Driving down a grid road in central Saskatchewan, a machine that looks like a giant insect approaches me in a cloud of dust. The cab, hanging 8 feet above the road, is suspended by tires at least 6 feet tall, with wing-like appendages folded along each side. Should I drive around it or under it?
It is harvest season, and the high-clearance sprayer is on its way to desiccate a field. Desiccation may be the most widespread farming practice you’ve never heard of. Farmers desiccate by applying herbicide to their crops; this kills all the plants at the same time, making them uniformly dry and easier to cut. In essence, desiccation speeds up plant aging. Before desiccation, crops would have to dry out naturally at the end of the season. Today, almost all conventional crops are desiccated in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Chances are that most of what you ate today was harvested using a desiccant, but you’d never know.
Mike Shewchuk jumps down from his swather as I pull into his farmyard. He is a young farmer whose blond brush cut and a robust stride would have not been out of place 50 years ago. Along with his dad, uncles, and brother, he farms 15,000 acres an hour outside of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They recently received a century farm award, for having continuously farmed the land since the early 1900s.
He is in the middle of a cut, and asks if I would mind riding with him as we talk. I climb up beside him on a small fold-down seat.
Swathers are giant lawn mowers farmers use to cut crops. The cut plants are left to dry on the ground before combining. It can be tricky knowing when to cut. If you start too early, you’ll get too many green seeds. Depending on the crop, that might lead to early germination (wheat) or self-combustion (canola). But if you wait too long, you may be scraping your seeds off the ground after the snow melts.
I doubt that I’ll be able to tell which fields had been desiccated. But the shriveled, brown peas are in stark relief to the green fields around it.
Swathing is quickly going out of fashion, as most farmers desiccate to ripen their crops. One of the big agro-chemical companies even has a marketing campaign with the hashtag #sellyourswather, encouraging farmers to desiccate and ditch swathing altogether. I asked Mike why he hadn’t sold his swather yet.
He laughs. “We’re not desiccating canola, and canola is paying the bills right now.”
For many farmers, that is changing. Until recently, farmers did not desiccate canola because it “shattered” the seedpods, shedding the seeds in soil. But breeders have been busy: In 2017, five new varieties of shatter-resistant canola were released in Canada. That will make desiccation viable for Canada’s second-most common crop, and accelerate a trend that began around 10 years ago, when desiccation started to become popular.
Not coincidentally, it was also around then that herbicide use spiked. When you sit down to eat dinner today, there will probably be desiccant in your food.
There are thousands of ways to kill a weed. You can starve it, bleach it, mess with its proteins. You can feed it fake hormones. You can force it to make acid so that it disintegrates from within. There are more than 400 licensed weed killers, or herbicides, in Ontario alone. And we love to use them. Canadians used more than 58,000 tons in 2014, compared with only 21,000 tons in 1994. Our landscape, and our crops, have never been so saturated.
Our thirst for herbicides is partly due to GMOs like RoundupReady corn, soy, and canola. These herbicide-tolerant crops came on the market in the late 1990s, and changed the farming landscape by making it possible to control weeds by using herbicides on crops still in the field…