The days are getting shorter, and there’s a definite chill in the air. Against a backdrop of colorful foliage, the combines have spent the last few weeks combing the fields and collecting the bounty of another year’s work. First, the chickpeas, then oats, and finally, the canola. As harvest comes to a close, everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief. So much of what we do depends on the weather and how the seasons unfold. The closer we get to harvest days, the higher the stakes feel. We’ve sunk our time, energy, emotion, and money into the fields knowing that dozens of variables—early frosts, sudden swarms of bugs, freak snowstorms, or unpredictable flooding and even last minute changes to the political climate—could destroy all of our hard work.
The relief of getting crops harvested and stored makes the long hours of work worthwhile. But just because we’re finishing up harvest doesn’t mean the work stops. Sustainable farming is a year-round gig. Farming into fall involves a lot of the processes that keep Northerly running, even after the combines stop. The team at Northerly strongly believes that we should work with nature, not against it. That’s why the work we do in fall and winter—after the harvest—is so incredibly important.
Storing, processing, and distributing the harvest
So the harvest is off the ground. Now what? Getting crops stored, processed, packaged, and distributed is a lengthy process with many moving parts. First, we have to safely store our grains and legumes, which requires a holistic understanding of agricultural biology. The moisture content of the crop at the time of harvest is critical. It’s best to harvest after a string of dry days. Naturally lowering the moisture content means easier handling and storing, which lessens the risk of spoilage.
The risk of seasonal changes
But we are not always lucky enough to get warm and dry weather that aligns with harvest. Sometimes we have to harvest early to mitigate against rain, cold weather, and other factors. One day of rain is fine, but likely if there’s one, more will follow. Ultimately, changing weather patterns put the farmer in the position of never getting the crop harvested. Plus leaving crops in the field for too long can lead to weathering and lower quality which can, in some cases, lead to crop failure. It’s a delicate balance, but Northerly’s AI-powered analytics equipment and satellite-imaging from field to storage mean we’re making more informed decisions than ever before.
Some grains for example, like our rolled oats, should be harvested (ideally) at a moisture content below 12%. Any higher and that freshly-harvested crop becomes a potential breeding ground for dangerous fungi. If it’s not feasible to get the moisture content below 12% naturally, the crop needs to be placed under aeration or passed through a grain dryer to be stored safely.
On top of fungal contamination, we have to worry about pest control during grain storage. According to the Entomology Department at the University of Kentucky, pest infestation rarely begins in the field. Most often,’ it’s attributable to small pest populations in or around storage bins before harvest. Checking equipment and storage containers for signs of infestation is a year-long process. That means removing and destroying any spilled grains, which might facilitate fungus growth. It also means keeping the area clear of weeds and grasses that can house insect and rodent populations. Finally, we make sure storage facilities are airtight, without any damage to walls, base, or roof.
Processing and packaging the harvest
But just keeping grains stored safely in our bins isn’t going to do anybody any good. Before we can put our grains directly into your hands, we have to clean, process and package them. Processing guarantees optimized taste, texture, color, and nutritional value, in addition to being a necessary safety protocol. Processing begins with cleaning the oats to remove any impurities such as stones, wheat seeds, or other grains. The cleaning process itself is a multi-step event that routes the grain through different stages to ensure the best quality oats are used for further processing. We accomplish this using deltas, indents, gravity tables, de-stoners, and color sorters.
Next the oats go through dehullers, which remove the husk. What’s inside the husk is called the oat “groat,” which is the edible portion of the grain. These groats are then processed to-order. Using a steamer, roller, and kiln to flake the oat, we end up with the hearty rolled oats that Northerly sells. But, by simply changing the last few steps, you could get steel-cut oats, oat bran, and even oat flakes. What’s beautiful about the whole grains Northerly offers is that the only ingredient in the bag is the seed itself. We only use physical methods to process the grain.
To practice sustainability, Northerly’s oats are minimally processed, and we get creative about recycling our fibrous waste. Some oats, for example, aren’t the right size, shape, or quality to be packaged as rolled oats. Instead, they get repurposed for things like oat flour and oat milk or even animal feed.
Maintenance and repairs
Northerly uses the best equipment on the market, and keeps it for approximately five years before trading or upgrading. This ensures we stay right at the cutting edge of agricultural technology. It also means we see some of the highest and most productive work outputs. However, even the best and newest equipment degrades in performance if it’s not properly cared for.
Stop by Northerly in the autumn, and you’ll think we’re growing machine components. The combines, tractors, and tillers gleam in a million little pieces. That’s because right after harvest is the best time for us to strip everything down and make repairs that we’ve been putting off. While we would never run a dangerous or potentially hazardous machine, a lot of the time we practice “field” mechanics. These short term fixes keep the machine up and running until the hard work is done. When the harvest is over, it’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and use a little elbow grease to prepare the machines for next year. We look at each belt and bolt to make sure they’re in good working order. If anything’s out of place, we get it fixed, with no expense spared. This preparation for the next year is crucial. It keeps us from getting sidelined when it’s time to plant or harvest again.
Even a 1.5 hour delay can be disastrous
Farming is extremely time-sensitive. When you get the chance to begin working on a process, the equipment has to perform as expected. Any delay due to maintenance, expected or unexpected, can have a ripple effect from seeding all the way until the end of harvest. And you won’t always realize it until you get there.
Take Northerly’s 2018 harvest for example. We completed the entire harvest at 9:30pm, rain began at 11pm. The rain and snow didn’t stop for a month after that. Where in the year could we have delayed 1.5 hours and not completed harvest on time? Procrastinating at seeding in May? Too much rain in July, which delayed maturity? A harvester breakdown due to lack of oversight on maintenance? Every day, hour, and minute matters to farmers. That’s why maintenance time and expenses are so crucial to the entire operation.
Data analytics and decision making
A considerable part of our operation is harnessing technology and science to grow better food for more people. Thanks to advances in agricultural management software, we’re able to collect data daily, in real-time, and adjust our short and long-term practices efficiently. But we still have big decisions to make at the end of each growing season. We look at the data from a variety of sources to cross-compare and make informed decisions about what we’ll grow (and in what quantities) the following season. This is also a great time to start thinking about crop rotation schedules, cover cropping options, and soil tilling.
Protecting and enhancing soil health
Once we’ve harvested the year’s crop, it’s time to restore any depleted soil nutrients to ensure a healthy crop next year. While for a long time people believed “food, feed, fallow” was the best crop rotation practice, we’ve recently discovered that there’s a better way. When the land is left entirely fallow (AKA goes through a season without being planted), it can actually be harmful to soil biomes. Without fresh oxygen and decomposing plant matter to feed on through the season, bacteria and fungi in the soil starve, thinning out populations of beneficial microscopic biomes. The symbiotic relationship between plant and soil microbiome is paramount for healthy soil, and a healthy crop.
At Northerly, we practice responsible continuous cropping by rotating our fields on a set timeline with cereals, oilseeds, and legumes. Each type of crop has its own respective fiber management that is targeted to help the soil. Crop rotation, backed by fall soil testing, helps us gauge how well we’re keeping our soil balances. If we see opportunities for change or improvement, we do it.
Seasons in flux
For example, over the past several years we have been applying “elemental sulfur” to the soil. Elemental sulfur takes years to build up in the soil and every year a crop can only use a small portion of it during the growing period due to its “availability” properties. What this does for us is builds sulfur in the soil not for just one crop, but for years to come. Then in the spring, we use liquid sulfur which is readily available for the plant to use, but does not build sulfur levels in the soil. As you can see, a lot of thought goes into keeping soil health in balance—both for crops growing in the current production year, and for years to come.
While many laud the use of cover cropping, here in Saskatchewan we’re only able to grow one crop per year. In California or Arizona, farmers can grow and harvest up to three crops per year depending on what they’re growing. If we choose to make our one crop a cover—like rye grass or clover—we’re essentially sitting out an entire production season. Instead, we use purposeful crop rotation and data analysis to ensure we’re maintaining proper soil health, while still maximizing productivity. Like we’ve said before, without profitability, farms just can’t stay in business.
Outreach and education
In our opinion, fall is the perfect time to reconnect with the community and encourage engagement. Back-to-school farm tours encourage the next generation to take a more active role in food production. Community tours help people connect with their local farmers and gain a new appreciation for the work that goes into their morning toast.
Here at Northerly, one of our primary goals is to reconnect people with their family farm. That’s why we shift gears post-harvest to focus on outreach and education. From giving a behind-the-scenes look at our harvest to raising awareness through our blogs and social media, we want you to feel like you’ve got boots in the field. Plus, since we’re putting grains right into your hands, we want you to know—from seed to table—the farm that grows, harvests, and stores your food.
Working with, not against, nature
Saskatchewan’s weather moves between extremes, with summers reaching the mid-30s C (90-95 degrees Fahrenheit) and winters staying well below freezing point. Because of this, the work we do in the temperate months is crucial to year-round success. One of the principle beliefs of sustainable agriculture is that nature is something to work with, not something to be conquered. Now, using advanced data and analytics, we’re more capable than ever before of attuning ourselves (and our practices) with natural cycles. By operating this way, we’re able to protect soil health while guaranteeing high quality, safe food. Make sure to follow us on social media to see what’s going on, from seed to table, on Northerly farms.