By Keith Roulston
The headline in one of the farm papers that come to our place caught my eye: “Hensall Co-op tops $1 billion in sales for the first time”. That $1 billion figure tends to catch your attention.
I have a long history of dealing with co-operatives and could never have imagined a figure like that in my relationship with any of those. None, of course, are quite as aggressive as the Hensall Co-op.
I started out, as a farm kid from the Lucknow area, with the Lucknow District Co-op. In those days they had a store on main street of the village before moving south of town. There was a fertilizer plant near the railway station that sprang into action each spring to supply farmers. My uncle, who lived with us, took a job there one spring and injured his back and never farmed again.
Later I moved to Blyth where we started The Rural Voice in 1975 and I dealt regularly with the Belgrave Co-op as one of the best advertisers with the magazine and our newspaper of the time (now long part of history) for several years, developing a relationship with the Co-op’s manager. Later Belgrave was absorbed in the Teeswater Co-op before it grew into the current Huron Bay Co-operative Inc. with branches throughout mid-western Ontario.
But none of these co-ops matched the aggressiveness of the Hensall Co-op when I began dealing with it. It currently has operations of various kinds in 25 different southwestern Ontario sites (33 facilities all-together) plus Manitoba.
“One of our biggest strengths is that we have multiple business divisions,” says President Henry Vander Burgt who says the co-op’s board of directors under-estimated sales for the year that ended last July.
As well as the many divisions that serve farmers there’s the new “Screaming Chef” division of prepared meals now available in two major grocery chains in Ontario.
One of the few disappointments was in the volume of shipments of dry beans and IP soybeans out of its locations. The goal is to ship 70 containers a day from its Hensall, Mitchell, Exeter and Bloom, Manitoba locations but because of a shortage of shipping containers and labour troubles at major ports, this goal wasn’t achieved.
It’s a long, long way from the co-ops I grew up with. Still, compared to some of its commercial competitors, even Hensall seems small.
But then I’m an oldtimer in farming. Recently I was reading an article on the price of farmland. When I was born, soon after my father returned from World War 2, my parents had just bought a farm in Kinloss Twp. for $3,500. Not per acre – for the whole 100-acre farm. Two decades later they sold it to my sister and her husband for double that price.
Now, according to the article, the price of farmland is $16,000 per acre, in Bruce County and $21,000 in Grey County. And that’s for a bare acre, not including the house and buildings.
Of course for farmland to have gained so much in value, prices from crops must also have increased. Now producers can confidently expect to gain 240 bushels of corn off every acre of their land.
“As agronomists we’re seeing some incredible genetic gains happening,” says Deb Campbell, owner of Agronomy Advantage Inc. “Whether it’s faster than what we’ve seen in the previous 10 years, time will tell. But certainly, in the last five years, the genetic gain in corn, soybean and canola has been phenomenal.”
The world has changed in terms of the expectations of both farmers and their co-ops during my 50 years covering the farm scene. We’ll need every bit of these improved yields if we cover up more farmland with urban development. People need to eat!◊