By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Looking for inspiration on what approach to take on your farm? Judging from a panel speaking on the future of agriculture, you can export to the world, sell at the farmgate and/or be a mixed farm on a large scale to be profitable, happy in your business and promote Ontario foods.
According to the panelists, farming is not a “Go big or go home” approach. It's a “Go Big” or “Go home” or “Go big AND go home” approach. All three visions were explored during the Perspective on the Future of Farming virtual presentation in November, which was organized by the Huron County Water Protection Steering Committee to inspire future farmers by what is happening right in their backyard.
Lisa Thompson, the Ministry of Agriculture, was listening in and said the future of agriculture and primary production is based on sustainability. “Ontario already leads the way whether we are embracing the 4Rs (right source, right rate, right time, and right place) in how we manage crop inputs to how we manage cover crops and how we do everything we can to make sure water is pristine before it hits Lake Huron. It is stunning what farmers can do when leading by example and generally being good stewards.” Moreover, sustainable practices open up new markets, added Thompson.
Martin VanderLoo, Huron Commodities
International business faces huge logistical issues in the future, believes Martin VanderLoo of Huron Commodities whose presentation was largely on the struggles involved in exporting. At the same time, he believes investing in the Canadian economy, supporting and encouraging entrepreneurs and cutting regulatory red tape is the way to seize opportunities and foster growth.
“Our financial industry does not want to take a chance on your entrepreneurs with great ideas. What often happens is the Americans step in to finance it and bring it back to the United States,” said VanderLoo. “We need to insist that our financial industry offers credit and investment to these new opportunities.”
He sees new opportunities in the export market which Huron Commodities depends on to sell premium seed and crop varieties by partnering growers with buyers and managing the transportation and logistics process. Huron Commodities is a successful, established business but shipping issues have been a real struggle.
For instance, the majority of beans and grains are shipped overseas in sea containers. The crop’s journey involves trucks and railways to make it to Vancouver for loading on ships. The problem is a lack of sea containers because of freight costs. Freight for those containers used to cost about $3,500 US. Now it costs $25,000 to ship those same containers from China to North America and Europe. Normally, North American exporters fill those containers with exports and ship them back to China. However, there is an extreme shortage of these containers and because moving them from China to North America is an “extreme revenue generator”, many containers now get moved back to China empty so they can be quickly reloaded to take advantage of the profitable shipping rates.
“We are short of containers and that has created a bottleneck,” explained VanderLoo.
Add climate change issues such as the mudslides and flooding ruining roads in British Columbia, and shipping has turned into a logistical nightmare.
Climate change is a huge concern for the future of farming. “Our government seems to think that implementing a carbon tax is the solution to this problem,” said VanderLoo. “Yet farmers cannot claim carbon credits. This legitimately needs to be done as farmers are sequestering carbon in their woodlots and pastures and this needs to be addressed by Ottawa.”
Inflation is rising and predictions suggest interest rates will be soon, which will result in wage increases across all sectors. Labour shortages will also continue, predicts VanderLoo.
Part of the solution is growing goods at home and bringing manufacturing plants back to Ontario. He wants to see less reliance on China and more manufacturing and processing based in Canada to protect our food security and create jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for Canadians.
Teresa Van Raay
The Whole Pig Company
Growth was the key point of Teresa Van Raay’s presentation about the successes of The Whole Pig Company which also markets corn, wheat, soybeans and garlic.
This third generation farm works hard to maintain healthy family relationships with two sons and one daughter involved in the operation. A new pig barn will be in operation in 2022 and they also built a “Shause” -- a house in a shed -- to provide housing for one of the sons.
“We have been in the process of succession planning for more than five years. It’s not easy. Land prices were $1,500 an acre when we started farming and now they are over $25,000. Do the math.” She admits they do ponder the idea of selling and living comfortably but farming is about family and the business continues to embrace the next generation.
The new generation will need to find new markets for former waste products, such as the scapes that are cut off garlic plants. “We have to snip them off before harvest to ensure bulb growth but these scapes are full of nutritional value and we need to find new markets for them,” explained Van Raay.
Like VanderLoo, Van Raay says labour is a huge issue. Things have to change in rural areas to attract workers. “We need more affordable housing, high-speed internet, community activities, sports, schools, health care, gyms and good roads,” she said. The Whole Pig relies on temporary foreign workers to help harvest garlic.
Farmers need to embrace change by looking back and seeing how much it has already changed. “Our manure used to be spread with a gun, then a splash barn, and now we have manure injection which has the benefit of cutting down on odour for our neighbours and also makes sure nutrients are available to the crop instead of being lost to the air.”
She believes no-till cropping and the use of cover crops are great practices to prevent soil from blowing into the neighbour's field. The addition of precision agriculture ensures efficient and cost-effective cropping, Van Raay added.
Change is also about embracing technology and their new hog barn is largely computerized with a warning system to indicate if anything is wrong with the feeding system. “We’ve had times in the past where a pipe broke and the feed room was filled with feed. Technology can help prevent that,” says VanRaay.
Her last prediction on the future of agriculture was that farmers need to, and will, take care of their mental health. “It’s okay to take a break,” she concluded.
Trick’s Creek Farms
Of the three panelists, Trick saw the future of farming as less of a growth and profit-driven business and more of a means to find balance between profitability and protecting the environment.
The Tricks sell eggs, beef, firewood and lumber from a 120-acre farm in Huron County. The farmland is sandy and gravelly so crops struggle during hot, dry summers, which is why beef farming is an ideal choice for a farmer who “tries to fit the operation to the land rather than trying to fit the land to the operation.”
He makes it clear that he has an off-farm business and his wife is a teacher, which brings additional income to the family and allows a mixed-farm operation to succeed. A grist mill and sawmill on the property indicate that historically agriculture was always a part of, but not the focus, of the operation.
This is not a detriment to Trick’s way of thinking as when asked what he enjoys most about farming, “variety” is his answer. He sees the way he farms as being a way of the future for small-scale farmers willing to develop a loyal customer base for products raised on the farm. As such, Trick’s Creek Farms provides many services such as custom lumber orders, broilers raised on pasture, small acreages of edible beans or corn, eggs and honey. One of two properties on the farm is powered by a generator that runs by water running under the mill. He loves the farm and the way he farms and had these points to share about how he makes it work:
• “Broilers are fed organic feed and the pens are moved daily. This way the chickens have new stimulation every day and do not sit in yesterday’s manure. The feed input from the pasture is minimal but I definitely see them pick at insects and chew grass.
• I have a few dozen laying hens with a nice set up where people can go to the building where the fridge is, and leave a payment or e-transfer a payment. A lot of people really like the eggs from free-range hens.
• I do a bit of logging. If I can convince the older set (Trick’s parents who also live on the farm) then we can sell just shy of a tractor load every year and that is a sustainable level.
• I do 100- 200 face cords for firewood which is delivered to customers. I also custom saw wood with no intention of being a high-volume output operation. It's a unique service that is only economical in certain situations and it is a wonderful exercise.
• I grew a seven acre patch of open pollinated corn seed which was planted June 1 after a spring graze. It yielded a little more than 100 bushels per acre and I'm sure everyone else who grows corn is shaking their head and pitying me but that was grown with zero chemicals, no fertilizer (was formerly pastured) and free seed. It’s also certified organic so it has more value.
• There has not been a spring when we did not plant trees. We have probably planted 15 acres of what was considered a field back into trees. The main reason to reforest is for windbreaks and to expand the riparian areas around the creeks and pond. Also, some of the land that was stripped for cropping should have never been...it just blew sand and it was quite a struggle to get trees established in some of those areas again.
• We have not used any agricultural chemicals, petroleum-based nitrogen or pesticides in the last 12 years. We have little or no monocropping and very little tillage. Much of the land is in perennial pasture and hay.
• Some of my beans go to Cullins Foods which is a business that contracts Ontario growers and distributes beans to grocery stores. They have production, cleaning, packaging and consumption all within the province.
• The market for grass fed cattle is quite strong. I store the meat in freezers and it goes directly to the customer cooking it. Today’s technology helps me connect with customers and I like it when people stop by the farm. I leave it in the freezer and they can pick it up when it suits.”
As to the future, Trick said once high-speed internet came to rural Ontario, it created a stampede of urban dwellers to the area. He is not surprised. “We are in an incredible area,” he says. The increased population will offer more opportunities for farm profitability as entrepreneurs learn to market high-value and value-added products to health-conscious clientele.
Improved cattle and pasture grass genetics will allow farmers to offer more pounds of grass fed beef and chicken to the customer without using more resources.
Farm legitimacy will become essential to customers who are intentional about what they eat. Trust-building needs to be a part of the farm business model, concludes Trick. ◊