BY JESS CAMPBELL
With all of the diversity, technology and change that happens in Canadian agriculture, it’s interesting to ponder the future of the industry.
When you consider everything Matt Douglas and his partners at North Star Agriculture in Whitehorse, Yukon, are doing – you can absolutely get a solid idea of what that future looks like.
Matt does not have a typical farm background but had a great influence guiding him toward his passion for agriculture. “I was born and raised in Oakville, Ontario. I went to the University of Guelph for a Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing. But y’know – it’s Guelph! So, I had a number of Aggie friends, including my best friend and roommate, Stewart Skinner. He’s a 3rd generation hog farmer from Listowel, Ontario, and I was just this poor suburb kid who thought that chicken came from the grocery store. Stewart literally opened my eyes to the world of agriculture.”
Post-graduation, Matt spent several years in Toronto, building – and then, selling – a traditional marketing agency, gaining experience on campaigns for the likes of Pepsi, Molson Coors and RBC. Once the agency sold, Matt found himself being drawn back to agriculture. This time, though, that draw was coming from a bit further North than Listowel. “I found myself up in Whitehorse visiting family. I connected with an entrepreneur and he said I needed to move up there. His company, Northstar Agriculture, had recently purchased the rights to an aquaponic growing technology. A year later, almost to the day, my girlfriend and I drove across the country in February and moved to Whitehorse.”
Relocating to the land of the midnight sun meant Matt had to learn about an entirely new arm of Canadian agriculture – and then figure out how to build a business around it. “The aquaponics project… is a massive indoor farm. Basically, a twenty thousand square foot facility in a territory of forty thousand people. We’re in the process of doing our design engineering for our facility up near the local hot springs 20 minutes outside of town. It’ll be North America’s first geothermally heated and cooled aquaponics facility.”
On top of that, Matt has developed commercial land with his business partner, Sonny Grey, to bring local pork products to the community, something that has never been done successfully before. “There was no real commercial livestock farming because everyone was conditioned that you could only buy meat in the fall because people couldn’t winter their animals. So, we did that over the course of eight months, bit by bit: working with restaurants and doing Facebook campaigns and me delivering meat in the back of my pick-up truck out of a cooler.”
From there, Matt has been attempting to recondition a market that’s used to paying exorbitant prices and shipping most of their food from “down South.” Local farmers who have joined Matt’s cooperative have trouble knowing what price to set for their products, one that’s not only competitive but that also allows them to make a living. Matt’s solution to that has been a packing company. “I partnered with a chef and two farmers – beef and boar, and pork and rabbit. I partnered with a marketing company and a locally owned and operated food distributor. We’re trying to build a marketing machine so that livestock farmers here don’t have to do everything themselves. So, we’re in the midst of building that now. It’s not easy.” (laughs)
Food scarcity and shortages are a huge concern for the communities of the Yukon, including Whitehorse, and this is something Matt is determined to address. “We have three major grocery stores (in the city). If you asked most consumers, they would say there isn’t a problem with their food source – until the highway is out. There’s really only two highways into the Yukon. All it takes is for an avalanche to take out a section of road, or a really bad storm that closes parts of it. It’s happened, and it turns into a mass panic and everyone stampedes to the grocery store and clears everything out. My partners and I don’t believe it’s sustainable to continue to have this decentralized distribution network when we can grow a lot of stuff ourselves. Why rely on the South and the vulnerability of the highways, the high cost of freight, the carbon emissions, etc.? Why not just try to find a way to do it ourselves? That’s what we’re in the process of doing.”
It’s a huge task but one that Matt is facing head-on, all the while considering its impact to the larger Canadian agriculture industry – and how it makes him feel. “There’s a huge disconnect all over the world about how people think their food is made and where it comes from. The future is a bit of a reconditioning of our population, having a better understanding of how our food is made and where it comes from and how to keep it closer, but also having extremely diversified growing methods, like vertical farming and indoor farming. Especially in a place like this, what makes me most proud is when I see people eating food that I helped make. It sounds trivial, but it’s the truth!” (laughs)
“I partnered with a chef and two farmers – beef and boar, and pork and rabbit. I partnered with a marketing company and a locally owned and operated food distributor. We’re trying to build a marketing machine so that livestock farmers here don’t have to do everything themselves. “
BY JESS CAMPBELL
Not all farms are created equally.
That’s the message farmer Amoree Briggs would like consumers to understand, and rightfully so. Amoree farms just outside of Whitehorse, Yukon, with her husband and family, growing a wide variety of crops for both human and animal consumption. “We have beef cattle, laying hens, meat birds (seasonal), hay fields, and gardens/greenhouse. Our oldest son (Huxley, aged 10) raises rabbits for meat and fur. We have a few renters on our property who also help out, one with four alpacas and one who raises pigs seasonally. We have a bush berry patch with saskatoons, black and pink currants, raspberries, gooseberries and haskaps. We also have a northern-style apple tree greenhouse and are successfully producing apples – and soon-to-be pears from a new pear tree.”
Having a farm in the Yukon is definitely not without its challenges. But for Amoree, those challenges allow her to hone her skills and become a better, more efficient farmer. “The biggest challenge here is that farming in the Yukon is such a new venture; there aren’t a lot of people who have years of experience farming. Also, our infrastructure is limited. Parts for equipment often have to be sourced from down South, equipment needs to get hauled up the Alaska Highway, there are limited people/mechanics to work on tractors, etc. Another interesting thing is that farmers here typically do everything, from slaughter, mechanics, construction and soil analysis to marketing, cutting and wrapping their products, and composting for fields and garden crops. We are forced to be heavily involved in all aspects of our product development.”
Farming anywhere is hard work – but farming in the Yukon is really hard work. Amoree says that she’s proud of the opportunity she has to show her children what it means to work hard and how that can yield a great bounty (literally and figuratively). “We love our family connection with farming and the valuable time we get to spend together, whether it be baling hay until the wee hours of the morning, rounding up cows with our dogs, or taking an afternoon break (on a hot day) paddling on our irrigation pond. It’s really a whole-family venture.”
Amoree is a strong environmental advocate, and takes pride in being as resourceful and efficient as possible when it comes to how things are grown, harvested and used on the farm. Part of that environmental stewardship means teaching not only her own children but also local school children about what it means to farm and take care of the environment. “We enjoy aiming to be the most sustainable that we can. We have two large solar banks on our farm, use wood heat only (we haul all the wood, too!), grow a lot of our winter food (for humans, dogs and cows), have a hybrid vehicle that we drive sparingly and teach as many sustainable principles to our children as possible. Our small mixed farm is cyclical by design which reduces our off-farm inputs substantially. We invite school groups of all ages to come out to the farm to learn about our practices and have had many great learning adventures with this program (called Kids on the Farm program).”
Being part of Canadian agriculture and witnessing the vast diversity of farming in this country creates a strong sense of pride within Amoree – and a great sense of hope for the future. “Being such a diverse country, you can see anything from farming warm-climate fruits to farming in areas where only greenhouses can grow things. One local farm in Dawson City has been growing apples, pears and grapes in greenhouses “under the midnight sun!” We hope to get more into no-tilling and permaculture (as much as we can in our climate) to focus on more natural ways of growing.
Because farming is such a new venture in the Yukon, it will grow by leaps and bounds over the next 10 years – we are now seeing dairy farms pop up, textile animals being grown and sheared, large hydroponic systems used to supply grocery stores in our capital city… it’s so exciting!”
“The biggest challenge here is that farming in the Yukon is such a new venture; there aren’t a lot of people who have years of experience farming.”
Ann & Cody Legge
Blomidon, Nova Scotia
BY JESS CAMPBELL
What do flower farming, raising cow-calf pairs, milking cows, running a feedlot, working as a veterinary technician and growing grain crops have in common?
If you’re not sure, you’d better ask Ann Legge of Blomidon, Nova Scotia. Between she and her husband, Cody, that list of work is how they make their living.
“I work full time at Patterson Farms Limited, a local dairy farm milking 50 cows,” says Ann. “I also run my own farm, Petal & Bay Flower Farm, growing cut flowers for wholesale or to order. Cody works full time at K.B. Kinsman & Sons Limited, a local feedlot, raising 400-500 feeders and also runs his own farm, Cody Legge Farms, growing hay and grain crops. And together, we help on Cody’s family farm, Legge Farms, raising 40 cow-calf pairs. And on Saturday mornings, I work as a Veterinary Technician at Glooscap Veterinary Clinic.”
If you think that sounds like a ton of work, you’re correct. But these newlyweds – married in October 2018 – wouldn’t have it any other way. “We both love keeping busy and especially the variety that comes with farming. Every day is the same but different. We work in acres, not hours!”
Cody is a third-generation beef farmer so farming is not only their livelihood but their lifestyle. Ann admits that farming isn’t always easy – but it isn’t something they’d ever give up on. “There can be really long days. But (we’re) thankful for rainy days when we can catch up on house chores or get in the shop, fixing things. At the end of the day, as we wipe the sweat – or tears – from our faces and watch a sick cow get better, a tiny seed grow into a quality product after so much work… to fail some days but be able to get back up the next morning and try again with determination makes it all worth it and we wouldn’t change it for anything!”
Ann and Cody’s farm is right on the Minas Basin of Nova Scotia. The Basin “plays an integral part in agriculture in the area” adding a unique soil mixture, temperature and weather fluctuations. Plus, the tides rise between 46 and 52 feet every day! Their opportunity to farm within such an extraordinary location isn’t lost on Ann or Cody yet their community and the many partnerships they have which help them do what they do is equally important to them. “We are grateful for all our fellow farmers, nutritionists, veterinarians, supporters and consumers for helping us along the way, and encouraging us to grow with experience and knowledge to be the best we can! In fact, we don’t really consider this a ‘job’ – it’s simply how we have chosen to spend our lives.”
Being members of the Canadian Young Farmers Forum is another meaningful opportunity for Ann and Cody. “It has allowed us to meet so many farmers and members of the agriculture industry with so much knowledge and experience to share, allowing us to grow and innovate. It’s so helpful to have a whole support group alongside us!”
Having so many things to accomplish in a day may seem overwhelming to some. But to Ann and Cody Legge, it’s about building a beautiful legacy.
BY JESS CAMPBELL
There are hardly any places left in Canada where you’ll find a farmer clear-cutting trees to build an agricultural landbase.
But Chris Oram of Wooddale, Newfoundland, happens to be one of those farmers. “We got probably another 100 acres we can clear,” says Chris. “We try to get five acres into production every year. You pick away at it and it’ll come.”
Along with his wife, Kayla, and his parents, Richard and Arlene, Chris operates Mark’s Market, a 56-acre fruit and vegetable farm. The thing about being a fruit and vegetable farmer in Newfoundland – or The Rock as many call it – is that soil suited to growing fruits and vegetables isn’t very easy to find. So on top of clear-cutting new acreage each year, Chris also needs to tend to the soil and prepare it for growing fruits and vegetables, which takes a lot of time, patience – and money. (No pressure, by the way.)
“In Newfoundland, we do rough clearing enhancement. The government gives us a subsidy, $1500 per acre rough clear. Then the following year when you have gotten the soil pH up a bit, they’ll give you another $1500 per acre. So, they’re giving you $3000 per acre to get it into production. It’ll cost you more than that, likely five or six thousand dollars an acre. But, it helps. We’ve managed to buy an excavator and keep it running to clear the big trees off of the land; every spare minute we have, we run it. It’s a work in progress.”
A big part of preparing newly cleared land is the most back-breaking work one could imagine yet it vital to improving the soil. “There’s a hill right close to our market and I literally spent seven days picking rocks on it to get it ready for potatoes this year. The more rocks you can get out, the better, obviously!”
Planting crops on newly cleared land isn’t as easy as one might think. “There are only some crops that’ll do well in new ground,” says Chris. “The first year that you clear it, you can get away with planting turnips – everywhere in Newfoundland, we call them turnips, not rutabagas! (laughs) You could maybe (plant) some table beets for pickling. But you’ve really gotta be on top of your fertilizers to get a decent crop out of it.”
Mark’s Market happens to be the only fresh market within an hour radius of Chris’s farm. Some customers come from two hours away to purchase fresh, in-season produce that isn’t always available elsewhere. For Chris and his family, having the flexibility to grow what’s in demand is part of what makes their farm business worth the hard work. “We’ve gotten into strawberries now, as a u-pick. It’s got our season extended on the front end for probably four weeks earlier than usual. So, we can push out lettuce and peas and green leafy stuff and sell all that with the strawberries.”
The farm grows what Chris calls Newfoundland’s “traditional vegetables” of potatoes, carrots, cabbage and turnip plus several other crops like apples and plums. Although selling to wholesalers may have once been a goal, Chris says they’d much rather make their living selling directly to their customers. “We grow everything from A to Z. Everything we can physically grow, we are! We’ve got secondary processing with jam, pickled beets, carrots and all these other add-ons like peas, beans, broccoli, cauliflower – a customer will spend a bit more. It all draws people down to the farm. We set our own prices and offer a fresh, quality product.”
While there are many farms across Canada that are multi-generational, there are less that have a farm lineage creeping up to double digits. Justin Williams of Wilhome Farms in Bloomfield, ON, happens to be of the latter description.
“Our farm has been in the family since 1814 and I’m the 8th generation farming this land. My parents, Don and Anne, own the farm that I work on with my younger sister, Brittany. Wilhome Farms milks 70 cows in a tie stall, with around 400 acres both owned and rented. Crops include hay, corn, wheat and Identity Preserved (IP) soybeans.”
While Justin’s ancestors may have farmed the land to provide for themselves and their community, farmers today must have a head for business in order to succeed. In the 21st century, farming is truly an entrepreneurial pursuit, something that Justin has taken to heart, having started his own maple syrup business alongside being part of the family farm. “I own and operate Justin’s Maple Syrup which produces high quality maple syrup and maple products. In a forest located on the family farm, I tap around 500 trees using modern equipment.”
While his days are certainly busy, Justin is thoroughly content in his chosen profession, happy that it provides an opportunity to do some good in the world. “Things I love most about farming are the ability to work outside and with animals. It’s important to protect the environment we live in and I’m honoured to play a part in that, and in producing food for people.”
For Justin, the future of farming is exciting – and the current reality is pretty cool, too. “We have a robotic feed pusher that goes around the barn every hour, pushing in the feed to the cows, ensuring they always have feed in front of them which makes them happy. Modern technology is a great way to reduce stress and the physical demand on farmers so they can be more productive and work smarter. I believe in the next five to ten years, there will be huge advancements in the agriculture industry both in cropping and animal agriculture. I’m excited to see what’s to come.”
Farming and agriculture aren’t without challenges, something Justin – and all farmers – constantly need to manage. From Justin’s perspective, managing consumer expectations is an important job to be taken seriously. “People (can) have different ideologies than those in agriculture, and other consumers; those people can sometimes overshadow all the positives of agriculture. Some believe we are trying to poison them with the products we use on our crops and animals when, in reality, we use them to help preserve the environment and provide the best, most comfortable life for the animals. (As farmers) it’s important to keep sharing the positive message of agriculture and continue to debunk myths while talking to the consumers who are genuinely interested in knowing more. Using resources from associations such as Farm and Food Care and The Centre for Food Integrity are great places to start.”
As for consumers, Justin recommends that questions and curiosities be fulfilled from the horse’s mouth. “It’s important for consumers to trust farmers because we are also consumers. If you’re sick, you go to the doctor. If you need money, you go to a lending institution. If you have questions about farming, you should talk to a farmer.”
Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia
BY JESS CAMPBELL
Veronica Vermeulen is not your average farmer – and she prefers it that way.
Veronica is part of the third generation on a 350-cow dairy farm in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, farming with two of her brothers (she has six siblings total), which, as it turns out, is the thing that makes her non-average. “I was expected to go farm with my husband, Matt, who has a two-robot, 100-cow dairy farm,” says Veronica. “Everyone expected me to go there. That pressure totally didn’t come from my husband at all. I had to fight quite hard to get my succession deal done within my family farm. I don’t think it came from a negative place, necessarily; it’s just that people didn’t believe that I knew what I wanted. I really had to prove that this is what I want and to make sure my actions showed that.”
As a young, female farmer, Veronica is very aware that, despite working on the same farm, her farm life and the farm life of her brothers is very different. “I used to feel like the world was against young female farmers. But the more I learn, the more I realize that it’s the choices you make as a young female farmer – they’re VERY different than the choices a young male farmer makes. For example, when you decide to start a family, what happens with your work? For me and my husband, I feel that whatever changes happen in my life when we have a kid will be the same changes that happen in his life. I’m not going to be the one who isn’t going to work because we have kids. It’s 50/50 and we’re going to figure it out.”
Veronica and her brothers have learned to play to each other’s strengths when it comes to managing such a large operation. “I work a lot with my oldest brother. He does a lot with the business side of things, like HR and decisions about what barn we’re building next. Then my other brother does the cropping, and I do a lot of breeding, cow health, calving out the cows and all the calf stuff.”
The farm is split into four, something Veronica says works very well. “There are different locations and people have different responsibilities (at those specific locations). We have all the fresh cows in one place. The first half of their lactation, they all go to the same farm. Then after they’re pregnant, they go to a different farm until they dry off (and are ready to have their calf). Once they’re dry, they come to my barn which is a pack barn. I keep them for two months and then for a few days after they calve. After they’ve had their calf, I truck them about two kilometers up the road to the barn with the fresh cows, where they’ll eventually get bred and the process starts all over again.”
Outside the farm, Veronica pays close attention to both agricultural technology (she has an Engineering degree from the University of Waterloo) and consumer perception. It’s these two aspects that cause Veronica to be excited for the future of agriculture in Canada. “I think technology in agriculture is heating up and I’m really excited about where it’s going. It’s just amazing, all the tools we have – and that next year, those tools will be even better and we’ll have new tools! It’s just a really great time to be a farmer.”
As far as consumers go, Veronica hopes the agriculture industry can continue to improve trust and communication. “I’ve never been more excited to be part of Canadian agriculture. I think it has a very exciting future but we need to be more customer sensitive. Y’know how there was that whole, ‘If you ate today, thank a farmer’ thing? I think it should be, ‘If you’re a farmer, thank a consumer.’ I think as farmers, we’ll need to serve our customer more in the future. I think right now, there’s a lot of customer pressure and negative talk about farmers and being environmentally friendly. I think it’s an exciting opportunity to be a farmer, turning that on its head and doing better, especially with technology and precision agriculture. I see all the negativity as an opportunity, definitely.”
Elm Creek, Manitoba
BY JESS CAMPBELL
For some people, it’s easy to be independent. You don’t need to rely on anyone or anything to live the life you want and to do the things you want to do.
But Colin Penner knows the power of doing things and living life with others, working together for a common goal.
As a third generation grain farmer, Colin farms with his parents on the land his grandparents purchased in 1959. While he’s been farming for the last 10 years, he has already seen – and will continue to see – big changes in his farm. “My parents and myself are the primary farmers. My younger brother is looking into farming with us. He works off farm as an engineer right now so we’re working through that succession plan. We’re very different personalities. He’s an engineer at heart, very process oriented whereas I’m an abstract thinker at times. It’s going to be hard with him coming home because I’ve been farming for the last 10 years and he hasn’t. So, the transition will be tough but I’m really looking forward to it because he’s a smart guy and really good at things I’m not good at.”
The farm itself has rapidly grown over the last few years, a good thing when the farm family continues to grow, too. “My wife, Laurie, grew up five miles down the road and her parents farmed as well. We farmed 1800 acres for as long as I can remember. Then when my wife’s parents retired, they asked us how much land we wanted. So, we’ve just been growing into their acres. The first year, we jumped up a little bit and then the second year, we jumped up a little bit more. Now, we’re at 3600 acres; we doubled in size over the last five years. There’ve been a few growing pains but it’s been a lot of fun, too.”
Farming with his family on a growing acreage has been a lot of work. But it remains a good balance for Colin’s off-farm job as an instructor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “I teach Farm Management at the university and it’s a lot of fun. The program is pretty neat because we take a student’s farm or a case farm and look at its finances for a year. Then, they take it over and run it and make changes. I get to advise these students on their books, how to cash flow their farm and how balance sheets work, and how to budget. For the fall semester, I’m advising but am not there as much; then in the winter semester, I’m teaching four days a week.”
Colin says he loves being a teacher much more than he enjoyed being a student, and that a big part of that comes not only from the students he teaches but also the faculty he works with. “I work with some really great colleagues. It’s kind of the weirdest workplace I’ve ever worked at! (laughs) It’s a great group who are all farmers. But we have very different backgrounds, political views, beliefs – we are all very different people. But it’s fun because we can sit down for a meeting and disagree with each other but by the end of it, we’ve come to an agreement or consensus on the best way to move forward. We have mutual respect all the way around and it’s just really fun.”
Balancing family and work that is both on- and off-farm isn’t always easy or straightforward – but the effort is always worth it, especially when you can share your challenges and triumphs with others. For Colin, it’s about continuing to do his best for himself, his family, his students and colleagues, and for consumers. “My sense of pride comes from seeing a job well done. Canadian farmers are striving to do a good job. I’d like to believe that everyone on their farm is treating their land well, treating their livestock well and doing the best job they can. When I look around my neighbourhood or during my drive to Winnipeg, I see a lot of people trying to do the best they can for their farm, and that makes me really proud.”
Sainte-Marie-de-Kent, New Brunswick
BY JESS CAMPBELL
One of the great things about farming in Canada is the diversity. Farm sizes vary from one to the next; that often depends on the province the farms are in. Still, it’s safe to say the average consumer thinks of farming as one of two things: either a huge conglomerate with thousands of animals, acres and employees, or what is essentially a hobby farm with a few chickens, one cow for milk, another for beef and a pig for pork.
You could say that Carolyn Wilson’s farm falls somewhere in between those two consumer images.
She and her husband, Mark, own and operate The Brookside Butcher in Sainte-Marie-de-Kent, New Brunswick. Carolyn and Mark were both raised on farms – livestock with a GE grain business, and dairy, respectively – but came to purchase the butcher business and accompanying retail space in 2017, having absolutely zero experience in butchery. But with support from their families, their community and each other, they dove in. “It is operated primarily by my husband, Mark. I also play a key role in the business, managing our market booth, running our social media page and doing the accounting. We work closely with my family’s farming business, West Branch Feeds, and Mark’s family dairy farm as well. We produce and process quality meat products for direct sale to our consumers. We source approximately 80% of our meat products from our farm and that of our families, approximately 15% from farms in our neck of the woods, and the remaining 5% is Canadian product we bring in from out of province.”
While there have certainly been challenges in learning a new business, Carolyn says she and Mark always try to look on the bright side of life. “When we first purchased the farming business, we needed a place to stay while we found something permanent. So Mark and I spent our first summer on the property living in an aging camper. Little did we know, we had set the camper up in the absolute wettest part of the field and then it rained for a month straight. Seriously. The mosquitos were unreal – a real character builder, for sure! That was certainly a challenge that got a few chuckles from our neighbors. When we have a rough day at the shop, it certainly does help to look back on what we have overcome.”
For Carolyn, it’s the ability to look back on how far they’ve come that really keeps her and Mark striving toward their ultimate goal, a valiant and common one for most Canadian farmers. “In our farming business, our goal is to provide quality, locally grown meat to our consumers. We strive to support local farmers and businesses and build our local community by supporting initiatives and volunteering. We believe every community needs small business and we see our role in securing food at the local level. Working with the Bouctouche Farmers’ Market has enabled us to grow closer to consumers and help them understand a bit more about the realities of farming.”
It’s farmers like Carolyn and Mark who not only help consumers make the most informed choices about the food that they eat but also realize the value in Canadian agriculture and in supporting Canadian farmers. “Consumers need to know that Canadian Farmers produce the BEST food in the world. It is nutritious, safe and delicious. Consumers also need to know that Canadian Farmers care. A LOT. They care about their land, their families, their reputation and their product. Farming really is a labor of love.”