author: Paul Dalby
On a clear day, if you hike to the top of Toronto’s CN Tower, you can see one third of this country’s best agricultural land. But even that unique vantage point would not give you a clear picture of the dramatic changes rumbling through Ontario’s $33 billion a-year farming industry.
THE PEOPLE WHO GROW OUR FOOD are being pushed and prodded into a new era where large, high-tech farms are replacing the old model of a ma-and-pa 100-acre spread. Today the bar is set much higher and the average farm is 728 acres and growing.
In this region, the very face of farming has changed quickly. As the price of corn, wheat and soya bean has doubled and tripled in the past two years, many farmers are getting out of livestock or selling their dairy quota. Grazing land transforms into cash crops.
Hard evidence of the change perches alongside County Road 30, midway between Brighton and Campbellford. A forest of glittering steel grain bin silos backed by a state-of-the-art weigh station complex has become a new landmark for local farmers.
The giant silos at Maizeing Acres have all sprung up in just a few years – a calculated gamble by local cash crop farmers Peter and Donna Archer that has paid off handsomely.
“There were a couple of local processing plants that handled vegetables that were closing their doors. Our concern was that those plants managed output from around 10,000 acres of land,” explains Donna Archer, a former schoolteacher. The Archers anticipated that without the processing plants, the 10,000 acres of land that produced market produce would switch to cash crops – grain, soy bean and corn production. They also realized the local grain elevators were already operating at full capacity without the additional land coming on stream.
At the time the Archers just had two silos to handle the grain from their own 1500 acres of land. They started a rapid expansion plan valued “in the millions of dollars” and have now constructed 16 giant storage bins that can hold up to two million bushels of grains at a time.
Donna Archer says, “Since 2008 when we started to build, the local farming community’s support has been overwhelming.”
This tangible optimism underpins a nation-wide, three-pronged campaign by the agri-food industry to re-brand farming as a progressive industry. New money and new blood will always follow a winning enterprise.
First, the industry is working to improve its self-image; then it hopes to attract more investors to bankroll agricultural expansion; and finally it is enticing more young people to take on careers in the new-look agri-business.
Top agri-food consultant Kim McConnell, a member of the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame, has already seen a change in the transfer of farms from one generation to the next. According to McConnell, “In the old days, it was the oldest son who took over the farm...
Now it’s the smartest child who wants the farm. And we are seeing more females involved in farming, which is wonderful.”
The most visible strategy to get farmers pumping up and talking proud about their industry is a new interactive website, Agriculture More Than Ever : www.agriculturemorethanever.ca.
Fostered by the farmers’ bank, Farm Credit Canada (FCC), and backed by 171 organizations in Canadian agriculture, the website features scores of videos of farmers praising their industry. Farm people – whether it’s farm students, newly-minted young farming couples or seasoned veterans – all have a say. If some of the testimonials impart a hint of religious fervour, that’s not entirely accidental.
Lyndon Carlson, senior vice president of marketing at FCC says: “The website’s an industry cause, not an FCC cause. It’s composed of individuals who love what they do. Their testimonials speak to the passion they hold for their industry.”
Carlson is not embarrassed by the unabashed “feel good” content of the new website, “I believe that too often, when agriculture is talking in the media, they tend to talk about the challenges we face in the industry. The farming industry needs to have a bit more swagger.”
The FCC launched the website a year ago after they saw the results of an Optimism Survey that sent out 7000 questionnaires, not only to the agri-food industry but also to the general public.
The results were twofold: heartwarming and heart-stopping. Asked if their farm or business would be better off in five years’ time, 80 per cent of farmers said ‘yes’. But when the general public was asked to estimate how many farmers were happy, they answered only 12 per cent and described the industry as ‘struggling’.
“There was a total disconnect between the two sides,” Carlson explained. Fixing that disconnect is a matter of real urgency and it’s not just about public relations. The message that Canadian farming is a winner has to resonate beyond the supermarket shopper to the investors on Bay Street.
And Donna Archer believes that fund managers are increasingly looking at cash crops as investments. “We can’t attribute the increase in commodity prices entirely to ethanol. Part of it is the guys in the suits are saying to themselves, ‘Hey, I can make money off this.’”
Farming in Canada is big business but needs more investment money for new expansion and machinery. Canada is already the fifth largest exporter of agri-food and seafood products in the world, racking up more than $44 billion a year in exports, and it wants to do better.
“There are lots of opponents of supply management, lots of opponents of what they call factory farms,” said Stuart Archer, general manager of Archer Poultry which produces four million chicks a year at its Brighton hatchery. “But I am more efficient than my grandfather was 60 years ago.
“We are very fortunate in Canada to have the land base to produce food,” said Archer. “There are lots of people who don’t enjoy the cheap food we have, so the fact that we can feed the world is tremendous. Lots of farmers take pride in this right now.”
A VALUABLE CURRENCY
For the farming industry, it is a case of being in the right place at the right time. Food and farm land are now the most valuable currencies in the world.
That “currency” took a sharp hike in value when for the first time in recent memory, two of the world’s powerhouse economies – China and India – were unable to grow enough food for their burgeoning populations. Both countries have become big food importers and they have the money to pay their bills.
“And Canada is well positioned to be one of only six countries in the world who are net exporters of food,” said
Mark Wales, president of the 36,000-strong Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).
Ontario has become a big winner in the export stakes. The province’s food exports increased to $10.8 billion in 2012, an all-time record and a jump of more than $900 million over the previous year.
“Crop farmers are doing much better financially and that means they spend more on everything from fertilizer to machinery to seed to labour. That’s ultimately the biggest factor in the industry’s growth,” says Professor Alfons Weersink, a specialist in food, agricultural and resource economics at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College.
This new level of investment by farmers has also helped spark a significant reversal in the agricultural job market, which currently has more openings than people to fill them. A report commissioned by the Ontario Agricultural College reveals there is now an average of three job vacancies for every graduating student – and increasingly many are recruited six months before graduation day.
The study says the agri-food industry presently needs 500 new hires at diploma level each year (OAC graduates 400 a year) and up to 330 new hires at the bachelor degree level (OAC produces 100 a year). Add to that another 90 recruits needed for food science (OAC’s output is 30 in food science).
The job openings are not for farm labourers. Reflecting the transition into high-tech farming, the agri-food sector is looking for young recruits with specific qualifications, including “soft skills” (communication, organization, teamwork) and relevant scientific knowledge and technical skills in areas such as crop science, animal science and genetics.
“The job situation is very encouraging for the students and we are seeing many more female students,” said Professor Weersink, “A dozen years ago our students were farm kids, now there are growing numbers that are not from farms or rural areas. They’re coming from the city.”
HEARTS AND MINDS
Industry leaders now realize the solution to winning the hearts and minds of young people is to reach them when they are in high school, before they make their career choices.
“We need to get agriculture into the high school curriculum,” says OFA president Mark Wales. As the incoming chairman of Canadian agriculture’s Human Resources Sector Council, Wales says it will be easier in the future for high school graduates to plan a career in farming with the help of the council’s new job search website: www.agritalent.ca.
“If a kid wants to find out what agriculture courses are offered anywhere in Canada, it’s all there and it’s interactive,” Wales explains. “You can search by commodity type, by location and by length of course.”
FCC’s Lyndon Carlson is convinced that new strategies in the farm industry like this one are paying dividends.
“It used to be that farmers were just hoping that their kids came home for Christmas. Now I know of farmers who are working longer into their retirement years, often because so many are fortunate enough to be working alongside sons and daughters, even grandchildren, and that’s a gift.”
It’s certainly a source of real pride for David Burnham, a fifth generation farmer working 1300 acres, almost half of which lies between Cobourg and Port Hope. Much of his farm’s produce is sold through the family’s Burnham Market alongside Highway 2.
David and his wife Anne have three of their four children working in the farm business with them. Mark helps manage the crop farming with his father; Jennifer runs the horse and stabling operation; and Kate works with her mother in the family’s bustling farm market store.
“When farm incomes weren’t so great, young people took job opportunities in other areas,” David said. “Now that there is more money in the farming community, maybe the kids will come back. But you really have to love the work.”
“And we can see by the investments that are being made in machinery and land that farmers are definitely more optimistic about the future,” said Burnham, whose family has worked this land since the 1830s.
Burnham says the Shop Local trend has provided farm markets like theirs with a steady clientelle. “People do like to see who grows their food; they like to ask questions about what they are buying and be somewhat assured of its quality,” Burnham said.
Indeed the trend towards locally grown food and organic produce will be, according to agri-food experts, the niche markets that offer a real potential for growth alongside the traditional cash crops.
“We’ve had a huge resurgence of interest in local food,” says the OFA’s Mark Wales, who runs a vegetable farm with a large pick-your-own business. “And the fact Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is also the agriculture minister brings an incredible amount of profile to our industry.”
Agriculture in our province certainly doesn’t lack economic muscle. Ontario has the most diverse agri-food industry in this country, producing more than 200 commodities and supporting the nation’s largest food processing industry with over 3000 companies.
A century ago, Watershed country was very much ‘farming country’ but over the last few decades farming has taken a back seat to the auto and manufacturing industries. This year, the agri-food industry reclaimed its title as Ontario’s biggest employer with 200,000 jobs. It feels a bit like Back to The Future.
NEW CASH CROP
Prince Edward County earned its reputation as the Garden County of Canada in the late 1800s, buoyed by its canning industry and cheap water transportation. Nearing its peak in 1941, the County shipped 1,500,000 cases of tomatoes – a remarkable 43 per cent of the total canned tomatoes produced in Canada. The canneries gradually declined after the Second World War with the onset of the frozen food revolution and competition from new markets. Saddled with increased government and labour regulations, many of the canneries quietly shut their doors.
Today the County has a new cash crop: grapes grown in 35 small estate vineyards, almost all of which have been established within the past 12 years.
And even in this notoriously risky business, winery newcomers like Jonas Newman and his wife Vicki Samaras are irrepressibly optimistic about their future. Newman, a former chef, and Samaras gave up their Toronto life in 2005.
“Any regrets? None! We’re planting three more acres of Chardonnay this year,” said Newman at Hinterland Wine Co. in Hillier. “Business-wise, I am really happy by the way we have been received. Are we making piles of money and flying all over the world? Certainly not. But we are still on a growth plan and we are trying to increase our production to 5000 cases of wine. We produced 3200 last year.”
The County’s emerging wine culture is perfectly paired with culinary businesses that complement the region’s long standing relationship with locally grown food. The result is twofold – the rebirth of a strong agricultural economy and a surge in agri-tourism.
AGRICULTURE IS A TOP PRIORITY
To the north and west, Northumberland County with its diversified crops, dairy and livestock farming is a good snapshot of the Ontario agricultural scene, with 97,594 hectares of farmland – at least 40 per cent of which is prime agricultural land. There may be fewer, larger farms today, but more than 98 per cent are still family-owned and operated, and farming continues to be one of the three pillars of the county (together with tourism and manufacturing).
Northumberland has certainly seen its share of agricultural downturns but in 2008, the county took positive action and developed the Agriculture Action Plan to protect and enhance its $95 million farming industry. The plan ushered in successful initiatives like the popular Farm Gate Guide, designed to attract agri-tourism and improve public education about the industry.
The newest edition of the guide, renamed Farm Fresh Destinations, reflects the importance of tourism to a county that expects to draw one million visitors this year.
For the first time ever the guide, redesigned as a road map, will circulate beyond Northumberland’s boundaries to neighbouring counties and Toronto.
“This new guide is purely about farms with 60 farms listed,” said Trissia McAllister, the County’s Agricultural and Creative Economy Coordinator.
McAllister says public education about the farming industry is also a top priority. “We have to help people understand where their food comes from. Farming is one of the major economic drivers of this community.”
NOTHING SUCCEEDS LIKE SUCCESS
The kind of optimism permeating the agri-food industry today as it builds on hard-won prosperity seems to be channelling the wisdom of comedian Milton Berle, who once observed: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”
Certainly Kim McConnell believes in this power of positive thought. He said: “I have never been more optimistic about Canadian agriculture. We are clearly the growth industry of the future.”
OLD HAND l Farming defines his life
At 63, Alfons Casteels can honestly say that he has ridden the roller coaster of farming. His family had been growing tobacco here in eastern Ontario since 1958 but by the early 1980s, Alfons could see the business was, quite literally, going up in smoke.
“So I ended up planting some tomato seeds in my old tobacco seedling greenhouse. I planted a crop in June and I harvested them through the summer and fall. Then I did it again the following two years,” he recalled.
In the third year he had to decide whether to “get into it” or find another line of business. Fortunately for local tomato lovers who cannot wait until the summer field harvest comes in, Casteel’s perfectly-formed Trust variety of hydroponic tomatoes are on-hand for all but a couple of months of the year.
By luck or design, Casteels realizes he has ridden two separate hot Ag trends to success: meeting the demand for locally grown food and embracing the explosion in hothouse production that’s immune to the vagaries of the Ontario climate.
“I built this greenhouse in 1987 so I am just coming up to my 30th year of growing tomatoes,” he says proudly. “The greenhouse produces 350,000 pounds of tomatoes a year and I sell everything within a 50-mile radius of Centreton. The furthest I go is to Port Hope, Belleville or Peterborough and into Prince Edward County.”
Columns of green plants are pollinated in the early stages by swarms of bumblebees that Alfons introduces into the greenhouse. Everything else inside this equatorial hothouse harnesses more conventional technology.
The greenhouse is almost one acre under cover, a tad smaller than a college football field. But Casteels says this makes him “a niche business” in the rapidly growing hothouse industry where many greenhouses are 10 acres in size.
“According to Casteels, the industry is changing quickly and is constantly adjusting. “The trends are: go big or get out. In the long run that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for us, but it gets harder to manoeuvre.”
But Alfons is not singing the blues. For one thing he has two of his three sons working with him in the business on part-time basis – Brian is a naturopath and Tom is a supply teacher.
And he just happens to love his job. “I think working keeps you young, I only feel my aches and pains on Sunday, my day off,” he said with a laugh. “And the fact that I grew up on a farm makes you want to do it. It defines where your life is going.”
NEW FARMERS l New life in an old farm
The Petherick family has been farming at Pethericks Corners in Northumberland County for seven generations. The newest edition – Adam and Amy Petherick, both 28 – bring new vigour to the job even as they follow faithfully in the family tradition.
“After getting married, we moved onto the farm, renovated the barn and the newlyweds’ house all in our first summer,” said Amy, who takes her turn with farm chores as assistant herdsman whilst doubling as a farm writer.
“Adam’s parents lived in this house when they were young and just starting out, then moved up to the big house when their folks retired. I guess eventually we’ll do the same,” she said.
The Pethericks met when they both attended Guelph University and there was little doubt where Adam would take his newly acquired technical skills.
“It was made very clear to me that I was not allowed to return home to the farm until I had an education,” he said. “My parents told me this was my opportunity to make a choice, but I did choose agriculture.”
It was a choice made without regrets: “I have worked off farm but the lifestyle and the freedom that this job offers is second to none in my opinion,” he said.
The daughter of a farming family, Amy had never intended to follow that career path herself. The turning point came when she was a student at East Northumberland Secondary School and took a summer co-op job at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture office in Brighton.
“I wanted to teach science and geography but Margaret Appleby at OMAFRA convinced me to go to Guelph University and take agriculture science,” Amy said. “Once I got to Guelph it was amazing the kind of opportunities that unfolded for me.”
Today she is content to wear several hats for the farming industry; writing three regular farm magazine columns as well as producing technical articles through her agricultural media company Feathered Ink for farmers trying to keep up with new innovations.
At Almerson Farm, a measure of the commitment by the Petherick family, young and old, is the new $200,000 cow barn complete with a robotic calf-feeding machine. “These buildings aren’t cheap, and these animals aren’t going to make us any money for two years so you have to balance that against your investment,” explained Amy,
The Pethericks have a dairy herd of 150 and farm 700 acres. Their new cow barn stands in sharp contrast to the old cow barns, expanded with each new generation and a testament to farming in days past.
“The new barn is more efficient, better for the cows and calves and it’s our commitment to the industry in the future,” Adam said.
CLASSROOM TALENT l It’s a woman’s world
A decade ago Courtney O’Neill might have felt like she part of a visible minority: a woman training for a future in the agriculture industry. Today as she winds up the second year of her Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree at Guelph University’s Ontario College of Agriculture, the tide has turned.
Courtney comes from a farming family north of Napanee. Her father raises Holsteins and her uncle owns the local feed store. She can be counted as part of a growing trend that sees farming children actually following in their parents’ footsteps.
At first Courtney thought she would break with tradition and was accepted into the nursing program at Brock University but discovered in the nick of time that “human blood wasn’t really my thing”.
“The O’Neill name has always had some kind of farming or agricultural background and that’s part of the reason I wanted to get into it. In fact our whole community was built around farming. My dad got me involved in 4H at a very early age…not only the dairy club but the judging club and that has played a major part in my life,” she said
This summer away from her university course, Courtney will be working on the 850-acre research farm in Burford, Ontario for the animal feed specialist Shur-Gain.
“I just wanted more physical work this summer and this gives me a good mix of dairy and poultry, swine and a mix of everything,” Courtney said as she supervised calf feeding.
“That’s why the idea of becoming an animal nutritionist is my ideal,” she said. “My goal is to be able to look back on my life and say I made a difference in some way…whether it’s a person’s life or in an animal’s life.”