business people.

And as savvy farmers, the Sawyers understand the importance of having both an environmental and emergency plan in place to protect their livelihood. When their combine caught fire in August, they could easily have been facing a catastrophe but because the Sawyers’ farm is set up to handle emergencies, it was nothing more than an inconvenience.

“We know what to do to get help here quickly and (in this case) to make sure the fire didn’t spread to destroy the crop or hurt anyone,” says Matt. “We also have an environmental farm plan in place, so we make sure our chemicals are stored and our fertilizer bins are on concrete pads. Even the combine in question was new and could be quickly serviced.”

Planning for their operation to run smoothly, even with a smoldering combine, is only one thing that makes the Sawyer farm an example for others to follow. When Matt talks about his chosen profession and the work his family does to make it a success, his passion for agriculture shows.

“We are always looking at ways to make our farm better,” says the Acme, AB, producer who, together with his wife, farms 2,500 acres of owned and rented cropland and runs a 50-head cow/calf commercial black Angus herd. “We are completely zero tillage and we have GPS on all of our equipment. We’re always trying new things to make the farm better for now and for our kids.”

Matt grew up on an adjacent farm, still run by his parents. In 2003, he and Tara bought his grandparents’ home quarter. The Sawyers work together with his parents, sharing equipment and other resources.

Their three children, Emmett (11), Cassidy (9) and Quin (7) all play a role on the farm. The children are active in 4-H and Tara and Matt are involved in their local Elks and Royal Purple lodges. Matt is chairman of the Alberta Barley Commission and a director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. Tara, who grew up in Calgary, is the farm’s business manager.

“My biggest challenge when starting on the farm as a city girl was not knowing anything,” she says. “When I first met Matt I didn’t know one crop from the next, or if you could walk through the swath, or even what a swather was. But if you want to learn, you can.”

As part of their continued growth, the Sawyers look at different options for their farm. They are careful about compaction on their land and have been learning more about keeping heavy equipment to certain areas of a field throughout the season. Matt says that whenever they try something new, they know some things will work better than others, but figure the way to learn is through trial and error.

“We’re conscious of the environment, like most farmers today,” says Matt. “I like to consider myself a soil manager. We’ve experimented with different fertilizer rates, and with adding organic compost to our crop nutrition program. We have started using a grain cart to keep the heaviest trucks out of the field.”

To supplement the farm income, Tara runs a catering business. In addition to providing meals for their seasonal workers during harvest, she creates home-cooked meals for weddings, dinner parties and business meetings.

“Even that was a learning curve,” she says. “I didn’t know how to cook — at all — before I married Matt. But as I became more interested in food and where it came from, I wanted to show people the difference it makes to get food prepared from quality ingredients.”

To be eligible for the OYF award, farmers must be between 19 and 39 years of age and earn at least two thirds of their annual income from the farm. They also need to demonstrate progress throughout their careers. Judges look at conservation practices, management practices, production history, financial issues and contributions to the community. Regional competitions are held across the country, with a national winner chosen from that group in November.

Going forward, the Sawyers will continue looking for ways to improve their yield, and at producing value-added products based on premium grade crops. Matt says the potential to direct market their harvest up and down the value chain brings the possibility of taking their farm to places they’d never considered in the past.

“I think farming is a noble profession,” he says. “We are providing food for the world. I wake up every morning with an adrenaline rush, wondering what the day will bring, especially at harvest when we get to see the results of all our work through the past year. It’s an exciting business to be in.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy the Sawyer Family