Farming & sustainability
Who grows Canadian wheat?
Producing wheat takes a team before it even leaves the farm – from the scientists who develop the seed, to the farmers who plant it and the agronomists who provide technical support during the growing season.
Approximately 50,000 farms in Canada grow wheat as part of their crop rotation. Wheat growers are business-minded men and women who embrace technology and value stewardship.
Wheat growing is truly a family affair. Today, 97% of Canada’s farms are family owned.1 Many grain farms are large family enterprises, particularly those in Western Canada where individual farms invest $1 to $3 million in equipment and storage capacity in order to farm between 5,000 and 15,000 acres.2
It’s true that farms all across the country are getting larger. Technology allows farmers to produce more food and manage more acres than in the past. The average Canadian farm was 820 acres in 2016, up from 237 acres in 19413 The fact is that technology allows farmers to produce more food and manage more acres than in the past.
How does wheat grow?
Wheat is a member of a large family of grass plants that includes other cereal grains grown for food use such as barley, rye and oats. ‘Wheat’ refers to the whole plant – roots, leaves, flowers, and seeds (that develop from the flowers). These seeds, also called kernels, are the part of the wheat plant used to make a wide range of foods. As the wheat plant matures in the field, the kernels increase in size, accumulating the nutrients that are important to human nutrition.
The essential materials used by farmers to grow wheat include seed, fertilizer, crop protection products and fuel to power farm equipment.
Spring wheats are planted in early summer and require about 110 to 130 days4 to mature, depending on weather conditions, before they can be harvested. Winter wheat, which is planted in late summer or early fall, lies dormant during winter and takes about 10 months to be ready for harvest.
Harvest is a mechanical process that involves using equipment called a combine, which cuts the stems and separates the wheat kernels from the seed stalks. Kernels are then transferred from the combine into a grain cart for transport.
While many varieties of wheat grown today have been improved to better withstand pests, disease and harsh weather conditions, the nutritional value of the wheat kernel hasn’t changed much at all. In fact, research has found the nutritional composition of modern wheat varieties to be very similar to those grown more than a century ago.
Did you Know?
While genetic engineering has been used to help some crops grow more efficiently, no wheat in Canada has been genetically modified (GM).
Sustainability on the farm
Farmers are constantly adapting and taking steps to nurture and protect the land so that it remains productive for future generations.
The majority of farms follow conventional production practices while some are organic (about 2% of farmland5) and others do elements of both. Regenerative agriculture is a newer term focused on revitalizing soil health and keeping the soil ecosystem operating at optimum efficiency. Regardless of the type of farming, the goal is safe, high-quality ingredients and sustainable production. This includes healthier and more productive soils, water quality and conservation, reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and using less energy in crop production. Today’s farming practices make this possible.
Farmers grow more than wheat
Crop rotation is an important part of a sustainable farming operation. This means that a different crop is planted in subsequent years. For example, a field planted to wheat one year will be planted with another field crop such as canola, soybeans, corn, barley, oats or pulses. Rotating crops provides improved soil fertility and helps to break pest and disease cycles.
Winter wheat, which is planted in the fall and dormant over the winter, supports sustainability by providing critical foliage and groundcover for ducks, birds, and other wildlife for nesting in the spring that otherwise wouldn’t be available.
Reduced tillage protects soil, water and biodiversity
Thanks to plant science innovation, farmers no longer have to rely on the practice of plowing, also called tilling, to control weeds. By reducing tillage or practicing reduced or no-till, farmers have been able to improve soil health, conserve water and protect biodiversity.
Precision agriculture supports land stewardship
Farmers also use precision agriculture in sustainable production systems. These are innovations such as GPS, drones, sensors, soil sampling, and precision machinery that help to grow crops more efficiently. With the help of these tools, farmers can make more informed decisions for planting, applying nutrients, spraying and harvesting. Technology also enables them to grow more on the same amount of land, helping the financial sustainability of their business while also protecting the environment.
Preventing soil erosion
The practice of no-till leaves stubble from the harvested crop in the field to catch snow and reduce soil erosion. After harvest, some farmers also plant a cover crop into the soil, which also helps to keep soil in place. In addition to reducing erosion, it adds organic matter, improves soil structure, reduces pest populations and helps manage soil moisture.
What happens when wheat leaves the farm?
After harvest, farmers transport wheat seeds from their on farm grain storage to handling facilities called grain elevators where their wheat is blended with those of other farmers and stored. Elevators segregate wheat of the same class and protein level before shipping onwards in the supply chain.
The wheat supply chain refers to all of the products and people involved in getting foods made from wheat onto a consumer’s plate.
At this stage of the wheat journey, wheat is in the hands of ‘grain handlers’ – those who work at facilities that store, mill or ship wheat kernels.
1 Food and Farm Care 2 Canadian National Millers Association 3 Food and Farm Care 4 https://www.lifessimpleingredient.com/5-wheat-facts-might-not-know/ 5 https://www.edc.ca/en/blog/canada-organic-sector-growth.html
Did you Know?
No-till and conservation tillage saved an estimated 20 billion kgs of greenhouse gas emissions from being released into the atmosphere between 1996 and 2018, which is equivalent to removing about 13 million cars from the road for a year.