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M, JJ & A Organic Farm

“All the coffee shop talk is about yield, bushels per acre. Nobody ever talks about net dollars per acre,” says MacKay Ross. “I think that is because nobody wants to admit how little money that they’re making per acre. They complain, rightfully so, about the cost of inputs but not about profit.”

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Mackay Ross

Family Farm:

MacKay Ross (45), Jeanne Lawrence (38) and Alex Ross (10).

Farm Location:

Cleardale, in northern Alberta’s Peace Region.


The transition started in 1991; farm fully certified by 1995.

Approach to Farming:

Organic certification gives our farm a recognizable stamp as we pursue Regenerative Agriculture through improving the water, nutrient and energy cycles.


  • Own three quarters and rent two quarters from MacKay’s parents – managing a total of 3200 acres.

  • Grey wooded soil “so much clay it can almost be used for pottery,” Zone 2b, 80 frost-free days.
  • Oats, peas, custom grazing cattle, pasture rental.

“All the coffee shop talk is about yield, bushels per acre. Nobody ever talks about net dollars per acre,” says MacKay Ross. “I think that is because nobody wants to admit how little money that they’re making per acre. They complain, rightfully so, about the cost of inputs but not about profit.”

MacKay grows organic grain, custom grazes cattle and rents out organic pastureland in Cleardale, in northern Alberta’s Peace Region.

Now that MacKay no longer buys herbicides, pesticides or fertilizer, he’s in good financial shape, particularly compared to many non-organic farmers. He and his wife Jeanne have “no debt to speak of” and their assets include nearly 2000 acres of land with healthy soil.

MacKay is confident that his yields will increase as his soil health improves. He says he knows from his uncle and a couple of neighbours who farm organically that it’s possible his yields can be “equivalent to conventional and yet be organically grown.”

Mackay Ross 4

The Learning Journey

MacKay grew up farming. His parents raised purebred Red Angus cattle, mostly selling bulls for breeding stock. He later joined his parents in the business, as well as starting to buy his own land at the age of 21. His parents are now semi-retired; the cattle were sold about six years ago.

MacKay and Jeanne own three quarters[1] and rent two quarters from MacKay’s parents – managing a total of 800 acres. In addition to their farmhouse, Jeanne and MacKay own a house in the nearby town where Jeanne works as a teacher and MacKay works part-time at a farm supply store.

Having a part-time job an hour’s drive from the farm “complicates the farming in the summer,” says MacKay. “But on the other hand, it’s nice to have a little bit of cash flow three days a week all winter long when I’m not farming. Nothing’s perfect. You just work with what you get.”

Instead of raising their own cattle, MacKay custom grazes neighbour’s cattle using management-intensive grazing, involving moving the cattle to fresh pasture every day.

MacKay learned about transitioning to organic from his uncle, who had successfully transitioned to organic production years before. He used organic methods long before he was certified simply because he wanted to avoid the cost of sprays and fertilizer, which he didn’t feel were necessary to grow crops. MacKay was also inspired by Jeff Moyer (Rodale Institute) and other farmers he’s heard speak at conferences.

Jeanne plays a critical role in the farm’s evolution, particularly with the adoption of new methods to help improve soil quality and support soil life.

“Her support and the fact she has a Major in Biology,” says MacKay, “has been vital when I come home from a learning opportunity. She understands more than I do and helps me translate that information into practical action to benefit the soil and therefore the farm.”

“I had the good fortune of sitting on the Clear Hills County Agricultural Service Board[2],” says MacKay.

The board provided a forum for farmers and others to meet monthly to discuss agricultural issues in the community. Also, with financial support from the board, MacKay attended conferences, trade shows and workshops throughout the Prairies, something that might not have been economically feasible on his own given his remote location (a 6-hour drive northwest of Edmonton).

MacKay says this “exposure to what’s going on in agriculture and listening to farmers talk about what they’ve done on their own farms,” triggered an interest in no-till methods, organic agriculture and eventually regenerative organic farming. He bought a John Deere no-till drill in 2007 (which remains his favourite piece of equipment) and started transitioning to organic in 2016.

“Now, I’m trying to figure out how to make no-till organic work in my circumstances,” he says.

He is doing this by using cover crops that winterkill, such as subterranean and crimson clover, and seeding into stubble with the no-till drill.

“The transition from non-organic to organic was easier than making the transition from organic to no-till organic,” he says. Improving soil health is more important to MacKay than being strictly no-till. Incorporating pasture with intensive grazing is a critical part of his soil health plan, even if that means using tillage to bring pastureland back into grain production every few years.

“I would love to progress to the point where I have no tillage. I know there are farmers who are true no-till regenerative organic, but I’m not at that point yet,” he muses.

“There are a million ways to farm.”

Mackay Ross 3

Changes in Soil Health

Soil health has improved since MacKay has gone minimum-till organic, but the changes aren’t as fast as he would like. He isn’t surprised by this – from what he has heard and read, it can take several years to see quantifiable benefits of regenerative organic practices.

However, the land that is used exclusively for pasture has seen “drastic changes in the last five years.” One effect is on grasshoppers.

In terms of pests, MacKay considers himself “reasonably lucky” in that they have no major problems. They have had grasshoppers in the last few years but not much damage.

“It appears that my management to improve the soil has resulted in improved health of plants which has resulted in the grasshoppers not wanting to eat my crops.”

He recalls seeing grasshoppers concentrated in the cow paths devouring the stressed grass while there were only a few grasshoppers in the pasture.

A decade ago, the grasshoppers would compete with cows for forage. MacKay thinks that the improvement in soil health has led to high Brix counts[3] that make plants healthier, more resistant to pest damage and unpalatable to pests. 

Weeds aren’t much of a problem either. MacKay acknowledges that there are weeds in his fields but not enough to have economic consequences.

“Back when I was conventional, I would have sprayed them, absolutely!” he says. “But in hindsight, that probably means that I wasted herbicide over the course of my conventional farming career because half of what I used wasn’t necessary.”

Mackay Ross 1

Crop Rotation: A Focus on Flexibility

The main cash crops are oats and peas, but MacKay is also looking into flax. A few years back, he tried drilling flax into oat residue but wasn’t successful. He will try flax again when he has a good seedbed for it.

The choice of crops is largely influenced by the fact that MacKay and many family members have celiac disease. Even just combining or putting a load of barley or wheat on a truck can make him ill for a day or two, so he doesn’t plant any crop that contains gluten. They are considering certifying the farm as gluten-free.

In midsummer of the first year of the crop rotation, MacKay typically incorporates pasture and seeds cover crops “to cover the land and to build some soil over the remainder of the current year.” The following spring, he will no-till seed a cash crop, often peas.

“In the case of something like peas, where you just end up with just dust off the back of the combine,” MacKay explains, he will underseed the crop to subterranean clover to make up for the lack of biomass.

Subterranean clover doesn’t compete with the peas, he explains. “Yet it’s a solid cover. First thing in the spring, the subterranean clover is laying there covering up the soil.” He then seeds oats.  After the oat harvest, there’s enough stubble to protect the soil over the winter.

When MacKay first heard about roller crimpers in the context of organic no-till, he was intrigued. But he doesn’t have one and now doesn’t know if he needs one. He would only use a roller crimper if he had a lush, tall cover crop. Rather than crimping to terminate the cover crop, he would “use it to lay the crop down in the direction of seeding for the next spring. This would facilitate seeding in the spring since there wouldn’t be issues of the crop tangling up in the equipment and it would drastically decrease the risk of hair-pinning[4].” But before considering buying a roller crimper, he would first try this with the 30-foot land roller he already has.

MacKay is using what some might see as a climatic constraint to his advantage. Being in Zone 2b, most cover crops can’t overwinter. Using cover crops that winterkill, such as subterranean and crimson clover, makes it possible to seed earlier in the spring while still protecting the soil over the winter.  However, having only about 80 frost-free days limits MacKay’s choice of cash crops and cover crops.

He is considering underseeding oats with annual legumes such as crimson clover. Or if he feels it’s time for pasture, he’ll underseed oats with a perennial hay mix. The number of years the land is left in pasture varies partially depending on cash flow. Whereas custom grazing brings in income, ploughing and planting requires cash.

MacKay continues to experiment with different cover crops. His trial with a 14-way cover crop mix “kind of worked” in that the following pea crop was fine. But the growth was minimal, not like “what they show in the pictures… a metre-tall cover crop that is so lush you can’t walk through it.”

But he acknowledges, weather played a role. After planting it, there was virtually no rain for two months.

Adapting to Dryness

In 2021, it only rained twice during the growing season – giving a total of an inch and a half of rain. MacKay says it was the driest season his father can remember, and he’s lived in the area since 1963.

MacKay adjusted his farming practices in a couple ways. Normally he custom grazes from June 1st to mid-October, but in 2021 he was finished grazing by the end of July. By August the grass was dormant, but he didn’t want to “sacrifice the standing organic matter.”

“Because I was careful not to over-graze my pastures, they look amazing now [in 2022],” he says. “And the previous four years of careful use, I think, helped with that drastically. I firmly believe that if [the cattle] had eaten it all off like a tabletop, there wouldn’t be much growing there this year, even though we had substantial rain this spring.”

The dry year set back their soil improvement plans but MacKay has found ways to manage the risks of such conditions.

Mackay Ross 2

Managing Risk

MacKay manages the risks of crop failure by (1) custom grazing, (2) avoiding debt and (3) working off-farm as needed.

“I know that I have to have livestock on my farm every possible day during the grazing period,” he says. This is partially because half of his land is often too wet to be used for crop production. But he also likes the option of grazing crops that may be unprofitable to harvest.

“Livestock are a huge deal for mitigating risk.”

For example, in 2021, after he pulled the cattle off the pasture early due to drought, his grazing clients asked if they could graze the 80 acres he had in oats. At the time, it looked like he would only break even if he sold the oats given the low yield (due to drought) and expenses of combining and shipping. He decided to let the cows graze. He still only broke even but he was saved from the work of harvesting the oats. He had to make the decision in August and, unexpectedly, the price of oats tripled between then and October.

Even though he would have been far better off to combine the oats in terms of cash flow, he doesn’t regret the decision. His neighbours’ 140 head of cattle grazed for an extra four weeks. The clients are grateful for this and now rent pastures from MacKay.  

He adds, “Cows eat grass, legumes and forbs but they only take 10-15% of what they eat off the land. I get to keep some 80% of that organic material on my land.”

“Also, I farm a lot smaller than my land base could afford,” he explains. “This way, when something goes wrong, I don’t owe somebody else money. I don’t look out at my fields and go ‘Well, if I went to the bank, I could farm 280 acres [of cash crops] next year.’ Luckily, I’m in the position where I don’t farm with the bank’s money, I farm with my money. And because it’s my money, I’m looking at only 160 acres next year.”

“I was lucky to be farming with my folks and able to easily buy land when it came up for sale. [Land] used to be cheaper and that helped.” MacKay bought his first quarter 25 years ago when he was just 21 years old.

“I certainly don’t believe in operating debt,” says MacKay, “because I’ve seen way too many people, my family included, hurt by operating debt. My family went broke in the mid-80s when pretty much everybody else did. Not only did we have land mortgage debt and equipment debt but we also had operating debt. Interest rates went double digits up into the 20s in the ‘80s.”

“You just can’t farm that way. You’re killing yourself to pay the bank to try to do it again next year.” Even though he wasn’t even a teenager at the time, the experience left MacKay and his parents “extremely adverse to debt.”

Instead, he prefers to get a winter job or a part-time summer job when needed to recover from either a mistake he made on the farm, extreme weather challenges or a drastic market shift.

To reduce the chance of crop failure, MacKay focuses on what’s important. “Number one is proper seeding. I take some of the risk out of seeding by having a decent piece of equipment [the no-till drill]. But if you don’t get your seeding done in the right ground conditions at the right time of year, nothing else matters,” he says. “The second most important thing is setting the combine properly so that you’re actually getting your crop in the hoppers.”

He feels about 70% of the success of a crop depends on seeding, 20% on the combine and 10% is everything else. 

MacKay doesn’t buy into crop insurance but wonders if he should have that fallback to cover expenses if a crop fails.

“Maybe I’m not a good enough farmer to use crop insurance,” he laughs. Given how the cost is averaged out over years, “if you only have crop failure every 10 years, crop insurance is probably amazing because your annual rate isn’t going to be very high. And yet, when you do get a payout, it’s going to be sufficient to cover absolutely everything. But it just doesn’t appeal to me. It’s another cost every year. Maybe if I was farming 250 acres a year, it would be worth it.”

MacKay sees the market as becoming increasingly volatile.

“The only thing that I have control over is when I make a contract, so I wait until the grain is in the bin and then I know how many bushels I have. Then I look at the market and see where it’s at, and where future contract prices and deliveries are. I just make the best decision that I can at that time and live with it, whether it’s good or bad.” MacKay has seen neighbouring farmers panicking in bad years trying to buy grain from others to fulfill their contracts.

He’s concerned about Canadian agriculture being in “an incredibly terrifying situation financially.” He has neighbours that run 10,000 acres with millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. “Their net income is really, really tight. There is no room for inflation.” 

With interest rates going up, all it takes is a drop of commodity prices to lead to “massive failure rates on farms. It’s happened repeatedly throughout history,” he says.

Off the Concrete, on the Land

When MacKay farms, he enjoys the peace and quiet of the natural landscape. He points out that human beings have only lived in cities for a tiny fraction of the more than 10,000 years humans have lived in agricultural communities.

“I think being off the concrete is really important. There’s a reason why urban areas have parks. People want to have that green space and nature. We need that.”

His land is full of wildlife habitat. He has seen deer, foxes and, occasionally, bears in his yard and often hears coyotes at night.

“One of the benefits of farming is you are out in the countryside,” he continues. “All I have to do is step out my door and be in nature.”

Lessons to Share

  1. You can limit pest problems by improving soil health which leads to healthier plants.
  2. Grazing livestock can add value to make up for poor or failed crops.
  3. Focus on seeding – getting that right is critical. Secondly, focus on getting your combine set right so you can collect all the crop.
  4. Wait until the crop is in the bin before signing a contract.
  5. Avoid operating debt and working more land than you can easily afford to farm.


[1] 1 section=640 acres (roughly 260 ha)



[4] Hair-pinning occurs when residue fills up the seeding slot.


The Prairie Farmer Profiles (Sundog Organic Farm, MJJ & A Organic Farm, Haywire Farms, Mill Creek Organics Ltd, Pristine Prairie Organics, Upland Organics, Our Farm, G & G Farms, Marshall Farms and Penny Lane Organics) were written by Janet Wallace.  The Ontario Farmer Profiles were provided by the Organic Council of Ontario.   The Farmer Profiles were developed as part of the Prairie Organic Development Fund’s Canadian Organic Ingredient Strategy (COIS).  The COIS was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, Government of Canada.  Translation services were provided by the Government of Manitoba.