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About the northwest

To this farmer, northwestern Ontario offers loads of advantages over the hustle of the southwest

Whether it’s through the longer days of spring and summer in northwestern Ontario or the darker nights that mark the passage of winter, Kim Jo Bliss puts a lot into every hour of every day. A full-time farmer, manager of the Emo Agricultural Research Station, a passionate advocate for farming, and a mentor for young people considering agriculture as a career, Bliss is like many farmers from across Canada — she’s busy!

Bliss farms just north of the town of Emo, which sits on the Rainy River between Thunder Bay (four hours to the east) and Winnipeg (three-and-a-half hours west), in what’s known as Kingsford Township. There, she operates the family farm that was first worked by W. A. Smith, her great-grandfather and then by Gladys V. Smith, her grandmother, with her two brothers-in-law (Bliss’s great-uncles) Bud and Charlie Smith, helping out. Between the three of them, they taught Bliss all she needed to know about raising cows and growing forage crops. Bliss honours her grandmother — Nanny — calling her “a woman in ag” before the designation “Women in Ag” was ever recognized.

“I farmed every day with my grandma: she taught me the love of farming, dogs and hard work… and stubbornness,” says Bliss, who’s grown the farm to roughly 880 acres workable with more land in the family that needs fencing and ground that needs to be worked to be productive. There are also 50 cows, a dozen sheep and a few ducks that she manages. “I’ve been farming my whole life — my mom and dad moved into a mobile home in my grandma’s yard when I was a baby, and I chose to stay with her many times as my parents would travel with my brother for hockey.”

Her parents — Tony and Louise Bliss — still help out as much as they can on the farm. Her father loves to drive the tractor, haul manure, plow snow or help with the hay. Her mother also pitches in with some of the chores, including bottle-feeding the lambs, when Bliss is late arriving home from meetings or other functions.

Bliss’s boyfriend, Clayton Stang, also provides support and a helping hand whenever needed, understanding her time commitments and demands both on and off the farm.

And then there are her two nieces, Marlee, aged nine and Maddie, who’s 11. Bliss hopes they’ll follow her lead and fall in love with farming the way she did. She includes them in every aspect of life on the farm and they’ve been absorbing it all. They’ve convinced “Auntie Kimmie” to add rabbits and a horse to her menagerie, and they’re trying to get her to take on some chickens, as well. Also the two girls take cattle to the local fair, and earlier this year, Maddie joined 4-H.

Northern diversity

It comes as a surprise to some that northwestern Ontario boasts such a diverse, yet significant land base in which so many operate farms. Bliss has encountered amazement on the part of some people who have never considered the region of Thunder Bay, Emo, Fort Frances and Dryden to have farms of up to 1,000 acres and “more conventional” cropping rotations. She’s had a few people ask if they could drop by while they’re visiting New Liskeard: she points out that it’ll take 12 to 16 hours to “drop by.”

Kim Jo Bliss, who farms near Emo, Ont., believes there’s no better place to farm than northwestern Ontario.
photo: Farm and Food Care Ontario

To put it in perspective, Bliss notes that in the time it would take her to drive east to Ottawa, she could be almost to the Alberta-B.C. border, heading west.

“I love to talk about our incredible district,” says Bliss, adding that it’s tough to pinpoint just one “best part” of farming in Ontario’s northwest. “Not only is it beautiful, we have producers growing top-yielding corn, soybean and canola — the longer days are enjoyed by soybeans and seed production. We can grow forages, so I’m sure the cow herd will be here always, and we have good cattle that are hardy and do well in a feed lot. Our long days are incredible (during summer) with daylight until 10 p.m., and again at 4:30 a.m., which makes for great working hours.”

Some might say that the other end of the calendar might be dauntingly dark yet Bliss never allows something like daylight to dictate what needs to get done on the farm. She tries to bale-graze new areas of the farm every year during those dark and short days from November through to the end of January. Then she calves her cows in February and March.

Besides, from a cropping perspective, another benefit of living “off the beaten path” is that diseases and pests aren’t as common.

Bliss says there has also been a considerable amount of land cleared as well as tile drainage work that has been done, which is increasing the number of crop acres in the area. She estimates that she receives a phone call or an email at least once a week from someone looking for a farm or land.

Some of the callers are younger, she adds, but some are just looking to move to more affordable land. Many are selling theirs for between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre, and are looking at prices in the Rainy River region from $500 to $1,000 per acre — more if it’s tiled.

“Many of us have lots of land, yet we haven’t always been forced to be more productive, since at one time, it was easy to acquire more land,” says Bliss, also noting the younger producers who are moving into the region. “It’s very clear that young people have an interest in agriculture, but they also want to work on the farm full time — they don’t want to work off the farm — they want the farm to support the family.”

Bliss is a huge advocate of agriculture, promoting the variety of career choices the industry holds, and she’s participated in every opportunity she’s had to engage in that promotion. She serves and volunteers on boards and committees in the Emo area, and is passionate, not just about agriculture, but agriculture in the Rainy River district and northwestern Ontario in general. She’s served with the Beef Farmers of Ontario and its advisory council, as well as the Rainy River Cattlemen’s Association as its secretary. When she was 12, she joined the Rainy River District 4-H, becoming a leader nine years later, and she continues to spend time with the Leaders program.

Among her other affiliations, she attends meetings and helps out with the Rainy River Soil and Crop Improvement Association and also serves as chair for the Riverside Foundation, Emo’s local hospital fundraising committee.

Her job with the Emo Agricultural Research Station (EARS) involves cereal, oilseed, forage and biomass research, plus variety trials, fertility trials plus demonstration plots. At one time, the station was operated by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), but was transferred to the University of Guelph’s control several years ago.

“We’re lacking corn equipment but have grown corn in the past, and this year, are working with a local farmer to plant corn plots here at EARS,” says Bliss, who’s thankful for the relationships she’s forged through the years. “Soybeans and canola are of big interest these days but with large cattle numbers, so are forages. We also answer weed questions, help with soil test results, and there’s always someone with some type of question. We’ve had some great partnerships with industry in our area, and we’re lucky to have a lot of great people supporting what we do here in Emo.”

Staying organized

With so much to do in a day and during the year, Bliss’s biggest challenge is time management. Although the summer days are longer than other parts of Eastern Canada, the season is shorter.

If all goes well in a growing season, that’s seldom a problem. But if the weather doesn’t co-operate, it becomes a balancing act to manage her own operation while co-ordinating the business of overseeing the plots at EARS, or organizing an open house at the station.

“My most challenging time is haying season — if the weather is great, it helps, but it means very long days,” adds Bliss. “I calve my cows in February and March, since that’s the slowest time at the research station, and in winter I get to spend more time at home, but I still need to find trials and partnerships for the upcoming season. I could easily work endless hours at EARS, where it’s no different than a farm — there’s never nothing to do. But I have to disconnect and go home and work.”

On a larger scale, Bliss sees the local food movement as a Catch-22 of sorts. On one hand, she believes consumers are recognizing the benefits of local food and appreciating the efforts of farmers in the area. On the other hand, in the Rainy River district, there’s an issue with small local abattoirs struggling with higher hydro rates and higher taxes, since they’re zoned industrial.

“I believe they need to put something more behind this statement than just talk,” says Bliss. “Without local abattoirs, we’re unable to feed our local friends and family, and this is a very real problem. I also think there’s work to be done on fair pricing; we’re pleased that cattle markets are steady, but there is little money being made by the grassroots producer. Farms need to grow so big to be able to make money but then they have to look at hiring help, and this takes away from profits. I’m very excited though that many people are really waking up to the importance of our jobs as farmers.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of the Corn Guide.

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