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Farm the north country

Just ask Lee Laframboise. Ontario’s Near North can be a great place to farm

Spend a few minutes talking to Lee Laframboise about where he farms and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s right where he wants to be. That’s not rare among farmers. Most have a passion not just for farming but for their particular chunk of the planet, the surrounding landscape and the people who make up their community.

That’s the life that Laframboise has come to embrace in Ontario’s Near North region, where he works the family farm near Earlton, just north of New Liskeard.

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Laframboise was born and raised on the farm, and except for a short period of time away, has been there all of his life, buying shares in the operation since 1998. Today, Lee, his brother Kim, and his parents Roland and Denise, manage a dairy and cash cropping operation on 1,140 acres with 1,000 of those workable. Their soils are mostly clay-loam with a little bit of black muck and almost no sand or rocks. Their rotation varies from year to year between alfalfa, grasses, corn, soybeans, canola, yellow peas, oats and wheat.

“For the most part, we try to grow the crops to feed our dairy cattle, to try to isolate ourselves from fluctuating markets to produce milk,” says Laframboise. “There are always some acres that are for cash crops, of course. If canola prices are low, we can switch to something else, like soybeans or peas. We’re very flexible with what we can grow on that cash crop part.”

With a dairy and cash crop operation, Lee and Kim employ four part-time workers, mostly to help with the milking. Lee’s wife Melissa also lends a hand during the afternoons and focuses on feeding the calves. Roland and Denise also help out as does Lee and Melissa’s eight-year-old son Scott, who’s part of that third generation, pitching in with the milking on weekends and evenings while two-year-old Levi believes he’s lending a hand, as well. Kim and his wife Tori, have a one-year-old son, Oscar to add to that “next generation.”

Working in film

Farming in the Near North can hold both blessings and challenges, from fresh air and plenty of sunshine during the growing season to shorter days and colder temperatures come winter. Yet Lafram­boise welcomes both and in fact has been able to derive more from the longer summer days using a biodegradable film to plant the family’s corn crop.

Marketed as “oxi-biodegradable,” it’s a product manufactured by SAMCO System, based in County Limerick, Ireland.

“We’ve been using it since 2012 and the reason is that we’re only a 2100- to 2200-crop heat unit area,” says Lafram­boise, adding that some years can be cooler while the odd year may see slightly warmer conditions. “Corn is a big asset for producing milk and if you don’t get the heat units you need, you basically have poor feed to make milk with. That means you have buy-in corn or barley to try to boost the energy to make the same amount of milk, but that gets costly.”

“If you don’t implement the new systems, the next thing you know you’ll be 20 years behind.” – Lee Laframboise, Earlton, Ont.-area farmer.
photo: Supplied

With the film, Laframboise estimates he gets an extra 250 to 300 added heat units, which solves the challenge of getting that added boost to finish the corn crop and maximize milk production. He’s been getting more than a ton per acre (35.7 bu./ac.) of additional grain in his corn but for Laframboise, it’s more about getting the consistency in his corn versus boosting his yield alone. And for every ton of grain that he has to purchase, there’s the challenge of producing more milk to compensate for the added cost.

“That’s why that oxi-biodegradable film made more sense,” he notes. “If I get four to five tons (143 to 179 bu./ac.) of grain corn on an acre that easily pays for that film.”

That’s part of the challenge of farming in the Near North. The family needs to maximize the growing season, which in turn means that the window for working ground and planting is considerably shorter than regions farther south.

In the Earlton-New Liskeard district, they can have a snow storm on May 1 that clogs roads and slows traffic, yet Laframboise and his brother are often hard at work preparing to be on the land within a week to 10 days.

In 2018, that was exactly what happened, but by May 10, the two were out working the fields and hauling manure.

In other regions of Eastern Canada, there may not be the same “cushion” on getting started from one year to the next. Not only is the spring season a little more forgiving in most of southern Ontario but conditions in the fall are often more conducive to delayed harvests.

“Here, you have to be ready because when the sun starts shining, if you want that crop to get to full maturity, you have to get in the field,” says Laframboise.

He and his brother have incorporated precision ag systems gradually and effectively since 2006, when they started using a GPS yield monitor, then upgraded to auto-steer in 2007. Most of their field tractors now have auto-steer capabilities, and it’s a system he says he couldn’t manage without. He also has electrical conductivity (EC) mapping done by his crop adviser — carried out every other year —which helps with his variable-rate annual fertilizer applications.

Laframboise knows that precision ag systems are readily available and he knows what he’d like to have on his farm in the coming years. Yet he’s comfortable with the pace at which he and Kim are incorporating new systems.

“When there’s new technology, my brother and I are keen on learning about it and seeing if it’s worth it and whether we can implement it on our farm to make it better,” says Laframboise. “We’re always trying to make things easier, better and to be more efficient. If you don’t implement the new systems, the next thing you know you’ll be 20 years behind, so it’s important to evolve with the technology.”

To help in the search for greater efficiencies and newer systems, Lee and Kim are increasingly reliant on networking and sharing management tips via social media. Not that long ago, says Lee, if he was looking for new information on farm practices or technologies, he’d have to drive four or five hours to attend workshops or conferences. Now, there are webinars he can participate in as well as farm groups on social media where he can share tips and practical knowledge. Although he concedes that some of the information isn’t always the best, he’s on Twitter or Facebook on an almost daily basis, looking for opportunities to discuss, share and learn.

“There are certain chat groups where the notifications are always on,” says Lafram­boise. “And then maybe in the morning after chores I’ll check to see what’s going on, even with the weather and seeing what’s happening in the rest of the world or checking on the markets for my grain.”

The road less travelled

As for being isolated, he dispels that notion. Laframboise says that whether you’re talking machinery or services, the farming community in the Near North has evolved so that most of what he needs for the farm is readily available close to home.

Even on those occasions where a part has to be shipped in from farther afield, couriers can have it to him overnight, as they did recently for some parts ordered from Sunova, a farm equipment dealership northeast of London, Ont.

But Laframboise likes the relative peace and solitude of the area, and when he goes to town, there are no traffic jams. If he and his family want to escape the farm, the nearby wilderness offers plenty of options, from camping and boating to fishing and hunting.

“For this area, I do find that Northern Ontario is a beautiful place to farm,” says Laframboise, adding that land is still affordable, there’s the wilderness nearby, but a person who wants to farm in the region will have to work hard. “You either love it or you don’t.”

This article was originally published in the Sept. 2018 issue of the Corn Guide.

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