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Penny Lane Organic Farms

By the time Stewart Wells was in grade 12, he was helping with all aspects of the family farm. By 2022, he considers himself an “industry veteran” because he has now seeded crops for fifty years running. He and Terry Toews grow organic grains and pulses on Penny Lane Organic Farms outside Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

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Family Farm:

Stewart Wells and Terry Toews.

Farm Location:

Near Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Palliser Triangle.


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

Approach to Farming:

A lifetime of trying to minimize risk which automatically means trying to keep costs down while attempting to bullet-proof the farm against drought.


  • 3,500 acres total: 2,300-2,500 in crops, renting out 1,000-1,200 acres permanent pasture.

  • Sandy-loam, loam and heavy clay (gumbo) soil.

  • Certified organic grain, alfalfa and pulse crops.

By the time Stewart Wells was in grade 12, he was helping with all aspects of the family farm. By 2022, he considers himself an “industry veteran” because he has now seeded crops for fifty years running. He and Terry Toews grow organic grains and pulses on Penny Lane Organic Farms outside Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

The farm was homesteaded by Stewart’s grandparents in 1911. It’s where he has lived his whole life except for four years studying engineering at university (and even then he returned for seeding and harvesting). Terry comes from a small town nearby. She taught high-school English before joining Stewart on the farm. She enjoyed both teaching and farming, but gradually gave up teaching to farm.

“Compared to a lot of people, we’ve been really, really lucky because I was able to inherit a lot of the knowledge, some of the farm machinery and some of the land base,” Stewart says.

Growing up on the farm wasn’t all hard work. Stewart’s parents were very sports-minded. “All I had to do was put on a uniform of any kind—curling, hockey, or softball—and it was a free pass off the farm.” His mother played softball for the Saskatchewan team that took part in a tournament in Chicago in the early 1940s.  Women from all over the US and Canada were being recruited to play in a professional league when WWll shut down Major League Baseball; the tournament was the basis of the movie “A League of Their Own.” 

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Agricultural Politics

Like farming, agricultural politics is in Stewart’s blood. His parents were active in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (precursor to the New Democratic Party), Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (SWP) and the National Farmers Union (NFU). 

In the early 90s, Stewart was elected to become a delegate to SWP, the largest grain handler in Canada at the time. After SWP switched from a farmer-owned co-operative to a public company, he left and, with Terry, joined the NFU.

“I thought it would be good to send in our yearly membership fee and have them do good work on our behalf—it didn’t quite work out that way,” says Stewart, who was NFU’s president for nine years. During his term, Stewart worked hard to protect Canadian agriculture. In particular, he fought to protect the Canada Wheat board, block Roundup Ready (GM) wheat, and protect farmers’ rights to plant farm-saved seed.  In 2010, Stewart was elected to serve on the Board of the Canadian Wheat Board.

“It’s easy for farmers to say ‘Oh, those knuckleheads at XYZ don’t know what they’re doing,’ but that is why it is so important for the farmers to get directly involved,” Stewart says.

He recalls participating in a live debate on BBC TV in London, England, about GM wheat. The experience was “both exciting and nerve-wracking…That GM wheat fight was so successful that we all have kept it out of the fields for 20 years,” he adds.

Why Get Involved?

Join a farmers’ group and, suggests Stewart, you can:

  1. Make new and lasting friends across the country and internationally.
  2. Gain a much better understanding of farmers across the country.
  3. Be able to directly influence agricultural policy at the national and provincial levels.
  4. Be able to directly influence other agricultural organizations.[1] 

Past Use of Pesticides

Stewart’s father, who started farming in the 1920s, “loved chemicals…Back in those years, there was no crop insurance, no safety nets,” says Stewart. “If grasshoppers were bad, you wouldn’t have feed for the horses or cattle; you were going to starve.”

To control grasshoppers, his father “would fill a wagon with sawdust, salt and arsenic and have the horse go around the field. He’d shovel sawdust and arsenic out onto the field.”

For wireworms, before going organic, Stewart and his dad applied mercury-based treatments every three years to kill wireworms.

“We were deliberately putting mercury into the soil!” he says. This was considered a safe agricultural practice at the time. Since the late 1980s when they started reducing sprays, even though they haven’t done anything to control wireworms, they haven’t had any problems with them.

Risk Management

Stewart and Terry manage risk through (1) crop insurance, (2) minimizing expenses, and (3) selling to multiple buyers.

Stewart and Terry use crop insurance but no longer pay into AgriStability[2]. AgriStability used to be, in Stewart’s opinion, a great complement to crop insurance until the program was weakened in 2013. (Federal/provincial negotiations are currently underway to partially restore the program to pre-2013 levels.)

“Keeping our expenses as low as possible has been an advantage,” he says. “Our accountant always marvels about how low our production costs actually are.”

They also minimize risk by dealing with “a few trusted buyers.” They “don’t get too focused on one buyer or always chasing the highest dollar value for a particular crop. We’ve tried not to ship all our grain to one buyer at the same time, or we try to get paid load by load.”

“We’ve been pretty lucky, we’ve had a couple of close calls.” Recently, a company that once bought their wheat went bankrupt. Fortunately, the Canadian Grain Commission stepped in and paid the farmers what they were owed. But, Stewarts adds, “this only happened because the company was licensed and bonded by the grain commission; not all buyers are.”

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Transition to Organic

After Stewart’s parents passed away in the late 80s, Terry and Stewart began to re-evaluate their approach to farming.

“Terry was always more skeptical about using pesticides and fertilizers. But I had grown up in that regime,” says Stewart. “I used every chemical and fertilizer that was available from the 70s until 1991. At the time, they were approved by the government and considered to be safe—although many of those chemicals are banned now. People are using chemicals now that will probably be banned in a few years.”

“Truthfully, I didn’t like killing everything. When you go out with insecticide like grasshopper spray, you’re killing every single thing it touches. And if the birds somehow get to that grasshopper before it dies, you’re killing the birds too. There’s a lot of reasons why none of that stuff should ever be used.”

The late 80s were “pretty lean years financially for farmers, especially non-organic farmers,” Stewart says. They analyzed the numbers and found two options. One was to use a lot more chemicals and fertilizers to increase yields. Option two was to go organic – cut the cost of inputs and get a price premium. They were willing to take this leap because if it failed, they could easily go back to spraying.

They transitioned their land from 1991 to 1995.  “The 1990s were pretty good growing years for us,” recalls Stewart. “With the exception of grasshoppers, we really haven’t had any second thoughts.”

“It’s very hard to watch grasshoppers decimate a field and cause the yield to be cut in half or potentially cut to zero.” Stewart is concerned because, in 2022, the grasshoppers are back for the first time in twenty years, likely because of hot, dry weather. And their numbers are high with about 10-20 grasshoppers/m2 . For the “chemical guys,” Stewart explains, the economic threshold to spray is 2 grasshoppers/m2.

Flexible Crop Rotations

Penny Lane has been using a three- or four-year rotation with at least one cereal and one legume. The 2022 cash crops are fall rye, hard red spring wheat and lentils.

“If I was going to go back and start over again, I’d be very dedicated to the notion of having alfalfa or an alfalfa blend on a third or quarter of the farm each year.”

Currently, they grow alfalfa on 100-200 acres/year.

Much as he likes the concept of incorporating perennial forage and grazing animals into this crop rotation, this isn’t an easy option. The cost of getting water out to the fields for the livestock would be a huge expense, in addition to fencing. A neighbour’s livestock graze the native pasture, but switching between pasture and cropland won’t work on their farm. 

Stewart suggests that when new farmers are choosing an area to farm, they might want to assess the current conditions and consider what the climate might be like in 10 or 20 years.

Penny Lane is in the Palliser Triangle, one of the driest parts of the country,” explains Stewart. “For the last 100 years, farmers out here have been trying to bulletproof themselves against drought and manage the availability of water.”

“There’s a weed for every particular set of growing conditions,” he laughs. When it was too dry for Canada thistle, the Russian thistle took off. They go together — Russian thistle, gophers and grasshoppers – the hotter and drier, the more they like it.”

Canada thistle has recently become problematic throughout his area. “It must be climate-related,” he adds. “We’re in a life-or-death struggle with Canada thistle.”

“The non-organic people also have a lot of trouble with Canada thistle and they’re spraying the heck out of it. But I think it’s better controlled by rotation, like having alfalfa cut and baled at least once a year. Even after cutting once a year, the alfalfa comes back faster and its roots are deeper. It will kill the Canada thistle after three or four years. It provides a whole bunch of other benefits because the roots bring nutrients up from deep in the soil.”

“Everything has its advantages and its disadvantages. Alfalfa is very hard to kill in the organic business because it is such a tough crop and has good root structure. But because the roots are deep, just like yellow clover, you need some serious rainfall in the following couple of years if you’re going to have any decent crops,” he continues.

As he approaches the age of 70, he admits it’s more difficult to experiment with crop rotations. You need to go through a crop rotation a few times to know if it works, he explains. “It’s hard to evaluate crop rotations that are 5-8 years long, because 15 to 24 years go by too quickly, and the question then becomes ‘how long am I going to be able to keep farming?” 

Wild oats and wild mustard have been the worst annual weeds but are “more of a background problem,” according to Stewart.

To control annual weeds, they recently bought a camera-guided cultivator with four-inch sweeps that tills the soil between crop rows (which are nine inches apart). By controlling weeds throughout the season, it can reduce the number of weeds that mature. This cuts down on the weed seedbank and conserves a lot of water.

On the test plots Stewart has established around the farm, he’s noticed that wild oat numbers are way down and the crops look very clean.

“I say there’s a tremendous placebo effect from using this in-row cultivator because you feel like you’re doing something,” he laughs. “This spring, I killed literally billions of wild mustard plants. Whether that results in higher yields, time will tell.”

Stewart’s favourite tool is their 54-foot-wide Noble blade, a wide-blade cultivator, likely built in the 80s. Its 6-foot blades are “in a flying-vee formation” like airplane wings and it takes about 300 horsepower to pull it in heavy gumbo clay.

Stewart says it “does the best job of attacking Canada thistle.” For the last 3 or 4 years, he has used it on more than 2000 acres/year.

Charles Noble designed the cultivator in 1936 and they were manufactured in Nobleford, AB. It cuts plants just below the soil surface but leaves crop residue on the soil to reduce evaporation and prevent erosion.

Choosing Crops

Moisture levels influence the choice of crops, as in so many farming decisions at Penny Lane. Stewart notes that there is a considerable trade-off between planting cover crops and conserving water.

“I guess a person has to think a lot about the rotation and try to settle on the best rotation, but be prepared to get into a different rotation to avoid problems that might be coming five or 10 years down the road,” Stewart suggests.

For cover crops, Stewart and Terry started with yellow sweetclover. It’s a valuable deep-rooted legume but uses a lot of water. They switched to AC Greenfix (chickling vetch) because it could produce even more nitrogen with about 50% less water. Now they use 40-10 field peas, which have better establishment in cool, cloudy spring weather, something that has become more common. Also, pea seed is cheaper and more readily available. They have also used annual Berseem clover and radishes as cover crops.

In terms of cash crops, lentils are the most successful. This came as a surprise to Stewart during transition. They had grown lentils using herbicides but he was skeptical about how well they would work in organic production “because lentils are not very competitive. They don’t grow very tall, don’t shade out any weeds or actively compete with weeds.”

They are one of Penny Lane’s best crops financially, “pretty much every year with the exception of grasshoppers.” Grasshoppers are particularly damaging to lentils because they focus on the flowers and pods. The plants may look healthy but you might not get a crop.

They have switched from large green to small green lentils before settling on CDC Peridot French green (du Puy) lentils. The French green lentils garner a higher price and have agronomic benefits. They store better than the large greens, which can oxidize and change colour during storage, causing their value to drop. In contrast, Stewart says he’s  found that buyers can be happy with three-year-old French lentils. Also, small and French green lentils are less susceptible to root rot compared to large ones.

“With lentils and peas, I worried about getting too many different varieties.”

Stewart recalls cleaning up sloughs one year when they had grown both green and yellow peas on the farm. He looked back and saw a yellow-green mix in the hopper that “looked attractive but would be pretty tough to sell.”

They have dabbled with other crops, such as tame mustard and buckwheat. Stewart says “there’s a bunch of crops I’d like to be growing, but we don’t have the landbase. We’re too small. Because if you start putting in 50 acres here and 150 acres there of something different, you tie up a bunch of different granaries, you have a bunch of different management practices and timing, and probably different buyers.”

Experimenting with new crops also requires cutting back on the tried-and-true crops, such as spring wheat, lentils, peas and oats. Focusing on what works on the farm and in the marketplace is another way Stewart and Terry manage risk and their workload. They do experiment with new crops but only on a small scale until those crops prove their worth.

Studying Pests

Back in the ‘90s, Stewart noticed bare patches in flax. At first, he thought it was operator error – that he didn’t do a good job of seeding. But he dug around and found cutworms.

Stewart couldn’t find an organic solution and conducted cutworm feeding trials in pails in the basement of the house. Following up on information Terry had read in gardening books, Stewart gave cutworms bran, cornmeal and flax seedlings. They preferred the bran and cornmeal, which swell inside their bodies and kill them. More significantly, he discovered the cutworms responded to his crop rotation.

The ideal egg laying conditions for cutworm moths is soft soil with small seedlings in August. Now they ensure that fields in August are either completely bare or, if covered with a crop, the soil is hard and dry. Since then, they haven’t had any trouble with cutworms.

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Biodiversity on the Farm

In addition to cropland, Stewart and Terry have 1200 acres of pasture “that’s never been broken. It’s still the same pasture there that was there 100 years ago” with the exception of crested wheatgrass. The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) recommended planting wheatgrass decades ago to protect the soil from erosion, but unfortunately “it is slowly displacing a bunch of the old so-called ‘Prairie wool,’ a mixture of 50 or 70 different forbs, legumes and annual grasses and perennial grasses,” explains Stewart. Grazing helps to keep the wheatgrass in check and allow native plants to thrive.

The PFRA was established in 1935 to “try to combat the drought and the Dust Bowl and was very instrumental in getting people to plant shelterbelts and plant trees,” explains Stewart. “We’ve got many miles of trees that were planted as a result of PFRA. The federal government established a tree nursery at Indian Head, Saskatchewan, and supplied millions and millions of free trees to farmers.” PFRA was discontinued in 2013.

“We need more trees. Every tree that’s growing here in the Palliser Triangle has been planted by somebody, with the exception of scrub brush in sloughs or potholes. Trees just don’t grow here naturally.”

The shelterbelts and shallow wetlands support wildlife, including whitetail and mule deer, antelope and moose. Stewart says in the last decade, 13-striped gophers and pocket gophers have made their homes in the borders and buffer strips, and badgers have followed.

“The buffers strips are a wildlife refuge,” he concludes.

Looking Back

Looking back after 31 years of farming organically, Stewart is glad he has shown his non-organic neighbouring farmers that organics can work.

“It’s not that they’re going to change their farming practices, because they’re heavily invested in the chemical and fertilizer regimes, especially with the newer, bigger equipment. They’re spending a million dollars for a seed drill or three quarters of a million dollars for a new big sprayer. They’re just not going to switch overnight.”

The current high costs of fuel and machinery “have made farming a privilege, rather than a right.” he says.

The farm’s accountant has stated that Stewart’s and Terry’s operation is as financially competitive as many of the large non-organic farms the accountant works with.

“I think we have proven to even some of the really skeptical neighbours that what we’re doing is more or less sustainable. We’re still here, we’re still improving our farm,” he laughs. “I’m positive that they thought we were completely crazy. And they would still think that now, but they might think we’re a little bit less crazy, because they can see it hasn’t been a complete failure. We’ve been really lucky because the organic business has been good to us.”

Lessons to Share

  1. Before buying land, imagine the climatic constraints in 10-20 years.
  2. Join a farmers’ group.
  3. Keep expenses low.
  4. Sell to multiple buyers or even load by load.
  5. Be prepared to adapt the crop rotation to evolving conditions.


[1] For example, the NFU has a seat on the Board of Directors of the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF). As of 2022, Stewart is WGRF Vice-Chair and in his 8th and final year on the Board. WGRF distributes approximately $14 million per year to researchers working on Western crops and agronomics.

[2] “AgriStability is designed to help farm operations facing large margin declines caused by production loss, increased costs or market conditions.”; SK:


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.