“You have to be optimistic to put a seed in the ground and hope that it grows”

·10 min read

The very essence of agriculture is putting faith in a system that is filled with variables that are outside of one’s control, that by nature of the profession farmers have to be resilient and optimistic. Local farm group leaders postulated that such positivity and strength made them better prepared in the face of challenges such as supply chain issues, rising fuel and land costs and limited processing capacity.

Elgin Federation of Agriculture President Melissa Schneider and Vice-President Greg Fentie recently talked to The Aylmer Express about farming in Elgin, and some current issues.

Melissa grew up on a Sparta-area family farm, and now works for Ontario Farmland Trust.

Greg introduced himself saying, “I run a small dairy farm north of Springfield.” He has a wife and three kids – and a bill. Or at least a bill he hadn’t planned on “I managed to break a door in the barn last night” in an incident involving an overhead door getting caught on the back edge of a mixer, then crashing down. “They’re going to come fix it today, but I’ll also have a bill and I don’t know how bad it’ll be.”

Greg was first asked whether there was anything remarkable going on in dairy the dairy industry right now?

He highlighted a couple things including a grocery code of conduct and sustainability practices.

For the grocery matter, with few companies controlling supply nationally, Greg said, “it’s an unfair power balance and it’s not conducive to a healthy competitive marketplace.”

He gave an example of a grocery chain ordering a thousand chocolate milks. If they only received 900, they would only pay for 900, but they may also apply a penalty against the supplier for not providing the full order, even if it was out of the supplier’s control. And it wasn’t just milk – fees and fines were reportedly applied across many commodities, and moreso during the pandemic when many suppliers were encountering production obstacles.

An industry-wide code of conduct that would establish a set of fair business practices and stabilize the power imbalance between suppliers and big grocers.

He said sustainable initiatives were also top of mind for dairy farmers, and that they wanted to do what was best for the environment, “but you also have to remember, it needs to be profitable as well. If farmers can’t make money doing this, that’s not sustainable either.”

Examples of sustainable practices in dairy included improving feed efficiency and herd optimization. “Nobody breeds for a cow that produces less milk.” He explained, “If they eat the same amount of food and produce more milk, then that lowers your environmental footprint because you’re getting more from less and you can actually do with fewer cows.”

Greg also touched on the subject of soil improvement and no-till. He said, “that’s a fun one for us as we brought in this digestate product from Bartels. It’s black as your shoes (assuming you’re wearing black shoes) and it has a fertilizer value to it. We were able to mix that in our manure pit with our existing manure and spread that product out on the fields. We had enough time last fall to get about a third of one of our wheat fields covered.”

And those effects were already paying off, “I put my drone up and you can make out to the exact spot in the field where that last tank ran across and where it ran out. The wheat is that much greener where that is.”

He said it was a win on multiple fronts, “That’s a renewable resource, both in terms of energy and in terms of nutrients. And it’s a local thing. It comes out of London and now I’m not relying on potash from Saskatchewan. So that’s one of the things that I’m doing to mitigate the higher fertilizer prices this year.”

Both Melissa and Greg grew up on family farms, and were asked what is the best part of such an upbringing.

“It teaches you a lot about responsibility and fiscal management,” said Melissa. “You bring a lot of that into your later life skills as well. It sets you up to be very mindful of who you are and what you have and what you do.”

And on a lighter note, “It is a fun activity to grow up rurally. Despite the number of chores every farm kid has, it’s still just a nice environment to grow up on.”

Greg said, “I wish I could have a comparison because I only ever grew up on a farm. It was just growing up. You learn responsibilities. You learn—I hate to say it—but you learn life and death. We’ve seen calves born and you have to see cows die from time to time.”

He then added, “I wonder if you appreciate the opportunities to get out, socialize with others more because we’re fairly isolated on the farm. You appreciate so many more things. I hate to be that corny guy that says you look out and you see the sunrise across your hay field the morning, but oh my God, that wins. Right? That wins. I don’t know what you wake up looking to, but in the morning out here you look to the east. It’s nice.”

On the subject of growing up on farms, Melissa sadly observed, “Unless you have land that you can pass down to the next generation, there will probably not be a way for many people to get into land ownership anymore.”

She surmised that without the backup of family financing, “If you were to purchase a farm at today’s prices at today’s going rates, it’s very likely the only thing your kids would be inheriting is your farm debt. And it might even go one generation further.”

She worried, since farming was already an unpredictable profession, “Mother Nature’s bad mood one day can make or break your entire year. And how many years does it take for that to happen before the debt becomes overwhelming.”

On the other hand, the high cost of land was paying off for farmers looking to cash out. Melissa cited a farm near Port Stanley that recently sold for a reported $31,000 an acre.

On the subject of land and debt, Greg chimed in with a growing worry of his. This year he was worried arbour input, cost and availability, but “my concern for next year is interest rates.”

Rates have gone up this year, and he read they were predicted to continue rising. “How do you get out from under that? If the interest rates go up, you still own that land. And the only way you think you can pay that off is to continue to own and work the land. But if at some point you can’t make the payments, then you don’t own the land anymore.”

They then got on the topic of development around the edges of urban areas, which is one of the factors making agricultural land so valuable for those who buy it, rezone it and develop it into subdivision housing.

Melissa wondered, “How much housing do we need versus how much farmland do we need to grow things, to be able to feed our own people in our own country?” She knew both were essential, “But you can build houses where you can’t grow food. It should be all about infilling and upfilling. It should be about smart planning and smart decision making and incorporating those things into your municipal official plans.”

Greg added, “My perspective is houses are great and all, but unless they’re made of gingerbread, you just can’t eat ‘em.”

As far as farming in Elgin County in particular, the EFA leaders said area farmers are methodically figuring out how to maximize what works on their land, whether that be crops or livestock.

Greg said, “Farmers are becoming more progressive in our county. There’s more of an emphasis on a scientific approach… ‘If I put down X pounds of fertilizer, I can get Y return on it…’ Because we want to maximize our crops, but also maximize our budgets and also protect the lake – we want to do what’s best for all sides.”

Along those lines, he’s also seen more emphasis on soil samples and yield maps.

Melissa said Elgin farmers were also looking for value-added products, like opening a small processing facility.

She’s observed, during the pandemic especially, a growing buy local movement. “A lot of people are opening their eyes now. They don’t want to purchase products that are shipped in from 5,000 kilometers away.”

The EFA leaders were then asked whether there was anything the agricultural community learned from the pandemic.

Melissa responded, “Farmers come with a built-in level of resilience because we’re used to adversity. We’re used to stress, to facing the unknown and being able get through the best that we know how.

“To some degree, yes, the pandemic was a disruption on many fronts at the same time, but farmers do what they always do, which is farm as well as they can given the circumstances.”

She did note that it helped bring to the forefront what worked well, and where there were cracks in the system. It was mentioned that her father was waiting six months for a machinery part to arrive. In the meantime, he had adapted in order to keep working, she joked, “he MacGyvered something with tape and a piece of chewing gum and an elastic bit.” Then more reflectively said, “he came up with something that worked until he could get what he needed.”

Greg agreed, “I think on farms we always attempt to learn. It just happened faster in the last two years.”

Melissa said the pandemic also “shone a light on the fact that rural communities still do not have good access to reliable affordable internet services.” She knew local governments were working on better rural connectivity, but hoped that progress would happen sooner than later.

To conclude the conversion was a question on whether the general outlook for farming in Elgin was positive or negative.

Greg said, “You have to be optimistic to put a seed in the ground and hope that it grows and turns you profit. We’re always an optimistic people. But you want to be cautiously aware of the risk going forward and what that could be.”

Melissa said, “Generally farmers try to hold a positive attitude, but there are so many uncontrollable outside influences going on in our universe right now that it is hard to predict.”

For the coming year she hoped for the best as “people managed to lock in last year at the pricing.” But she did have reservations if supply chains and rising costs continued, “If it’s like that next year, you’re going to start running into problems.”

That positive attitude pushed through, “I hope that everything will be fine and I wish everybody a happy planting season. I hope we have a good balance of rain and sun, and I hope everybody gets a bumper crop this year.”

Greg concluded with a modest request: “an inch rain every Saturday night at midnight would be perfect.”

Renée Hueston, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Aylmer Express

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