Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


Smoky Lake farmers build on hundred-year foundation

An aggressive business plan melds with land stewardship principles

Posted: November 1, 2012

Smoky Lake farmers Robert and Angela Semeniuk, winners of this year's Alberta/NWT Outstanding Young Farmer award, have built their diversified operation on roots stretching back over a century.

Continuing a proud family heritage of land stewardship with close attention to details and a solid grasp of the business side of farming is a top priority for the couple. And, with a focus on sustainability and an eye on managing key environmental factors on their land, they integrated an Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) into their operation in 2005.

"We want to be good stewards of the land," Angela Semeniuk says. "We want to make sure the land is still there for the next generation."

That longevity will be accomplished with an aggressive business plan. In addition to farming their own land, 3,400 acres seeded to cereals, oilseeds and pulses, the couple also custom fertilizes 25,000 to 30,000 acres. They custom seed about 1,000 acres and Angela, a certified management accountant, offers bookkeeping services and does municipal accounting consultation.

EFP provides framework

The EFP process helped them identify several areas of their operation that were already environmentally sound on their fourth generation farm, says Semeniuk. For example, they've been using GPS in their seeding and spraying processes to reduce overlap for several years. In addition, an auto boom shut-off on their sprayer helps reduce chemical overlap. The GPS system on their swather ensures just the right amount of passes each time and helps reduce fuel consumption. Semeniuk says their EFP provided them with a framework for future enhancements.

"A lot of those changes didn't happen overnight," she says. "They've taken awhile to do, but we always had, in the back of our minds, what we needed to do."

After completing their EFP, one of the first improvements the couple made was to switch out all of their sprayer nozzles to low drift nozzles. Next, they turned their attention to fuel storage and replaced their single, gravity-fed diesel storage tank, which held about 1,000 gallons, with three double-walled tanks that hold 1,000 gallons each. Semeniuk noted that, instead of replacing their original diesel storage tank with one larger-sized tank, they chose to store their fuel in the three smaller ones in order to reduce environmental risk in case of a spill. They also purchased a 500 gallon, double-walled storage tank for gasoline and a used oil storage tank.

When they built their heated maintenance shop last year, they kept environmental guidelines in mind. They installed a floor drain that connects to a two-compartment sump and a 2,000 gallon holding tank. The holding tank is regularly pumped out by a truck, which transports the waste to a disposal facility. They chose to install a closed system to minimize the environmental impact of shop waste. They also used energy efficient lighting and installed an energy efficient boiler system in their shop.

A dugout on their home quarter section is protected by a grassy buffer zone and Semeniuk notes that conserving riparian areas and managing water flow on their land are priorities.

The Semeniuks purchased three 1,000 gallon double walled tanks for diesel, a 500 gallon double walled tank for gas as well as a used oil storage tank.
The Semeniuks purchased three 1,000 gallon double walled tanks for diesel, a 500 gallon double walled tank for gas as well as a used oil storage tank.

Build on business

"We treat our farm as a business," Semeniuk explains. She added that Robert, taught by his father, has always had a firm grasp of production efficiencies, while she has created a 10-year capital plan for their farm. "It's not just a farm, it's a business with a lifestyle attached. That's how we run it."

Last year, the couple was nominated for the Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) program in the Alberta/NWT region. That program was developed to showcase excellence in farming and eligible nominees must derive at least two-thirds of their gross revenue from farming. The Semeniuks completed a detailed questionnaire about their operation, went through a process of two interviews and, in March, made a presentation on their operation to OYF. After winning the Alberta/NWT regional competition, they will head to the OYF national event in Charlottetown, PEI at the end of November. At that time, two of the seven regional finalists will be chosen as Canada's Outstanding Young Farmers.

Eye on the future

Over a century ago, it took years of back-breaking physical labour for Robert Semeniuk's ancestors to clear and break their land, just so they could claim title to it. But they could never have dreamed that their pioneer determination and hardship would provide the foundation for the Semeniuk farm as it stands today - an intricately managed, diversified operation utilizing the advantages of modern machinery and cutting-edge technology.

And, as the Semeniuk family continues to develop and diversify their farm, they're keeping a close eye on preserving the land for the next generation; their children, six-year-old Gabrielle and four-year-old Tristan.

"That's our driving force," Semeniuk says, adding their son has already shown a passion for farming, "to take care of the land and make sure that it gives what it can and that we always give back to it."

More information on EFPs in Alberta is available at www.albertaefp.com.

Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.

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