To be a farmer means getting your hands dirty, working hard and living with the earth, but it also involves a complex relationship with the land, the weather and what comes tomorrow.
Farmers are resilient people, known for their quiet strength. The longer they farm, the more likely it is there’s nothing they haven’t seen.
Whether it’s flash floods that erode the soil, early frosts that sabotage harvest yields, pests that threaten their plants or livestock, or new science and technologies that look promising, if only you could afford the investment.
And while many of us work to a certain daily schedule under artificial indoor light, a farmer’s work is driven by when the jobs need to get done, and often that’s dawn to dusk. Rarely are two years the same, so there’s a certain amount of faith required to work with the weather you’ve been dealt, to learn new ways of doing things and to rely on your instincts.
We’re lucky there are people that are up for the challenge. Some grew up with farming and chose to stay at it, looking to pass on the farm to their kids, and others are new to the ups and downs of the business, escaping nine to five for a lifestyle that offers an incredible kinship with nature and a connection to the cycle of life.
No matter the length of service, farming at its roots is a continuing tradition of care for water, natural resources and the land. In our corner of Ontario, we have access to nutritious and high-quality foods grown right nearby. Is there anything that says summer better than a fresh strawberry, not too tart, not too sweet?
Well, there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes of those fields and fences that are so plentiful along our country roads. This is true farming territory.
Northumberland County, for example, has over 30 per cent of its land protected for agriculture, and benefits from the water resources, and plant and animal habitat of the Oak Ridges Moraine that run through it. It also has some of the best apples around.
Historically, Prince Edward County was known for its dairy farming and the first canning operations in Canada. Today it’s an established agritourism industry with magnificent vineyards and specialty farm experiences. And agriculture has been a way of life in Quinte, too, since the days of the region’s settlement by Mohawks and United Empire Loyalists.
When we think big-picture about the global challenges of climate change, access to fresh water and feeding the population, farmers have a significant role to play. The world’s population is expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050. And Statistics Canada reports that Ontario is growing at the fastest pace in over a generation and much faster than the rest of Canada. So get ready! How do we guarantee our food security a generation from now?
We need to make sure these farmers keep on keeping on. We’d like to introduce you to six of our local farmers with different operations to share and celebrate a bit of their story. Why they do it, how they make it all work – and what gets them up with the sun (or earlier) to take on another day.
RESI WALT | WALT DAIRY FARM IN CONSECON, PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY
No question, Resi Walt is a trailblazer when it comes to next-gen farmers. The Consecon native has shown off her prize cattle at 4H dairy exhibitions. She’s helped start a grassroots program for farmers to access mental health support to cope with the stress of the job. She has also spearheaded an effort to bring 9-1-1 emergency services to rural communities.
If you’re in the middle of a gigantic field and your tractor catches fire or you have a heart attack, now you can get the help you need.
As a local member services representative for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), she’s well acquainted with the farming community, labour shortages, and rising costs, and has become a strong voice for protecting farmland.
And at age 29, she’s just getting started.
“Farmland in Ontario is a limited resource and there’s this weird inflation of land values,” Walt says. “A farmer should be able to afford the land, but because someone who wants to move here from the city is your competitor, arable land is becoming unaffordable. That’s scary.” Growth becomes difficult, she says, because if you want to milk more cows, you need to have more land to feed them.
Where did all this passion and drive come from? It’s in her blood, she says. She grew up on her family’s dairy farm on Consecon Lake – learning by doing, raising and milking cows, and growing crops. Most successful dairy farms like hers are almost self-sufficient, buying only supple ments for the cows’ diets, renting some baling equipment and paying vet bills.
Her dad, Bruce Walt, and her brother, Graham, are the full-time managers of the operation that has evolved since her grandfather John Walt started the farm in the 1950s. The Walts now own 500 acres, rent another 500 and milk 80 cows in a herd of 200, which is considered the average size for the industry.
They grow corn, mostly to feed the cows, along with oats, barley, wheat and soybeans that are sold, and they use the wheat straw and leftover soybean stalks for animal bedding. They have a traditional tie stall barn where the cows are tethered to their stalls for milking twice a day, early morning and evening. The cows are out in the pasture during their rest period when they’re not lactating.
The trend in dairy is robotic milking, in what’s called a free stall barn where the cows go to the automated milker, freeing up time for the farmer to focus on other tasks and increasing overall productivity.
“When you can automate things, it’s just a huge improvement,” Walt explains of their plan to bring in the new milking system in the next five years or so. They’re also looking at building a facility to process and sell the milk onsite.
Interesting to know, she never intended to follow in her dad’s boot steps and farm for a living.
“I didn’t think it was a possibility. I just wasn’t mapping my life out that way,” she says of pursuing a BA in communications at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.
The turning point was the OFA job she landed after graduation that brought her home to the farm. She has a house down the road from the property. “It was just such a natural fit that I was also able to help on the farm, and that turned into working on the farm and being a paid part of it.”
She’s there in the mornings and then heads to her office job in the afternoons, which exemplifies a common trend in farming, where operators also have off-farm jobs to supplement income and keep the business viable. And Walt is committed to growing her role, and the farm, in the years ahead.
“The reward for me is definitely a connection to the land and the relationship with the animals. Being around animals constantly is hugely grounding.”
VICKI EMLAW | VICKI’S VEGGIES FARM MARKET IN BLACK CREEK, PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY
No stranger to the ups and downs of farming, Vicki Emlaw knows the universe has her back.
“My method is to send my problems out to the universe and wait for my answer. It seems to work out for me when I choose not to worry or let it set me back or keep me down,” says Emlaw, who started Vicki’s Veggies in Black Creek in 2001, just a five-minute drive from where she grew up on the family dairy farm.
Her roadside market stand, with its bounty of ecologically grown exotic vegetables is impressive, but it’s her fierce enthusiasm and outlook that will blow you away. (Her glasses aren’t rose-coloured, if that’s what you’re thinking, but you have to love the fun turquoise frames.)
For a small, one-woman show, farming can be as much about your friends and neighbours pitching in as it is about the quality of your soil, seeds and meticulous planting schedules and your own instincts. She’s DIY and proud of it. She cultivates two acres, but starts all her seedlings in the large greenhouse on the property with a real reverence for preserving tradition.
Vicki is not afraid to ask for help from neighbours and friends. Over the winter, she had a burst water pipe and called on a friend who was handy with plumbing. He gave her a list of parts to pick up from the hardware store and then made the necessary repair.
“I rely on my intuition and on the people around me. They help me to deal with any problems that come up, and now I know how to do plumbing and will know much more for next time,” she says.
Vicki’s success isn’t beginner’s luck either. She’s an eighth-generation County farmer who’s become pretty much a local icon for healthy living and her more than 150 varieties of incredible heirloom tomatoes with names like Café Brûlé, Ozark Sunrise and Foxy Brown.
“When the settlers came to North America, the women used to sew seeds in the hems of their dresses. They had no idea where the hell they were coming to. Canada was the frontier, so they had to cut down trees and then try to grow some food so they could survive here.” Some of her seeds are 100 years old or more, from places like Italy, Germany, Poland and Holland.
Emlaw belongs to Seeds of Diversity, a network of mostly home gardeners who save their own seeds and trade them back and forth so the varieties will live on. Her popular seed sale is also a way to share the love and makes up about a third of her business.
Being a self-sufficient farmer is also a priority. She makes much of her own compost and uses leaf mould to suppress the weeds in her garlic bed.
“I do try to save all of my own tomato seeds and some other seeds as well. I buy soil, because soil for seeds has to be a very, very special mixture so that they grow well,” she explains.
Emlaw also brings mindfulness to her chores, with a unique approach to growing called biodynamics. She plants by the phases of the moon, taking into account the positions of planets and stars to tap into certain cosmic, intangible energies.
No, she’s not an astronomer or astrologer, but she does follow a calendar that notes celestial events.
And it all comes straight from the heart: “I really love farming. I love the miracle of what a seed does. I love being outdoors and in my bare feet, the feeling of belonging somewhere outside of myself. The garden and soil and space and land at Morrison Point Road has called me there for 22 years. It loves my energy and I love its energy. Beautiful things have happened there and It has helped me to create lots of joy for myself and other people.”
Vicki also keeps her calm with regular yoga practice and has a yoga teaching certificate from an ashram in the Bahamas. You can visit the farm for special workshops with morning yoga, planting techniques, and of course, a glass of great local wine!
NANCY SELF | TAMARACK FARMS IN ROSENEATH, NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTY
Some people don’t do anything halfway. They think big, take risks and make good things happen.
Nancy Self is definitely that kind of person. She and her husband Richard, long-time Vancouverites, decided to move to the property between Warkworth and Roseneath they had bought as an investment, build a house and then start a farm from scratch.
They started with a blank slate using traditional, low-impact farming practices to rehabilitate the land that had sat fallow for more than 50 years.
So they did. And while they weren’t farmers at the time (back in 2013), they now have a reputation as leaders in regenerative, good-for-the-planet farming that renews the soil and the natural habitat. They minimize fuel use, and have “the smallest possible tractor doing the biggest possible job” for hay baling and cutting.
They’ve even tackled the challenge of food waste by making award-winning preserves. You’ve got to try their marmalade.
Tamarack Farms is a pilot farm, among 45 around the globe, developing certification criteria for regenerative farming.
Growing the business has never been about passing on the farm to their children, who love visiting and are quick to pitch in. (They have five who were all “launched” before the couple moved to Roseneath.) Their passion is really about impacting the food world.
In fact, they supply the best ingredients to inspire top chefs in Prince Edward County and Toronto, including Food Network star Lynn Crawford, Jamie Kennedy in Hillier, and Anthony Walsh, corporate executive chef for the renowned Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants. (The Father’s Day cook-at-home gift boxes with Tamarack’s Berkshire heritage pork chops sold out in early May!)
“Chefs are the thought-leaders in food,” Self says. “If we can have our brand associated with those chefs and if they honestly use it – because a chef’s not going to use something unless they think it has extraordinary flavour and reasonable value – we can start to evolve the new conversation about food.”
Her conversation is one worth having. Self knows a lot about brands. She has worked in consumer food products, including time alongside Dave Nichol and his President’s Choice lines in the 1970s that put Loblaws on the map as an industry leader.
“I think your journey sort of goes around and comes around,” she says of her full-circle career path. “What really struck home was the vigilant protection of the brand.”
She’s building the Tamarack Farm brand with care and intention, working in harmony with nature and taking cues from the seasons.
Their expansive 390 acres include gardens for more exclusive heirloom varieties of herbs and vegetables, like the Crapaudine beet, Rose de Roscoff onions and the Kyoto carrot. There are 35 beehives on the property pollinating the gardens. There’s plenty of mixed forest, pastures for the free-roaming sheep and heirloom non-GMO pigs, and a seven-acre protected wetland.
“Things taste better when they’re grown outside, so we don’t want to put up big greenhouses and grow things inside,” she explains. “If I say our farm is about growing the most flavourful ingredients for some of the best chefs, then it’s not about yield. It’s not about fast. It’s actually, more often than not, about slow.”
The goal of Tamarack Farms is to make a blueprint for others to follow and expedite the food revolution Self and her husband have championed.
“Can you create a business model that is financially viable, where someone is farming in a way that I want to eat? That’s the real puzzle here.
That’s what the big picture is, and what we’d like to solve for. We want the model to be repeatable so that others could farm in this way.”
IAN SCULTHORPE | SOUTH 50 FARMS BEEF FARM IN PORT HOPE, NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTY
In business, things can get dirty. For Ian Sculthorpe of the beef cattle South 50 Farms in Port Hope, that is the way he likes it.
“This is just a messy business. There’s a lot of dirt,” he says of the property on Lakeshore Road that’s been in the family since the 1880s. He and his wife Marlena are now raising their three sons there.
“I think that’s the same for most farmers. They want to be outside and get their hands dirty.”
The operation today, with 800 acres spread over a mix of hills, streams and pasture, looks a little different than it used to. And it started with experience and new ideas that got seeded with Sculthorpe studying agriculture at the University of Guelph and then working on farms in New Zealand, where Angus cattle roam extensive pasture lands.
He returned home to the farm, charged up by the decision to make changes to be more competitive in beef cattle farming. That meant specialization in the market with a niche product: grass-fed beef. He also had to work to rehabilitate the land from conventional crop farming to support the new direction.
“My real reason for doing grass-fed, finished beef was to do something a little different that could separate me from mainstream agriculture,” Sculthorpe says of the decision over a decade earlier.
Research has shown that cattle raised on forages are more robust and the meat produced is healthier. When compared to conventional cattle farming, grass-fed beef is higher in good-for-you fatty acids and cancer-fighting properties.
The approach at South 50 is to emulate the natural environment of grazing herds. This involves intensive, daily rotational grazing over 400 acres of pastureland and maintenance of a closed herd that is born and raised here.
The farm also supports biodiversity with corn and soybean crops, grains, maple syrup, honey and hay – all of which are produced without herbicides or pesticides. He also has some heritage pigs, no doubt as flavourful and delicious as the beef.
Aside from a brief time when he aspired to play baseball in the major leagues, Sculthorpe was always drawn to animals and farming the land.
“We had a horse,” he recalls. “Then I had a chicken – the gateway animal is always the chicken. I got my first cow when I was in Grade 7 or 8, and it snowballed from there.”
With foraging cattle, the farm is almost self-sufficient, other than salt and mineral supplements. South 50 produces its own hay for winter feed and occasionally buys other farmers’ hay. “Sometimes you can get lucky and find some hay that’s cheaper than what you can make it for,” he says.
Keeping the books in the black is a constant challenge. Still, he acknowledges that farming has changed for the better with technology and information available online. Just like almost everybody else, he searches Google to figure things out, including sourcing a watering system that could stand up to thirsty cattle.
“We brought in a load of mining tires from out west. They’re indestructible. We’ve had issues with water troughs always breaking and it was just a nightmare. We researched these tires and then we brought the load in, and it’s made our life heavenly.”
One of his biggest challenges is finding abattoirs. Strict government regulations have driven many operators out of the business, and the ones still running are recovering from the pandemic and dealing with year-long waitlists.
“There’s always something to think about with agriculture. You always have to adapt to new challenges and make things work. Knowing that we’re growing healthy food for people and my family, that’s the big thing.”
Business, money-making, finding a niche, it can all be a bit messy at times. But Sculthorpe would never trade his livelihood, he says, not even for the major leagues.
FRED MCCAW | FAMILY CROP FARM IN FRANKFORD, QUINTE WEST
For Fred McCaw, a third-generation Frankford crop farmer, there is one piece of equipment that he could make use of more than any other – and it’s not a shiny new GPS-guided, self-driving tractor or a wireless sensor to monitor soil moisture.
“If I had a crystal ball, life would be way easier,” he says with a laugh. No doubt, what you don’t see coming can be a serious curveball, and a sense of humour comes in handy.
After 20 years toiling on the family farm of 800 acres, and another 500 acres that he rents, McCaw knows that even the best-laid plans can be turned upside down by unforeseen circumstances and the vagaries of weather.
“Mother Nature trumps all,” he says, summing it up. The farm is an average size with traditional methods and machinery. “Every year’s different, everything has a cycle.”
Some years are dry, some years are wet and some years are pretty good. There are so many elements that can affect a farmer’s yield and profit. Fertilizer prices spike, a piece of equipment needs a major repair and there is always another bill or two that needs to be paid.
Still, McCaw is in it for the long haul. He knows the business well, and appreciates the freedom and independence he has earned over the years of owning and working the farm.
“If I need to do something one day, I can go and do it. I like the flexibility of doing my own thing.”
There was a time when McCaw would hire a combine operator to help with the harvest, but he was never quite content with this arrangement or the outcomes. He prefers to do the work himself, although one of his three kids might play a larger role someday.
His wife is a nurse and his dad, who ran the farm as a dairy operation when McCaw was growing up, became his right-hand man during the busier periods of the year or over the holidays.
Because it’s a job where the work never really stops, from planning to planting to harvest. “You’re always thinking about what can be done next.”
McCaw is also meticulous about making as much profit as he can from each bushel he produces. Although he farms corn, wheat and soybeans, he designates about 600 acres to the soybeans.
The reasons are simple. Soybeans grow well with few inputs of water, fertilizer and pesticides. They will even grow and perform well in soil that is marginal. The other advantage of soybeans is the growing demand. It’s reportedly the third largest field crop in Canada in terms of cash receipts. There’s also increased production and demand for commodity soybeans for processing soy protein, vegetable oil and industrial products from plastics to auto parts.
The key to crop farming comes down to understanding your land and realizing that some crops just won’t pay off in marginal soil conditions and will require too much intervention to be profitable, he explains. “If you can make every bushel make a profit then at least you’re going to be on the good side of it. You’re not going to lose.”
Despite his meticulous nature and the attention he directs to the profitability of what he does, McCaw says you just have to roll with what comes next.
“You can figure out how your day’s going to be the night before, but you can break something in the morning and wreck your whole day. The unforeseen, it could be anything, you could blow a tire, you could just wreck a part. Any little thing, every day’s different.”
McCaw has developed an interesting foresight for these kinds of problems, and a lot of it comes from his deep experience. He often can identify and solve an issue before it gets too big. “You’re shaking your head thinking that the rattle you hear must be something, this isn’t right.”
With his natural farmer’s instinct, maybe he doesn’t need that crystal ball in the barn after all.
LIZ JOHNSTON | WAUPOOS ISLAND SHEEP, WAUPOOS AND MILFORD, PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY
It’s quite the spectacle to see about 2,000 sheep parading along the roads of Prince Edward County as they move from pasture to pasture with trusted border collies shepherding them on to new grazing areas.
County natives Liz Johnston and her husband Matt Fleguel operate one of Ontario’s largest pasture-based sheep farms, with about 500 acres on Waupoos Island and 200 acres in their farm home base in Milford.
“Everyone says they love to see the sheep,” Johnston says. “Most of the time they behave. Sometimes they end up on a neighbour’s front lawn for a few moments, but we clear them off.”
As much as she enjoys the local appreciation of the sheep, she’s deeply committed to the beneficial impact they can have on the land. Her university degree in biology gives her a unique perspective on how soil can regenerate. As the sheep graze, they remove thatch and old organic material and stimulate new growth. This natural form of shepherding also boosts the wellbeing and development of the flock.
“It’s a very applied version of what I was studying. It’s understanding the ecosystems we try to maintain and work with, as well as the animal biology and genetics,” she explains.
While Johnston didn’t set out to be a farmer, she’s embraced the lifestyle full-on with the knowledge that what they do right now will set a course for future generations. So it’s not about passing on the farm to their two children, which may or may not happen, she says: “The legacy aspect of it is the feeling that we are going to have long-term impact on the soil.”
Their farming techniques, for the most part, are not new but a return to methods where animals and crops commingle to benefit each other and the land. Fleguel’s mom comes from three generations of sheep farmers in New Zealand, and she and her husband started the farm with a much smaller flock in the 1980s, caring for the sheep in the traditional free-range style.
Even today, sheep farming is accessible for newcomers to the industry, Johnston says. It doesn’t need a lot of inputs like a million-dollar barn or a lot of equipment. You can have a good business with a tractor, haying equipment and electric fence. Waupoos Sheep is based on the economics of scale as opposed to absolute performance, which lets them adjust to challenges like weather, and ups and downs in the markets.
“We can tighten our belts a bit easier because our systems are simpler,” she adds. “We are doing things to be as green as possible.”
They have modernized with equipment that tracks the growth rates of lambs, which used to be done by eye or manually feeling the lambs. The technology measures the lambs’ weight and tracks what fields they are feeding on and what mixtures of grass provide the most weight gain for a more systematic approach to grazing.
The operation is also a plus for the local farming community, with crop farmers turning to Waupoos Sheep to help clean up their harvests. The sheep are allowed to go onto the recently harvested land and graze directly behind the combine, eating the corn that has spilled and munching down the corn stalks.
“They don’t want to end up with corn growing in next spring’s soybeans,” Johnston explains. “That’s one added benefit for the crop farmer. They’re breaking down some of those corn stalks and the organic material and transforming them into fertilizer. It’s a win-win for our neighbours.”
And at the end of day, healthier, happier sheep is a satisfying reward for all the work.
“We’re getting higher conception rates and good condition, and they get to travel all over, usually North or South Marysburgh, from cornfield to cornfield. It gives everyone a little sheep parade every once in a while.”