Growing the Great White North

OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES IN DISTRICT 15

northern ontario is better known for its rocks and trees than rolling farmland. However, climate change and agronomic advances are creating growth opportunities for farm communities in the north.

A quick look at available statistics does not at first create a rosy picture of agriculture in Northern Ontario. According to census data, the total number of farms fell from 2,479 to 2,261 in 2011; and 7,840 hectares  (more than 19,000 acres) of land that was producing crops in 2006 was not in 2011. The remaining 146,016 hectares (nearly 361,000 acres) comprised of acreage reductions in almost all field crops, especially barley and hay, which appears to correspond with the 24% decline in the number of dairy farms and loss of 272 beef farms (a whopping 46% decrease) over the same five year period.
On the other hand, the number of farms reporting gross cash receipts of $500,000 or more did increase, as did the number of farms reporting farm capital values over $1 million between 2006 and 2011. Beef farms still dominate the northern Ontario farm landscape, by far; but the number of oilseed and grain farms nearly doubled and almost equals dairy farms now. Grain corn and soybean acres increased 181% and 228% respectively. Peggy Brekveld, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) Director representing Northern Ontario since 2011, says science continues to improve their ability to farm in the north and is helping them achieve more than was previously ever thought possible.

innovation

“In Northern Ontario, our limiting factor is how long the growing season is but you become innovative,” said Brekveld. “The agricultural research station will tell you by heat units soybeans shouldn’t do well here, but they do because we have the sunlight hours.”

PHOTO: SOURCE – FIELD CROP GUIDE FOR ONTARIO. OMAFRA PUB 811.

Brekveld and her husband have a 50-cow dairy operation outside of Thunder Bay, an area that the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture (OMAF) and Ministry of Rural Affairs (MRA) depicts in the 2,100 crop heat units (CHU) zone on their maps. But at the end of June, the days do not start to get dark until 11:00 p.m. and it is fairly light in the morning around 5:00 a.m. Last year, Brekveld says it was not unheard of for farmers in her zone to harvest soybean yields of 50-60 bu/ac and further south in the District of Temiskaming, grain corn yields around 130 bu/ac and canola yields of 1.1 – 1.2 tonne/ac were reported. Temiskaming is actually one of the largest canola growing areas in Ontario and their yields are better than the provincial average. “To me Northern Ontario is all about potential,” Brekveld says, “if you can look past the rocks and trees to see there’s good soil underneath.”

valuing the land
According to soil survey data, Northern Ontario accounts for 9.3% of Class 2 land and 50.4% of Class 3 land in the province, which is typically known as land well suited to growing cereals and oilseeds. The north also boasts 67.8% of Ontario’s Class 4 land, which is good for forages. Allan Mol, another dairy farmer in the Thunder Bay region, is also the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association’s Vice President this year. Being born and raised in the area, Mol knows there is a lot of good land that has either been abandoned or still needs to be cleared throughout the north.

“It might be more difficult to get into the good [developed] land here, but if you go a little farther out, there are opportunities,” said Mol. “You just might have to do some work to get it into shape again.”

It has been estimated that over three million acres of good potential farmland, particularly in the Cochrane area, are sitting untouched in Northern Ontario. When cultivated, tile drained land is not even selling for as much as $2,500/ac (on average), so it is hard for some to understand why land-strapped farmers from the south are not snapping up this northern ground.

Mol says adjusting to the isolation northern farmers face is a significant hurdle for many. He and his neighbours have to be much more resourceful given the lack of regional infrastructure; having to build their own cooperatives for crop inputs, mills, and grain handling facilities. For farmers who come to the area, it can be difficult to get used to the idea that the closest tractor dealer is hours away and a combine breakdown at harvest might cost weeks if a neighbour does not offer the right parts or loan their own equipment. Paying an extra $40-$70/tonne for trucking has discouraged many from cash cropping at all. 

adapting
“There are a lot of things we can grow here but you always get that extra transportation charge tacked on that makes it a lot less profitable,” said Mol. “The primary goal of most farmers is simply to be self-sustaining here and if you do want to get into cash cropping, you need a bigger land base.”

MAP: Soil survey maps show there are level plains all around the north, where ancient lakes have left stone-free, layered clays that offer relatively good water retention and transmission properties. Of the two clay belts that formed, the largest one has been largely undeveloped so far in the Cochrane area. From: Webber, L.R. and D.W. Hoffman. 1967. Ontario Soils. Ontario Department of Agriculture.

Norm Koch came to the same conclusion in the mid-1980s when he was first introduced to Temiskaming as a silo construction business operator. His family was originally from the Kitchener/Stratford area, but Koch was attracted north by $250-300/ac land prices. Land was so cheap in fact, that you had no borrowing capacity to do anything with it, he says. That is just one of the reasons why he is now happy to see so many new farmers coming to the area.

“We’re awful glad to have people moving up here and keeping livestock farm operations going, because all the land can’t be cash cropped and shouldn’t be cashed cropped,” said Koch. “It drives up the price of land, but to me that’s a good thing because then we have more worth and can do more things.”

Today, Koch Farms is the largest producer of canola in Ontario and at 11,000 acres, also produces wheat, oats, soybeans, corn, barley and buckwheat. Koch also built a grain elevator which handles over 55,000 tonnes of grain annually and runs a trucking fleet of 14 transports which now employs 35 staff. Of course, being so large, Koch says his next problem will be increasing his revenues in order to keep pace with increasing land values. With the price of oats so low, the crop is no longer the darling that it once was in the area. Koch says more research is needed to identify what direction cash cropping should take in the future. “Little niche market crops are needed but they don’t keep an area going,” he says. “We have to look at stuff that can be done on a relatively big scale.”

With the closure of one federal research station earlier this year, and rumours that the New Liskeard Agricultural Research Station run by OMAF and MRA and the University of Guelph could be next, Koch has stepped up as President of the newly formed Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance. He hopes, along with Brekveld and Mol, that the group will be able to lobby successfully for continued public research in what could one day be dominant farm area in Ontario. But if not, all three farmers agree the northern community has banded together to overcome greater obstacles in the past. They say they will continue to grow in spite of this hurdle too. •