WHETHER HE’S MANAGINGthe diversification and self-sufficiency goals of the family farm or advocating for supply management on behalf of Canada’s dairy farmers, third-generation farmer Jacques Laforge knows that balance is key.
Since Laforge took over the family farm with his wife Patricia in 1980, he has been balancing a career of farming with his involvement in farm organizations. He also had to look at bringing balance to the farm.
At first, the farm business was split equally between dairy and potatoes but it became clear early on that it would be tough to meet their business goals if they depended so heavily on the volatile potato sector. Recognizing that their strength was in dairy, a “farm policy” was set to ensure a minimum 50 per cent of the business would always be in the supply-managed commodity.
Beyond that, Laforge saw diversification into other commodities as a way to bring balance to their business.
“Everything needs to be in relation to the cows,” says Laforge. “We measure our opportunities to diversify our farm business based on how they might support our core dairy focus.”
With that farm policy in mind, the Laforge family transitioned out of potatoes by the late 1980s and expanded into other cash crops such as corn, grains and forages that were more compatible with the dairy part of their business. Today, they milk 100 dairy cows and crop 800 to 1,000 acres.
As well, son Rock and daughter Louise have joined the farm operation, and Laforge is involved in land exchange with local potato farmers to help with crop rotations and reduce the costs of land ownership.
Since he started farming, Laforge’s dream was to grow the business to be self-sufficient, including in fertilizer, gas, and energy use. He’s on the cusp of realizing his dream with the newest addition to the farm, a methane digester.
Construction started in late summer 2009 and wrapped up in the fall of 2010. In early 2011, the now-operating digester will have reached the ideal gas quality (55-60 per cent methane) to produce electricity.
Filled with manure and off-farm waste from processing plants, Laforge says the continuous-flow digester needs consistent feed — just like a cow — to function efficiently. He anticipates the unit will digest 20,000 tonnes of material per year, producing enough fertilizer to cover 7,000 to 8,000 acres.
Laforge also projects the farm will consume about 10 per cent of the electricity that’s generated, with the remainder being sold to NB Power.
Balance also means working with other farmers to keep the industry strong. For Laforge it was a conscious decision to get involved in the organizations representing the commodities he farmed, though he soon needed to concentrate his energy.
Because his farm’s main staple relied on supply management, he focused his time and energy on dairy organizations, learning the unique aspects of the marketing system and encouraging decisions that would benefit all those in that industry.
Laforge says the need for leaders to champion supply management was becoming critical, especially in the face of growing international pressure to get rid of or scale back the marketing system. Laforge’s forward-thinking vision and articulate approach helped him rise through the ranks, being elected first as chair of Dairy Farmers of New Brunswick (1994-2000) and then as president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada (since 2004).
Through his organizational work, Laforge learned the differences between the open market and supply-managed systems. He saw how good a tool supply management was for the Canadian dairy industry.
“The reason why supply management exists is because our dairy production has been based on a good balance between business and political decisions,” says Laforge. He explains the industry must have regulation to have collective decision-making, and that being business-minded helps maximize the market.
The success of Canada’s supply-managed system is due largely to checks and balances that base production on actual consumption. Laforge says that, unlike supply-managed systems in other parts of the world, the Canadian system is very oriented and responsive to the market.
“The Canadian dairy industry has been built on a history of all producers working for the same goal, to improve their farm situation to have something to pass on to the next generation.”
Laforge says the part he finds most difficult to explain to others is the approach toward dairy imports. He says the industry needs to allow imports, but that they must be measured and predictable so that the Canadian supply can be adjusted accordingly.
“We don’t want to short the market,” he says, “but it’s critical to avoid production surpluses.”
The biggest hurdle for Canada’s supply-managed system is international pressure that threatens to erode the system to a point that it’s no longer efficient, Laforge says.
Looking ahead, Laforge sees two trends evolving that will strengthen the dairy industry. First he expects the shift in farms that are rolling over into shareholder-type structures will encourage more young farmers to enter the industry by partnering or through share transfer. Second, there has been a great deal of concentration domestically at the processor and retailer levels, and Laforge says producers have not kept pace. He anticipates more unification across current provincial boundaries towards a true national system.
“Today we are producing for a Canadian market,” says Laforge. “How we meet the market demands and protect our marketing system needs to be a Canadian approach with true national producer representation.”CG
“ The Canadian dairy industry has been built on a history of all producers working for the same goal.”
— Jaques Laforge