Community of Practice

David Rourke wants to farm better. He always has. When he started farming 40 years ago at Minto, Manitoba, he also started a research business, AgQuest, to test farm practices. The family business now includes 6,000 acres, and his daughter Dana runs the research company. In his mid 60s, Rourke has a new objective: Farming for the health of the planet.

Rourke wants to provide Canadian agriculture with effective best practices to vastly reduce fossil fuel use and sequester more carbon in the soil. During the pandemic, he wrote a book called A Road to Fossil Fuel Free Farming and started a PhD with the thesis, “Zero Till Plus – the next evolution in climate-friendly farming”. Zero till plus, he says, relies on cover crops, among other practices, to build soil organic carbon levels deep into the soil and across all areas of fields, including hill tops.

Rourke wants a triple win: A farm that can provide a good living, feed a lot of people and keep going indefinitely.

He repeats often that profits are essential. “We need to be rewarded for the risk and investment we make,” he says. “Profit is a necessary component to build resiliency and opportunity for the next generation.”

To achieve this triple win, Rourke will research cover crops, which are an essential step but a challenge, currently, for the Canadian Prairies with short shoulder seasons and limited rainfall. He will experiment with intercropping–growing two or more grain crops in the same field at the same time. He wants more pulses in the rotation and to use effective nitrogen- fixing microbes.

When I asked if canola fit into his vision for Western Canadian farming, he answered, “I absolutely see canola in the future. Can we do it more sustainably? We have to!”

Rourke draws inspiration from Elmer Stobbe, who was his master’s advisor at the University of Manitoba. Stobbe has been called the grandfather of zero-till crop production on the Prairies. When Stobbe first started his mission, glyphosate was not an option and when it did come along, it was $25 per litre. Equipment for seeding into stubble was not common or practical. “Zero till made sense, but nobody wanted to do it,” Rourke says. Stobbe persevered. For Stobbe, it was not “if” farmers will adopt zero tillage, but “how,” and he looked for influential farmers to try it.

Curtis Rempel, vice president of the Canola Council of Canada, was present a lot of the meetings where Stobbe made his pitch. Rempel was with Monsanto at that time. “What I remember is the number of personal attacks Elmer received at farm meetings,” Rempel says. “It was challenging for Elmer because he dared to talk about change and had data to support what he was proposing, but commercial scale equipment was not available. It’s a case of Field of Dreams – ‘build it and they will come’. Elmer persevered and here we are today.”

Zero till is now a fairly common practice across the Prairies, a beacon for what farmers can do to improve the planet and profits at the same time. These early days for cover crops are like the early days of zero tillage, Rourke says. For his PhD, Rourke will use Stobbe’s technique of finding influential farmers to work on the “how,” not the “if,” of farming to produce food and profits while also sequestering more carbon than the farm uses. He will put together a group of leading farmers who share his concerns and goals. Rourke uses the term “community of practice.” This community will interact on an ongoing basis, sharing innovations, alternatives, challenges and successes, to come up with best practices. They will then share these Prairies-proven, farmer-developed practices with the whole farming community.

Rourke’s message to all farmers is this: Climate change is real, and we have to be open to being part of the solution. “I have nine grandkids,” he says, “and I want them to have a life as good as mine.”

Canola Digest - September 2022