If you’re driving through Niagara’s countryside this time of year, you’re likely to notice a plume of dust trailing behind a combine harvester as it crawls its way through a field of soybeans.
In his seventies, Don Smith still hops into the cab of a John Deere 9500 in the early morning and steers the harvester through rows of soybeans, sometimes well into the night.
“One thing you have to keep a close eye on is the header – you want that material to flow evenly into the machine,” Smith recently said from the cab of his harvester in Wainfleet.
Soybeans grow close to the ground, so the stalks need to be cut right above the dirt.
“There’s sensors on the header, so it basically rides right on the ground,” he explained of the flexible grain head attached to the front of the tractor.
Once worth $700,000, his is an older machine, having passed its twentieth year.
As teeth cut the soybean stalks, a reel turns, bringing the stalks toward an auger spinning everything to a chute where spikes then direct the stalks into a “feeder house.” A large, rotating drum under the cab grinds everything up and knocks the soybeans out of their pods.
“The pods have to be kind of brittle enough so that they open up,” Smith said. “If you have a heavy dew or rain overnight, you can’t start combining because those husks, they won’t release the beans as well.”
Soybeans are overwhelmingly the most prominent field crop in Niagara Region, with Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs data showing the largest concentration in Wainfleet and West Lincoln.
Locally grown soybeans either end up as seed for next year’s crop planting or are used in production for everything from tofu to biodiesel.
In the most recent 2016 Census of Agriculture from Statistics Canada, 406 Niagara farms reported a collective 78,152 acres of soybeans, up from 76,938 acres in 2011.
“Soybeans were the crop that allowed people to get rid of their livestock,” said Jerry Winnicki, a local agronomist with Clark Agri Service.
“The farmer is harvesting 60 bushels right here, which is really, really good,” he said, referring to the field Smith was harvesting.
“Yet up there where those windmills are, they took off a field that only ran 35 … just the way the rain hits,” he said, gesturing off into the distance. “Generally speaking, everybody’s disappointed except for the odd person here.”
Last year, the average yield in the province was 44.1 bushels per acre, according to Stats Canada.
This year, the total yield in Ontario is projected to remain unchanged from a year-over-year average, at 3.7 million tonnes.
To cash in on their crops, farmer have two options: contracts arranged earlier on a previously agreed-upon price or selling at whatever price the market will support come harvest.
Those who sat and waited this year, Winnicki said, “are going to come out like bandits.”
Thanks to China literally buying up boatloads of the world’s supply of soybeans, prices keep increasing.
As of writing, the price per bushel was sitting at $13.81.
Nobody should be complaining about that price, Winnicki said, especially with many farmers in Niagara suffering lower yields from drought conditions.
Inside the cab of Smith’s harvester, two grating beeps interrupt the hypnotic, undulating rhythm of what sounds like a giant paper shredder.
The harvester’s grain bin has filled, and the side pipe is swung out over a grain buggy. Soybeans flow out into the buggy in a blurry torrent before Smith steers the harvester, back into the dusk.
Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Niagara this Week