Originally published June 20, 2019 on The Western Producer
By William DeKay
An accident with farm chemicals prompted Clem and Chandra Schraefel to go organic when their sons were very young.
The Schraefel brothers have never experienced conventional agriculture, which suits them just fine.
The 20-something lads — Adam, Stephen and Derek — are taking hold of the reins of the 5,200 acre organic operation from parents Clem and Chandra Schraefel near Kerrobert, Sask.
“They have never run a sprayer or had to put fertilizer in a drill or never had to treat seed. They’ve never had to handle toxic chemicals or any kind of chemicals at all other than the middle boy, Stephen,” said Clem.
Clem is referring to the day about 20 years ago when the curious five-year-old looked up into a nozzle and a drop of chemical fell into his eye.
“I grabbed the screaming kid under my arm and took him in and we held him under the sink for 10 minutes. He was fine. It wasn’t a harsh chemical, but still it kind of scares the hell out of you,” he said.
Added Chandra: “We both said this is not right.”
It was the day they decided to go organic.
“That was one of the things that pushed us into thinking there should be an easier or a better way to raise kids on a farm, which was ultimately what we wanted to do,” he said.
Despite being the only organic farmers in the area, the Schraefel’s have never regretted their decision.
However, it didn’t come easy, said Clem, who admits his knowledge was limited about conventional farming, or organic for that matter, in 1996.
That was the year they decided to uproot their little family from Calgary, leave his job there with Canadian Pacific Railway and return home to take over his ailing father’s conventional farm, about seven quarter-sections, which was homesteaded by Clem’s grandfather in 1907.
While Clem and Chandra, who also grew up on a nearby farm, quickly realized they had made the right decision to return home, they got off to a rocky start on their little farm.
“My father died three or four months after we moved home and I lost my main adviser. So we really didn’t have anybody to help us learn any kind of farming. It wasn’t just organic farming, but even conventional. If it wasn’t for neighbours and friends helping us along the way we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” said Clem.
With little more than 1,000 acres to work with at the time, Clem realized that they would have a tough time making a successful go with the growing young family.
“We knew that we weren’t going to make a living conventionally farming. We tried the continuous cropping thing and it wasn’t going to work on seven quarters. We either had to expand or we had to get off-farm jobs. Or we had to find a different way to make our living off the land,” he said.
But old habits die hard. Despite disliking the handling and expense of chemicals, he didn’t think a farm without them would fly.
“My dad told me stories about how farmers lost their whole crop because the machinery was small and they just didn’t have the ability to stay ahead of the weeds. So when chemicals came along it was a godsend and it saved farmers. My dad came from that. He didn’t inspect fields. A week after the crop came up he went and sprayed everything matter of course, always. And he had nice, clean fields,” he said.
Added Chandra: “He also said, ‘I’ve been spraying for 50 years and I still have weeds growing every year.’ ”
However, with due diligence and consultation Clem planted 40 organic acres with buckwheat in 1999.
“It was a disaster,” he said.
“But I just remember not having to treat the seed and not having to spray it and not having to fertilize and I thought there’s got to be a way to make this work economically.”
Despite the dismal showing, the next year they went in with both feet and seeded 100 percent organic.
“I remember we grew 120 acres of lentils and we marketed all the way into Turkey. We cleaned them, we put them into bags, put them into containers and shipped them over. It was like eight months later and we got paid and we made more money on that 120 acres of lentils than we made off the whole rest of the farm,” he said.
“So it was really easy for me to make that decision that we had to figure out how to make this organics work.”
Fuelled with hope, optimism and hard work, they travelled to organic conventions and canvassed old-time farmers for any sage morsels of advice for weed control and different kinds of diversification.
“I often wish I could talk to my old grandfather about some of the techniques they used for weed control without chemicals, without those tools,” he said.
“But it’s exciting. One of the things that I noticed is that we were learning and anytime you’re learning you feel good about it. So it was an exciting change for us all to go down that path.”
Since 2000, their 2,100 acre farm has been certified organic. Recently, they more than doubled their land base to 5,200 acres by renting a neighbour’s organic farm.
“In 20 years we’ve never sold a conventional crop. We’ve never had to sell into the conventional market. The demand has been so strong. We can’t keep up. So that part makes it easy when you’ve got a product that people want,” he said.
With a goal of improving soil health, they focus on reducing the impact of tillage as well as crop diversification.
All crops are contracted before any seed is buried.
Clem said they’re growing everything they can this year, which includes black lentils, peas, barley, oats, alfalfa, wheat, fall rye and hard white spring wheat.
“You always seem to have one crop that’s a big winner and demand and price is good. You have one crop that has quality issues and you have a bunch in the middle. It is easier to seed everything into wheat and maybe peas. But then if wheat takes a tumble or if you have a crappy harvest — we spread our seeding over five weeks and our harvest is spread over two, three months sometimes,” he said.
Like the old-time farmers before him, Clem said he has encouraged his sons to learn and keep exploring new farming techniques and methods — working together, as well as independently.
Each son has his own niche and knows what their jobs are when they get up in the morning.
“We want our boys to succeed because that’s our retirement. You delegate and let them learn and give them the freedom to do what they need to do.”
Added Derek, “You take on the personality of your coach. A lot of the things Clem first trained me to do still stick in my head.”
All three sons agree that an organic farmer’s life is their path forward, but it’s not without a few hiccups.
“It’s a challenge to get everybody on the same page some days. Sometimes it feels like herding cats, but we do pretty good. We get everything done,” said Stephen.
Added Adam: “You’re working for yourself. It’s a lot easier to get motivated and it’s just all around better.”
Said Derek: “When you’re working for somebody where you’re not involved in that business, you don’t have as much pride in your work. But when you know that when you’re out there, this is your family’s well-being, this is how they make a living, you try to do the best job you can. You’re not just an employee, you’re a partner in a business….
“We all seem to love it, so I think it plays out well.”