Vaags Organic Farm

When Duane Vaags set out on a journey to St. Paul, he had no idea the way home would lead him off the map, onto his own liberating road to Damascus.

It was a six-hour drive from Manitoba to the Minnesota capital, where the skeptical farmer had registered to attend a conference on organic farming. “I went there to learn a few things, but I had no intention of changing,” he remembers.

Suddenly he found a new intensity of perception, a new way of seeing the furrowed land he had known from his earliest years. “The whole way home I just kept saying to myself, ‘I don’t know how, but this is how I’m going to farm — I’m quite sure of that.’

“In a matter of two days, I was so impressed by the people, their integrity, and the food — it was all organic food and it was fantastic.”

Duane planted his first organic crop in 2002. Today he proudly cultivates sunflowers used to make sunflower oil for One Degree, with veganic techniques that respect the land, respect the consumer, and protect his family. He fortifies his soil with a rich crop rotation that includes hard red spring wheat, barley, oats, sweet corn and soybeans.

The yearly bounty from his 600 acres is incredible in light of the fact that Duane is a part-time farmer — and full-time firefighter. His strong work ethic is magnified by his devotion to his wife and six children. “I’ll work a 14-hour night shift, have breakfast, then I’m out the door to the fields 9:30 to 3:30 or 4, then spend some time with the kids, then I’m off for another 14-hour night shift.”

With work claiming so much time, every moment with the family is precious. “We actually bought a tractor this year with a buddy seat, an extra seat, so I can take two or three kids with me in the tractor,” he says. “And that was a large part of the reason we bought the tractor, so it was more of an opportunity for the kids to come with me.

“If you were around a lot and talk with my neighbors you’d probably get the comment, he always has his kid with him; they’re with me on the quad, they’re with me in the truck, they’re walking around the yard with me as much as possible. Because 90 percent of the reason I do this is for the next generation.”

Respect for the continuum of generations is deeply rooted. Duane’s maternal great-grandfather began farming the land in 1927. Duane’s father, an immigrant from Holland, bought the land after marrying into the family. Today, the health of the farm’s youngest generation is the most compelling reason to grow crops organically.

Duane sees agricultural hazards to people and the environment throughout the province, on farms that “don’t want consumers to see what they’re doing. If the consumer truly saw what was happening to their food, they wouldn’t eat it,” he says. Many such farms are wholly dependent on chemicals: “Every acre of wheat they grow has two to three applications of fungicide. That wouldn’t bode well in a family video! I mean, you can dress it up nice as best you can, but the reality is the consumer is going to begin demanding to know their food is safe.”

In the case of sunflowers, these conventional methods can be especially dangerous. Some producers of confectionary sunflower seeds, the kind consumers eat from a bag, “spray Roundup directly on that crop and then harvest it, and it goes direct to the processor. And they see absolutely nothing wrong with that. I just shake my head, like you’re putting a chemical directly on the consumer’s food — does that not bother you?”

In many cases, the growers using these powerful chemicals are clearly aware of the risks. “A big farm in central Manitoba, they grow conventional but they buy grain from an organic farmer for their own home. They won’t even eat their own products any more. The blinders are on, they don’t ask the question: ‘What am I doing?’”

Chemical farming doesn’t require much insight, nor wisdom. For men like Duane, who love learning nature’s lessons, that’s another reason why organic farming is so liberating. Faced with an outcrop of weeds, Duane draws upon his knowledge, analyzing the complex variables of soil conditions and climate.

“Each passing year I gain more insight into what those weeds represent, soil imbalances. I sort of have the philosophy that the weeds are there to correct the soil. If you have a patch of thistles there, and nothing else growing, it shows minerals are lacking in that patch of soil.” Isolated weeds are clipped by hand. More extensive patches are plowed back into the soil, providing nutrients for the field’s next crop.

Duane consistently takes the long view when it comes to the health of the soil and the vitality of his crops. “I could have gone into the hay business and sold hay off the farm,” he notes, “but the downside is that now I’m hauling nutrients off the farm, nutrients from the soil.”

In the end, long-term perspectives are what veganic farming and One Degree are all about. Farming should not be an exercise in draining life from the land. Nor should a farmer dwell at the lowest levels of a corporate pyramid, content to be a distributor of chemicals, compounds and genetically altered products; someone seeking quick profit by shifting tremendous costs onto the broader community.

To be a faithful steward of the land requires a higher moral consciousness. The kind any honest farmer may be lucky to find on a long, exhilarating drive back home.

— Charlie Dodge