Farming at the Edge

The Burka family farms 10,000 acres just a few miles south of the northern provincial forests, where their family settled almost a century ago. A short growing season makes efficient equipment a necessity.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

Darrin Burka and his family, in a sense, are working the last farm in their province; that is, if you’re northbound. “The farmland only goes about 10 miles north of here, and then it’s northern provincial forest,” says Burka, sitting in his shop on an unseasonably warm day when a bumper canola harvest is wrapping up.

That shop sits only a mile from land where his grandmother and grandfather first settled, coming to Canada from the Ukraine in 1927 with little more than a promise of homesteading. With the Great Depression raging, Saskatchewan’s government offered homesteaders their own quarter (about 160 acres) to encourage settlement. “They got some horses and a plow and started putting in crops,” says Darrin. They also had 14 children. Darrin’s father, Jim, was among them, and he farmed the same land.

“The same land my grandfather farmed, my father farmed, and now my son (Riley) will be farming it,” says Darrin—though significantly more of it. Darrin says Jim and his brothers—Walter, Bill, Richard and Eddie—made the “giant leaps” that grew the farm to some 10,000 acres. Jim and Richard still farm with Darrin and Riley, along with Darrin’s cousins Brent, Lee, and Lee’s son, Cory.

Darrin Burka… (scroll/swipe right) …farms with his son Riley and other family members.

Darrin doesn’t know all the crops his forebears grew on this land—probably mostly cereals, he says—but Jim and his brothers started growing canola here in the 1970s. “Canola likes our cooler summers here,” he says. “You don’t want the temperature to be much over 25° Celsius (77°F) when it’s flowering.”

There are still some cereal crops in the rotation—oats and wheat, though they make up less than half the acreage on the farm—and lately the family has added fava beans to the mix. Besides the growing demand and the bean’s favorable measurables—high protein, high fiber, good add to the rotation—Darrin says favas are a good fit for the amount of moisture the mid- to north-province region gets.

“We only get about 90 frost-free days up here,” Darrin says of the growing season. Some years, they barely beat the snow getting the crops out. Some years, snow is not the problem.

“You need some wind in the fall to help dry down,” says Darrin. “And if you have a little wind at night, you can combine a little later, too, because it keeps the dew from settling in.” But if the winds are too strong…

“We had one day a few years ago with wind that got up to 90 miles an hour,” he says. That’s going to wreak havoc no matter the crop—tear the heads off of wheat, shatter oats or break off standing canola. But if the canola is already swathed… “Well, some of the windrows got rolled up a quarter mile,” he says. “Just a great big ball. We tried to break it up with a loader tractor and shelled a bunch of it out on the ground, but that was miserable,” he says.

This year, the Burkas are combining a good bit of standing canola, and adding Fendt IDEAL combines to their equipment fleet has helped do that more efficiently. While it would seem cutting straight canola would cut out a step and save time, both methods have pros and cons. “You can cover more acres in a day” with straight-cutting, he says, but “it’s a little riskier than the stuff in the swaths.” Swathed canola is more conducive to dry-down, with less green material, which can include immature canola or even weeds that can cause a bin to heat up down the line.

Still, Darrin says they’re better equipped now to harvest more standing canola, with 45-foot headers on the IDEAL combine and better bin-monitoring technology. Most swathers cut 35 feet, 40 at most, “and I’ve heard from a few people that went to 40-foot windrowers they were just having too much trouble putting that swath through.” The IDEAL, he says, “is such a big combine, you can keep the machine fed, keep it full, at its peak efficiency,” he says. The Burkas will straight-cut two-thirds of the crop this year, as the IDEAL “kind of fast-forwarded it on our farm,” he says.

With weather being “our single biggest challenge,” says Darrin, the timing of getting a crop out is important. Hours can make a difference. Manpower is quickly becoming a challenge as well. As Riley puts it, “with a bigger combine, it seems like you can get more done in less time, which means a lot to a guy.”

There are efficiencies beyond time and manpower. Louis Quasso, the general manager at AgWorld Equipment in nearby Kinistino, Saskatchewan, says he saw how IDEAL combines would “fit in well” with the Burka’s operation. “We replaced three combines with the two IDEAL 10Ts,” he says. “You only need two guys now instead of three, and there’s fuel savings, the maintenance costs of running two combines instead of three… that reduces your costs quite substantially.”

Darrin says when it comes to fuel, they burn “150 liters more in the Fendt combine per day” than in their older machines, which burn around 400 liters a day, “but the header is 50% bigger, so we’re doing 50% more. This is only our second year running them, but the fuel savings are fairly significant.”

Meanwhile, “the cleanliness of the sample is really good on this combine, and when you get them dialed in, the losses are really low as well,” Darrin says.

“The grain sample is actually crazy,” Riley agrees, with a laugh. “And they don’t throw out much.” Darrin says losses are less than a quarter bushel an acre.

A Fendt 1050 tractor pulls the grain cart… (scroll/swipe right) …during harvest of standing canola.

The Burkas run a Fendt 1050 as their grain cart tractor, and “I believe it to be one of the best tractors for running a grain cart,” says Darrin. “It has the CVT transmission, so it’s basically like driving your pickup truck. You put it in forward gear, and you step on the foot pedal, and you’re flying across the field.”

Riley says sitting in the tractor or combine cab “doesn’t feel like working… it’s exciting to me.” And he’s happy to be on the same land as the generations before him. Darrin points out that the farm is only about 9 years away from reaching Century Farm status, a mark of distinction in an era when, as Darrin further notes, just being a family farm of any size is unique.

Left up to Riley and the next generation of Burkas, achieving that status seems like a sure thing. “It’s awesome to continue this,” says Riley. “It’s a pretty cool feeling knowing they broke the land, and we’re still farming the original land they settled in.

“It’s pretty cool, if you ask me.”