Our Food Has a Story

By Serra McSymytz and Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

kids-and-vegetable-patchAs agribusiness professionals we’ve had the opportunity to talk to farmers about why and how they farm.

Just twenty five years ago, this wasn’t even a conversation. Farmers just got on with the business of working the land or tending to their animals.

Today it’s different. Consumers also want to know why and how farmers carry out their duties, growing and raising the food we sometimes take for granted. But how do you explain what farming is?

Well, there are a lot of things it isn’t.

It isn’t a 40 hour work week, sleeping in on the weekends or even through the night, at times. It isn’t a guaranteed paycheque. It isn’t easy or cheap, low risk, or low stress.

So why? Why would someone gladly raise their hand and say “I want to be a farmer”? Generation after generation?

farmers-by-the-tractorFor many, farming is a place to raise their children where they’ll learn the value of hard work, build strong principles, strengthen their character and intellect, and earn a sense of responsibility.

Farming is rewarding and challenging. It is the opportunity to give back, to do more and be better. Farming is often part of a family’s history and their children’s future. It is satisfaction, seeing something you have sewn and tended grow and thrive. It is reaping the reward of a nutritious meal prepared using ingredients you yourself have nurtured.

Farming is technical and constantly evolving; an industry always on the verge of the next advancement. It is the chance to earn a living from a passion rather than an employer. Farming is the fulfillment of feeding your family, your neighbours, and our world. Farming is a measure of who the farmer is.

The thing about farming though, is that its product is so much bigger than just one person, one family one cow, one field, one farm.

It is our food. It is our story.

farmer-in-the-tractorThere is a narrative woven through our long history. Each chapter is unique and told by the stewards who contribute to it. The rancher, beekeeper, miller, baker, berry picker, processor, butcher, grocer and, in the end, the consumer.

It is the food choices you make for yourself and your family. Farming touches each and every one of our lives because it provides one of the most basic necessities. Whether you buy local, conventional, organic, free range, with or without added hormones, we are all a part of the same story.

Join us in October during Agriculture Month in Saskatchewan and share your food story. #OurFoodHasAStory #AgMonth16

For more on events in Saskatchewan for Agriculture Month, click here.

Diverse Prince Edward County Farm Featured as September Faces of Farming

By Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care 

If there’s one example of a diversified farm business, Sandy Vader and her family are it. From their farm near Picton, they grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and other crops for a local farmers’ market, raise sheep for wool and meat, and have even diversified into seasonal decorative arrangements.

Sandy Vader's page is sponsored by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. She is joined in the photo by daughters Kelsey and Kaitlyn

Sandy Vader’s page is sponsored by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. She is joined in the photo by daughters Kelsey and Kaitlyn

Sandy and her daughters are the faces for September in the 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar, published by Farm & Food Care Ontario.

“We are always trying to diversify,” says Sandy Vader, mother of three and avid market gardener. “I like the animals, and the people from the market. It’s a very family oriented business.”

Sandy started farming with her father-in-law in 1987. At that time, she says, they were growing about 180 acres of crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, and producing vegetables and fruits for canning companies, “but those companies eventually left Prince Edward County,” she says. The loss of the local processing meant she had to make some major changes to the family business.

Since taking over most of the market-garden side of the farm in 2000, Sandy has expanded her crop portfolio to include — take a deep breath — asparagus, lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, beefsteak tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, beets, and various varieties of flowers, among other crops. All the produce generated by Sandy and her family is sold at the Belleville farmers’ market.

“We used to go to more farmers’ markets, but it can be pretty tiring. We like to stick with one that we enjoy and works for us best,” she says.

Sandy’s youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, has been actively helping run the business since she was five years old. She helps Sandy on a regular basis, and in addition, keeps a small number of sheep and goats. Sandy’s other daughter, Kelsey, has also been involved on the farm from a very early age, and continues to help on occasion despite working full-time at an off-farm job.

Kaitlyn and Kelsey’s brother, Cody, has a farm of his own where he keeps 200 ewes. When required, though, he does help in the day-to-day operations of the farm, the market, as well as any other task that “needs to be done.”

Several years ago, Sandy also began creating a kind of value-added product for sale at her market stand. Using some of the flowers produced in her greenhouse, she creates centre pieces and other seasonal decorative arrangements for Thanksgiving and other occasions. So far, she says, they have proven to be quite popular, and have done a lot for the business when vegetables and fruits are not in season. Consequently, she plans on expanding that side of her business.

“The decorations help make going to market in the winter useful, plus there’s something about working in a greenhouse that makes the winter shorter,” she says.

With the exception of flowers and a select few others, says Sandy, all their crops are started in a greenhouse before being moved to a field to finish growing. Lettuce and sweet corn, she says, are their most popular crops, with fresh-cut lettuce being available from April to December. That two-step process works well for them, but it is labour intensive and one of the reasons Sandy values the help she receives from her family.

In her limited spare time – and she does emphasize limited – Sandy enjoys sports of all kinds, but says she is particularly happy that she had the privilege of playing hockey with her girls when they were younger. She was also an active volunteer when Cody, Kelsey, and Kaitlyn were still in school.

Whether sports or farming, though, the key theme that repeatedly crops up in Sandy’s mind is her family. For her, working with her son, two daughters is the most rewarding career she could have, and it’s the cornerstone of their success.

“The farm is a team effort,” she says. “That’s a farm family – we’re always helping each other out.”

Listening and Learning Across the Table

matt in GlencoeBy Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

I had a mutually-educational supper with a friend recently.

It was a pre-planned date where I, being rewarded with barbecue and malted barley, gave a 101 on Canadian food and farming — a subject of great passion for me and great interest to my friend, though one she admitted to knowing very little about.

We hit on several common topics over the course of the evening: pesticides, GMOs, and the odd anecdote from my farm-kid childhood, just to name a few. But it was our discussions around “corporate agriculture” and what the ideal farm should be that stuck out the most. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised to discover that my view of the “ideal” farm was actually quite similar to hers.

I was however astounded to learn that my friend, whether she realized it or not, saw modern Canadian farms not as independent family-run businesses, but mere corporate franchises. In her mind, the modern farm was under the thumb of — and even directly controlled by — large agro-chemical corporations.

These ideas manifested themselves shortly after I described my family and our farm. After mentioning that we grow some GMO crops, my friend asked if we actually owned the land where we plant our crops. I said that we absolutely did, though we also rent land from neighbouring farmers. She then asked if we owned our own equipment, to which I explained that we did, though some farmers find it economical to hire others to plant, spray, or harvest.

Those questions were not asked just so she could learn about business structures, however. They were asked because she didn’t know how deep into my family’s livelihood the proverbial corporate tentacle reached. Without necessarily being conscious of the fact, she was questioning our sovereignty over our own business.

The fact that farms are independent businesses is a given to me, but it wasn’t to my friend.

Untrue as it is, the idea that farmers are under the thumb of large corporations is certainly not new. Many times I’ve responded to people asking if we are forced to use specific products, if we lived in fear of lawsuits, and other similar questions, but never had I encountered the idea that our land could be literally taken from us with such ease.

In this case, I realized that in order to connect with my friend starting with shared values was not enough. I had to one more step back and describe that the vast majority of Canadian farms (97%, in fact) actually are family businesses run by independent entrepreneurs who make decisions based on personal values, business goals, and what works best on their land.

With this in mind, I asked my friend what Canadian farming should be, and for comparison, followed her answer with my own conception of the ideal.

To paraphrase, my friend suggested Canadian agriculture should be comprised of more and smaller farms that are environmentally conscious and operate independently of large corporations. This was excellent to hear because I whole-heartedly agree with all her points, and better yet, I can say with certainty that much of what she idealized already exists.

DSC_0009I told her about Ontario’s long-running Environmental Farm Plan program, the seemingly-infinite number of crop varieties available to growers, some neat innovations I come across as a farm writer, and how an independent lifestyle is one of the most attractive characteristics of a farming career. 

Considering my friend has never been to a farm like my family’s — and the fact that, like the rest of us, she is continually bombarded by anti-modernity propaganda — it’s only logical that knowledge gaps exist. That was, after all, the entire point of our dinner date. Regardless of how close to the ideal we think modern agriculture is, though, we both discovered our idea of what was “right” was more similar than originally anticipated.

It was a good conversation, and to her credit, my friend was already quite knowledgeable on some subjects, and shared that knowledge with me. Where she knew little, though, the only real thing lacking was context, and that reminded me not to take the independent business aspect of farming for granted.

A Day in the Life of…Crooked Lake Farm

My name is Jill Burkhardt and I am a mixed farmer (small grains, such as wheat, and beef cattle) from Wetaskiwin, Alberta. Today on the farm, we are moving yearling heifers out to summer pasture. What’s a heifer? A heifer refers to female cattle that have never had a calf.

IMG_4954 (1)
Our farm is a 5th generation family farm. My husband’s family homesteaded just a half-mile up the road from our house in 1901 and have lived in the area ever since. Our land was purchased by his great-grandfather in 1915, and the original homestead is still in the yard. Although the house is uninhabitable, the artifacts remain.

We had our third baby in April. I do most of the calving work on the farm, while my husband, Kelly, is busy preparing for and seeding the crop. Well, this year, I had added challenge of taking care of a newborn human, in addition to newborn calves. It seems like everything is delayed on the farm because I’m busy with our new little guy and not able to help as much as I’m used to.

This year we are a little late moving cattle out to summer pasture. This is due to a few factors…

Last year, 2015, was a drought year for us in north central Alberta, and we had a drier than usual winter and early spring. Rain for us didn’t come until the May Long weekend and fortunately it hasn’t stopped since! We have delayed turn-out to allow the grass to grow up with some good moisture. This allows the grass to “de-stress,” put down good roots for the year, and grow. If we were to turn the cows out on the grass earlier, the grass may have still been in survival mode and stressed and would have decreased grass growth, preventing us to keep our cattle out on pasture later in the fall.

Thankfully, we had feed to use up. Last year, although it was a drought, the rains came later. These later rains landed right during haying season. To bale good hay, we need dry conditions to allow the hay to cure (be dry enough to store properly). Since it was raining, we made the decision to bag our hay turning it into haylage (fermented grass & alfalfa—similar to making pickles!). The haylage doesn’t keep well, so to keep from wasting it, we had to feed it all, and we just ran out in late June. 

IMG_0622 (1)Before we take the heifers out to pasture, we have to sort them in to two groups. One group will go out to pasture, breed with a bull, become pregnant (hopefully!), have a calf next spring and join our cow herd. The other group will be sold as open (not pregnant) heifers.

After we sorted and got our two groups, we loaded the group going out to pasture into a trailer and drove them to their summer pasture. We always trailer the cows out to summer pasture, rather than “push” them out on horseback because our area has a lot of crop fields, a few houses, and not many fences. It’s safe and efficient. 

When the cows were unloaded on their summer pasture they are always happy. Kicking and bucking usually happens—and then they go off to graze for the summer!

Want to learn more? Have questions for Jill? You can follow Crooked Lake Farm on social media: on Facebook and Instagram as @CrookedLakeFarm, and on Twitter as @crookedlakecows, and through their website and blog: www.crookedlakefarm.com

July Faces of Farming Features Modern Homesteaders

By Matt McIntosh for Farm & Food Care Ontario

The farming lifestyle might not be for everyone, but for AmyBeth and Colin Brubacher, there’s nothing better. The Elmira, Ont., couple are turkey producers, and they see farming and family as their greatest passions.

“We absolutely love our lifestyle,” says AmyBeth. “It’s modern homesteading, living close to the land. There’s a lot of great things to learn.”

IMG_0236aBox2AmyBeth and Colin own and operate B & B Farms, where they raise turkeys for both large processors as well as for direct sale. They are an average sized turkey farm in Ontario, and also have 100 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat which they share crop with their cousin who has the neighbouring farm.

With three children –   Zoe (age 11), Stella (age 7) and Mercedes (age 2) – AmyBeth and Colin are the third-generation of Brubachers to run the farm. AmyBeth is also the face of July in the 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar.

As part of their direct turkey sales, the Brubachers supply both whole fresh birds for holiday seasons – around Thanksgiving , Christmas and Easter – as well as value-added products like ground meat and sausages. The family markets their turkeys and value-added products under the brand “Scotch Line Turkey Co.”

“We love working with animals and the satisfaction you get from raising healthy turkeys,” says Colin. “It’s very rewarding being able to produce healthy, great tasting food and just being a part of the agricultural community.”

Colin and AmyBeth took over the farm management from Colin’s parents nine years ago, but actually started building a succession plan over 16 years ago. To help things run smoothly, the couple work alongside Colin’s dad, Landis, and employ local part-time students to help them on evenings and weekends. The extra help is particularly valuable since Colin also works off the farm as an insurance broker.

B & B Farms is also a green energy producer. On one of the farm’s smaller outbuildings, the main turkey barn and their house they have three 10-kilowatt  micro-fit solar systems. The family also has a contract to build a larger, 100 kilowatt solar project on a new turkey barn, which they plan on constructing in the near future.

“We are all about green energy,” says Colin.

AmyBeth is the face of July in the 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar. Her page is sponsored by Turkey Farmers of Ontario.

AmyBeth is the face of July in the 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar. Her page is sponsored by Turkey Farmers of Ontario.

Previously to raising turkeys, Colin worked as an auto mechanic, however, he insists that he always wanted and planned to be a farmer. AmyBeth, on the other hand, did not initially plan on having a farm-centred life. She went to Wilfrid Laurier University for a degree in music, and York University for a degree in education. She then worked as a teacher for seven years before deciding to stay home in favour of having more time with her family.

“We started home schooling the kids a few years ago. We have a good opportunity to educate our children right here at home” says AmyBeth.

Outside of the farm business, both AmyBeth and Colin are involved in their local church through various committees and programs. The family also likes to travel when time permits, visiting relatives who live as far away as Newfoundland, British Columbia, and many places in between. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the love of food also features prominently in their leisure activities – both AmyBeth and Colin enjoy canning and preserving together, as well as sharing their backyard and turkey products with friends and family.

“It’s the family aspect of this business that makes it special to us,” Colin says.

-30-

The eleventh annual “Faces of Farming” calendar, 2016, published by Farm & Food Care Ontario, is designed to introduce the public to a few of Ontario’s passionate and hardworking farmers – the people who produce food in this province. See more at facesoffarming.ca.

A Day in the Life of…Valleykirk Farms

Rob & Courtney and Courtney the Cow

Rob & Courtney and Courtney the Cow

A Day in the Life captures a morning, afternoon, or entire day of a Canadian farm. This entry highlights the Kirkconnell/Denard family’s day for June 21, 2016. Have a question about a particular farming type or practice? Leave a comment below and we’ll be sure to reach out and connect you!

My name is Courtney Denard and I am proud member of a farm family in Owen Sound, Ontario. Together with my husband Rob Kirkconnell, and his parents Bob and Mary Ann Kirkconnell, we run Valleykirk Farms, a 50-head dairy farm on 160 acres of land.

Rob and Mary Ann were up at 5:30 a.m. this morning (like every morning), and out in the barn milking the cows. It takes about two hours to milk our cows or “do chores” as we farmers like to say. Bob was in charge of delivering our bull calves to the Keady Market this morning so he left the farm around 8:00 a.m., and made his way to the sales barn where a livestock auction is held every Tuesday.

As a farm reporter and agricultural communications specialist, I work from home writing newspaper and magazine articles about the agriculture sector. This morning I had a phone interview about a new project that is placing giant wooden quilts on barns across our county. I’ll spend the rest of my day coming up with new story ideas, contacting people for interviews, and eventually writing articles for my weekly deadline. I might take a break or two to Tweet about our life on the farm or take our puppy, June, for a walk.

Rob came back to the house around 8:30 a.m. and spent some time working on the farm’s accounting books. Most farmers take care of their own financials so this is just one more job that needs to be done on a regular basis.

Rob and the new puppy, June

Rob and the new puppy, June

And because it’s summer, the farm is in its busy haying season so Rob made his way into the tractor at 11 a.m. where he will be cutting hay (kind of like mowing grass but with bigger machines, and we let it dry, then make it into bales) until 4:00 p.m. We’ll take up to three cuts of hay off our fields between June and August and use it to feed our livestock year round.

The cows will need to be milked again at 4:30 p.m., so it will be back to the barn at that time for two more hours. Dinner is usually at 7:00 p.m. but during the busy summer we really have no supper schedule. It could be a quick bite after evening chores or leftovers at 9:00 p.m. on a tailgate in the field. Bedtime at our house is around 11:00 p.m. but once again that depends on what needs to be done. Work trumps sleep when you’re making hay!

If you’d like to follow Rob or me on Twitter please do. Our Twitter handles are @Valleykirkfarms and @CowSpotComm.

A Day in the Life: How a Dairy Farmer Trains for Marathons

By Tom Hoogendoorn, dairy farmer

I am a dairy farmer in British Columbia who decided to take up running. But not just any running — marathon running.

Tom Hoogendoorn1Being a busy dairy guy I thought I had no time to exercise until one day I looked in the mirror and decided I didn’t want to continue to be out of shape. Life is hard enough with out packing extra weight along. So, I started running.

Of course, no self respecting dairy farmer ran in those days (this was 12 years ago). At first, I ran places where no one would see me. I got found out and started running on the local roads. My friends would tease me about it, but in the meantime they secretly admired me. Actually, I think I inspired a few people to take up running. I even had a few farmers run with me over the years.

Being a farmer and an active board member of various organizations I had to make time to run. We milk our cows twice a day at 5 a.m. and 4 p.m . Every morning is also spent doing chores related to caring for our cows and calves. My schedule works best if I run after lunch in the afternoons so I can get back in time for the afternoon milkings. I also will train after milkings in the summer with the longer days and warmer weather. Only problem then is being hungry running by houses and smelling the barbecue!

Tom Hoogendoorn's Farm in British Columbia

Tom Hoogendoorn’s Farm in British Columbia

I dedicate time to my industry as a B.C. milk board member.  We tend to have two board meetings a month as well as a lot of committee meetings, plus meetings in other provinces, so I never go to meetings without my running gear, and try to make time around meetings to get out and run. My motto is NO EXCUSES.

I have seen many beautiful places in the world because of running. I have many great stories about all the people I’ve met during my runs no matter where they are.

I found I love running and being around runners. We are a crazy fun-loving, in-your-face bunch. I feel great, and think it has helped my farming and political career by making my focus much stronger. You need focus to run 26 miles in bad weather all the while smiling through the pain! 

I’d urge all farmers young and old to do something that they enjoy that helps them stay in shape for the long haul. No one has to take running to extremes to enjoy it but everyone benefits by staying in shape. And your kids will love you for it.

Nurse-Turned-Farmer Featured as May’s Faces of Farming

By Matt McIntosh for Farm & Food Care Ontario

Diane Cook may have gone to school for nursing, but shortly after meeting her future husband, Don, she immediately took an interest in farm life. Now, 37 years later, she’s the matriarch of a farm family that’s five generations old, and even has their own road.

May 2016 Diane

“Don’s great grandfather was a county constable, and one of the original settlers in this area,” says Diane. “20 years ago, the historical society renamed the road ‘Cook Road’ after him.”

Diane grew up close to her grandparents and uncle. They were farmers, and that meant Diane spent quite a bit of time helping out with chores. Her real interest in agriculture, however, began when she started dating Don. Because of the workload Don and his family had to manage, the couple used to spend some of their dates riding inside the tractor cab as Don worked in the fields. At the time, Diane also took it upon herself to start tackling a few tasks herself.

“It was a natural progression into farming for me, really. I thought since I was already there, I might as well help out and get something done,” she says.

That natural progression eventually saw Diane taking on some of the bookkeeping responsibilities as well, even before the couple married in 1978. She began working on the farm full-time a couple years after marriage, with her role expanding as time went on.

Today, Diane and Don are parents to Jeff (age 32), Lisa (age 30), Bobby (age 25) and Brett (age 22), and grandparents to Briar, Kyla, and Shaye. Diane is also the face of May in the 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar. Her page is sponsored by RBC Royal Bank.

Along with their son Jeff, the couple grows 3,500 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans for both the consumer market and seed companies. On top of that, they produce sweet corn, green beans, lima beans and green peas for the Canadian frozen vegetable market.

As is expected with a business that’s five generations old, the Cook family farm has certainly changed since Don’s great grandfather first settled the area. Now called Mapleview Farms, Diane and Don have added to the amount of land under their business name, and the variety of crops grown on that land throughout their time together. They even tried growing about 90 acres of black beans for the first time in the spring of 2015, despite the fact that it can be tricky to grow in cooler and wetter climates.

In terms of future plans for the farm, Diane says they are hoping to incorporate more black beans into their crop rotation, and continue making environmentally-conscious improvements to other aspects of their farm. Jeff, she reiterates, is very focused on being progressive.

“Jeff went to the University of Guelph for agriculture and graduated in 2006. He manages our contracts, plus he does a lot of research because he’s interested in finding new and better ways to manage the farm.”

In her spare time, Diane enjoys golfing, biking and gardening, as well other sports when time permits. Spending time with their young granddaughters and being able to live and work on the farm, though, are some of Diane and Don’s favourite pastimes.

“I love being outside, and having the chance to see my family,” she says. “Farming is a challenge; no two jobs are the same. You can see every day what you have accomplished.”

Family Egg farmers featured in 2016 farm calendar

By: Matt McIntosh for Farm & Food Care Ontario

2010 calendar(Warkworth) – Ian and Sara Laver are not only proud parents and business owners; they’re also models – calendar models that is. With sponsorship from Burnbrae Farms Ltd., Ian, Sara and two of their children (four-year old Jacob and two year-old Amelia) appear on the month of April in the 2016 Faces of Farming calendar.

“My family has been farming for four generations, and producing eggs for three of those,” says Ian. “Right now I work together with my dad, but the businesses themselves are separate.”

Ian says he took an interest in farming fairly early in life, and after working on the farm all through high school, attended the University of Guelph. While working towards a degree with the Ontario Agricultural College, Ian met Sara – a self-proclaimed “city-kid” from Markham – who was pursuing a degree in Environmental Science. The two married after Sara completed a Master’s degree in environmental science from the University of Toronto.

Ian purchased his first farm eight years ago, and started growing corn soybeans and wheat. He then purchased a second farm. Continue reading

An egg farmer examines hen housing

By Ian McKillop, egg farmer and vice chairman of Farm & Food Care Canada

Hen HousingGrowing up in the 1960’s, I’ve fond memories of my brother and me helping collect eggs. We had a small flock of several hundred hens in chicken coops. We’d reach into nests for eggs, put them in a basket and wash any dirt or manure off. Often the hens would peck us – or each other, sometimes causing death. If they became scared, they’d flock to a corner and could even suffocate themselves.

In the 1960’s, conventional cages became popular, providing a healthier and safer environment for hens and the farmers caring for them. So in 1967, my parents built a new barn with conventional cages.

The barn held 6,000 hens, large by 1967 standards, with three hens per cage. Pecking and suffocation were virtually eliminated. Gathering eggs by hand was easier, plus the eggs were seldom in contact with manure anymore. Overall, the cages allowed a safer way of housing our hens with fewer deaths, improving the quality and food safety of the eggs, while keeping costs down. The birds were content and so were we. Continue reading