“Mother Nature is literally our boss and kind of dictates everything in the end,” says Carmen Sewell, about life as a farmer.
For Carmen, that life started after meeting her husband, Brian – a 4th generation farmboy who returned to the family business full-time after a family tragedy in 2004. While he’d always planned to return to farming in Herronton, Alberta, the loss of his brother in a car accident meant Brian and Carmen found themselves working the land sooner than originally expected.
Although she married into farm life, Carmen (who is a part-time marketer for a Calgary-based accounting and business advisory firm) has embraced it wholeheartedly. And after nearly 15 years in the fields, she appreciates the flexibility their farming lifestyle provides her family.
“It’s a great lifestyle. I do really enjoy it,” Carmen says. “We love working together, we always have. I mean, it is a struggle and a very high-stress world. But we have our busy time and then some flexibility off-season.”
It’s that flexibility that affords Carmen and Brian the ability to spend lots of time with their three kids (two daughters – 12 and 8, and a son, 6). Whether spent working (and exploring) the farm, getting them to and from hockey practice and dance classes, or having the chance to coach hockey in winter and baseball in the spring, they feel fortunate for those opportunities.
“Sometimes Brian’s not as able to attend something, but we have flexibility in the winter,” she says. “It’s nice that we’re able to enjoy those things with our kids.”
In early 2017, Carmen and Brian consolidated their farm business with that of his parents, who were looking to retire, creating one streamlined operation – Sewell Grain Farms. With 4,000 acres and more than 100 years farming the same land, working sustainably has always been critical to the farm’s future.
Although ‘sustainability’ has become something of a buzzword these days, says Carmen, it’s still an essential (and increasingly expected) goal. But the industry as a whole still has challenges with consumer trust, judgement, and understanding of what sustainability means when it comes to agriculture.
“If we’re not sustainable, if we’re not caring for our earth and soil, not giving our crops the things they need to grow, then we wouldn’t be able to keep farming the same land,” says Carmen. “The crops would strip the soil of necessary nutrients for the following year.”
One of the simplest ways to maintain healthy soil is through crop rotation. On the Sewell’s farm, that means planning out (at least) four years in advance what crops will go where to ensure the nutrients left behind are beneficial to the next year’s plants. They also forego tilling their soil, allowing nature to do on the farm what it does in unattended fields and forests.
Although they gave compost a go at one point, they found little benefit compared to the cost. Instead, they’ve started gradually introducing Bio-Sul, a recycled, nutrient source made locally in Calgary by Bio-Cycle Solutions, to some fields. Made of 70 percent elemental sulphur and 30 percent compost (from unwanted grocery store waste), Bio-Sul is safe, effective, convenient, and economical in the long term – it only needs to be applied about every four years. Eventually, they hope to use it on all their crops.
“The thing about farming is you’re dealing with significant investments every year. So when you’re looking at upfronting that four-year investment it can be quite costly, so we just can’t do it all at once. But we do love the idea of grocery store food being put into our fields.”
As they eye the future of the farm, they’re looking to further crop diversification, and expansion, as ways to stay ahead of the game.
“We grew some soybeans this year for the first time. There’s also an opportunity potentially coming up to grow hemp. Nothing is 100 percent drought tolerant, but hemp is more tolerant than some other crops, so I’m interested,” she says. “We just want to keep making sure that we’re growing the right things.”
They’re also looking forward to the end of the month when they get to move into the new home they’re building on the farm, and including the kids more in the day-to-day operations.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to give them an understanding of where food comes from,” Carmen says. “They definitely have an interest in the bigger picture of what we’re doing. It’s nice to be able to share with them for sure.”
And when not immersing the kids in life on the farm, they’ll continue to take advantage of the flexibility that comes with their chosen lifestyle. All five love to ski and they get out whenever the weather allows.
“We’re pretty fortunate because my family has a holiday place. We ski there in the winter and spend a lot of time there on our boat in the summer. That’s probably the biggest thing we do as a family, we like to hike and get out into the mountains any time that we can.”
Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based freelance writer, bartender, and editor of the Whole Family Happiness Project. She lives in Halifax, with her son and a penchant for really strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer.
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