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Ontario’s Dairy Jewel

My father heaved great sighs as we drove along. In the seat beside him, I was a young girl accompanying her Dad to dairy cattle sales in Tavistock, in the heart of Ontario’s Oxford county, and already I knew that these were sighs mixed with admiration and jealousy.

“Ohh,” he would say, “see the corn that this loam can grow. Ahh, look how neat those dairy farms are, and how prosperous.”

Along every road there were white fences, black and white cattle, red barns and the greenest of pastures, and in Woodstock, there was even a statue worshipping a record-producing cow. Who wouldn’t want to dairy farm in Oxford?

Today, the corn gets taller faster, the barns are bigger, the farmers are from all over the world and Oxford county is still Canada’s dairy jewel.

In 2008, the county’s 344 dairy farms shipped 267,975 kilolitres of milk — that’s the most milk of any county in Ontario, and Ontario dairy farmers produce about a third of Canada’s milk.

In Imperial, it works out to 60 million gallons of milk a year, and depending on how your calculate it, it’s enough to supply all the milk for over three million Canadians.

Impressively, each Oxford dairy farm produces the milk for a town of 9,000.

And Oxford isn’t done yet. More quota continues to move into Oxford and the surrounding counties of Perth, Waterloo, Wellington and Middlesex. And while the number of producers fell by one per cent last year (mainly due to consolidation), that’s much less than the 2.9 per cent drop for the province overall.

“Things are still booming in Oxford,” says Angela Howard, Western Ontario Holstein representative. “Farms are continuing to grow and the people are still coming.”

Today, Marleen Van Ham is used to driving the same roads I once travelled with my father. “The one thing I don’t see is for-sale signs,” Van Ham says. “Few properties in Oxford ever get to a real estate agent. Demand for land exceeds supply, so the offers start coming in as soon as the word gets out that someone is thinking of selling.”

Van Ham is a farmland appraiser and owner of Agri Choice Real Estate Appraisals at Tillsonburg. “Prices went up $1,000 to $1,500 per workable acre in 2008,” she says, “and they’ve gone up another $1,000 to $1,500 so far in 2009.”

Soaring prices are due to intense competition for land from expansion-oriented corn and soybean farms and from dairy and feather farms that are looking for a larger land base to grow their own feed and to receive their manure. Low interest rates are also sparking action from farmers anxious not to miss out on what may be an historically good time to buy.

“We’re seeing prices of $9,000 to $9,500 per workable acre,” Van Ham says. “A lot depends on proximity. If you aren’t close to a farmer who is aggressively expanding, you might be looking at $6,500 to $7,500 per acre.”

Where there’s competition, however, the bidding is fast and furious, says Van Ham. “When a property has sold at $9,500, there has usually been somebody right behind who was bidding $9,400.”

Top crops

The basics still drive farm success and development for the county’s 1,450 commercial farms. That means good soil and plenty of sunshine.

“We’ve got good-quality land,” says John Palmer, who farms near Norwich in the south part of the county and is vice-chair of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario. “With 2,700 to 2,900 heat units, you can grow almost any crop better.”

Last year that soil and heat produced an average corn yield of 171 bushels per acre, compared to provincial average of 156 bushels. Meanwhile, Oxford’s soybean crop went 49 bushels an acre — tied with several counties for the top yields in the Canada.

“We’ve got ideal heat units for crops that make milk, and ideal moisture levels due to the Great Lakes,” agrees John Heeney, who farms with his father, Gerald, near Ingersoll. To prove the point, all Heeney’s corn crop was planted when Country Guide caught up to him in mid-May.

“Oxford has good productive soil where little land makes lots of feed,” continues Heeney. “It’s very productive, probably the one of the best areas in southwestern Ontario to farm.”

The soil is also remarkably consistent, which is one reason why Canada’s Outdoor Farm show now calls Oxford home.

In 1997, the show moved from Shurgain’s research farm, just a half-hour east at Burford to its new home on a site owned by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario near Woodstock, the largest urban centre of Oxford.

The Outdoor Farm Show is unique in Ontario because companies and suppliers grow their seed varieties and even test some of their equipment right on the site. Consistent soil gives farmers a better chance of making fair comparisons between all the varieties in test plots. Of course, it makes for beautiful, uniform crops too, which in turn makes for less bickering from suppliers looking for the best spots to show off their genetics.

The soil’s inherent productivity doesn’t hurt either, says Lorie Jocius, president of Canada’s Outdoor Farm show. “You could throw a sandwich on that soil and it would grow.”

The quality of the nearby farms helps too. They’re expanding, progressive and eager to seize the benefits of production research. In return, the farm show also offers extensive livestock demonstrations. There will be a side-by-side demonstration of two robotic milking systems this year. A biodigester is also being considered for the site as a training and testing centre, and a calf development showcase is in the works that looks at new innovations in housing, nutrition and health.

Location, location

Oxford has become the place to be the first week of September with over 40,000 visitors to the farm show. “Woodstock is now known as a hub of leading-edge ag innovation,” says Jocius.

No farmer in Oxford is far from Highway 401, Ontario’s main trade corridor with its links to the intensely populated Golden Horseshoe just an hour away by truck.

Other businesses have decided that this proximity to the 401 and the new 403 that leads to the U. S. northeast via Buffalo is an advantage too. In 1989, the $500 million CAMI automotive plant opened at Ingersoll, and last year Toyota unveiled its world-class $1.1 billion automotive assembly plant in Woodstock.

The current volatility of the auto industry, however, stands in stark contrast to the steadiness of the dairy’s supply management system. Sales of milk and dairy products add $10 billion to the Canadian economy and are key to Oxford’s economic development, just as they always have been.

History

History feeds on itself. Settlers to Oxford in the 1800s were dairy farmers, and soon places like Ingersoll became

In 1997, the show moved from Shurgain’s research farm, just a half-hour east at Burford to its new home on a site owned by the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario near Woodstock, the largest urban centre of Oxford.

The Outdoor Farm Show is unique in Ontario because companies and suppliers grow their seed varieties and even test some of their equipment right on the site. Consistent soil gives farmers a better chance of making fair comparisons between all the varieties in test plots. Of course, it makes for beautiful, uniform crops too, which in turn makes for less bickering from suppliers looking for the best spots to show off their genetics.

The soil’s inherent productivity doesn’t hurt either, says Lorie Jocius, president of Canada’s Outdoor Farm show. “You could throw a sandwich on that soil and it would grow.”

The quality of the nearby farms helps too. They’re expanding, progressive and eager to seize the benefits of production research. In return, the farm show also offers extensive livestock demonstrations. There will be a side-by-side demonstration of two robotic milking systems this year. A biodigester is also being considered for the site as a training and testing centre, and a calf development showcase is in the works that looks at new innovations in housing, nutrition and health.

Location, location

Oxford has become the place to be the first week of September with over 40,000 visitors to the farm show. “Woodstock is now known as a hub of leading-edge ag innovation,” says Jocius.

No farmer in Oxford is far from Highway 401, Ontario’s main trade corridor with its links to the intensely populated Golden Horseshoe just an hour away by truck.

Other businesses have decided that this proximity to the 401 and the new 403 that leads to the U. S. northeast via Buffalo is an advantage too. In 1989, the $500 million CAMI automotive plant opened at Ingersoll, and last year Toyota unveiled its world-class $1.1 billion automotive assembly plant in Woodstock.

The current volatility of the auto industry, however, stands in stark contrast to the steadiness of the dairy’s supply management system. Sales of milk and dairy products add $10 billion to the Canadian economy and are key to Oxford’s economic development, just as they always have been.

History

History feeds on itself. Settlers to Oxford in the 1800s were dairy farmers, and soon places like Ingersoll became

From Immigrant To Ag Minister

Supply management is the reason things are booming in Oxford County, Ernie Hardeman says.

In 1952, Hardeman’s parents sold their farm in Holland, packed up their children and immigrated to Canada from Holland. They wanted opportunities for their children to farm with the freedom and room to grow.

They landed in Halifax at the famous Pier 21 and were sponsored to go to a sugar beet farm in Manitoba. Instead they wanted to go close to an area where a friend lived, someplace called Oxford County. Covertly, they made side arrangements for their luggage, piled onto the train heading west and disembarked in Woodstock, Ont. where their friend was waiting for them.

Today, Ernie Hardeman is serving his 14th year as the MPP for Oxford County, and was ag minister in the Mike Harris government. He’s currently Conservative ag critic and deputy house leader. At Queens Park he’s in the unique position of building and owning an agricultural business — Hardeman Feed Ltd. — before being elected.

In other rural areas the number of people employed by food production has dwindled as farms become more mechanized and raw farm produce is transported to large processing facilities, often in cities. Even in Oxford, the small cheese factories and meat-packing plants that once dotted its side roads are getting fewer and fewer.

But supply management is keeping Oxford strong. There may be fewer farmers, but the ones in production agriculture are investing in new facilities and technology in Oxford. “Over the last few years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in capital spending,” says Hardeman.

Immigration continues too. The difference now is that many European farmers come with money to invest. They can milk cows here with less debt and there’s farmland available for the next generation.

Hardeman was delivering and selling feed when supply management was introduced and saw a resulting shift toward specialization in dairying. Industrial and fluid milk was pooled so the standards increased. Additionally, the returns were better and more stable, so more money was available to invest into things like bulk tanks and herd expansion. Without supply management Hardeman thinks that consolidation would be extremely rapid with much fewer people in agriculture and less returns per cow unit.

Land and quota prices are rising. “We worry that quotas are too high but the price is based on what people can buy, pay it back and still make profits.” says Hardeman. “In a way, it’s positive to see the free market bidding up the right to produce.”

known for cheese making. Their farms attracted more processors, which in turn attracted more dairy farmers. Of course, these farms needed dairy supplies, such as milking equipment, feed, veterinary services, and eventually good genetics.

“Historically it’s a proven consistent area for profitable agriculture,” says Heeney. “It’s close to populated areas for transportation of low shelf-life fresh milk and this is also attractive for family living as we’re close to schools, towns, shopping.”

Nearby services are an advantage when you’re dealing with livestock and a perishable product. Today, Oxford County claims over 100 commercial and industrial agri-business ventures. “Obviously, competition for goods and services, and milk transportation are the key advantages,” says Heeney. “An ability to work together when it comes to custom work and sharing of ideas would be two other advantages.”

New barns are continually being built in this part of Ontario, and the huge capital investment in dairy farming continues. The county authorized 275 agricultural building permits in 2008.

Oxford County loam comes at a higher price than other parts of the country and that’s a benefit for a multi-generational farm. If you own or inherit 100 acres you can borrow more on it to buy some quota. The dairy quota in Oxford county is roughly estimated to be worth $700 million, or an average of roughly $2 million per farm. That’s a lot of buying power.

“That land allows for good collateral for borrowing power to buy more good land and expensive quota to expand,” says Heeney, who’s fifth generation in the dairy business. This solid capital asset has allowed the Heeneys to expand. They now milk 250 cows three times daily, and keep almost 500 cattle.

Although all farms are consolidating into larger units, supply management in the dairy sector allows for smaller family-run farms to remain profitable. “Supply management is a system that works, just ask the beef or pig farmer in Ontario these past 15 years. It’s incredibly consistent. It’s a forum where supply equals demand at a price where buyer and seller are willing to trade,” says Heeney. “It has it’s flaws but the system works: History proves that.”

“Our quota system is indeed expensive and it’s hard for new entrants to enter,” says Heeney. “But so is a Tim Horton’s franchise.” CG

From Immigrant To Ag Minister

Supply management is the reason things are booming in Oxford County, Ernie Hardeman says.

In 1952, Hardeman’s parents sold their farm in Holland, packed up their children and immigrated to Canada from Holland. They wanted opportunities for their children to farm with the freedom and room to grow.

They landed in Halifax at the famous Pier 21 and were sponsored to go to a sugar beet farm in Manitoba. Instead they wanted to go close to an area where a friend lived, someplace called Oxford County. Covertly, they made side arrangements for their luggage, piled onto the train heading west and disembarked in Woodstock, Ont. where their friend was waiting for them.

Today, Ernie Hardeman is serving his 14th year as the MPP for Oxford County, and was ag minister in the Mike Harris government. He’s currently Conservative ag critic and deputy house leader. At Queens Park he’s in the unique position of building and owning an agricultural business — Hardeman Feed Ltd. — before being elected.

In other rural areas the number of people employed by food production has dwindled as farms become more mechanized and raw farm produce is transported to large processing facilities, often in cities. Even in Oxford, the small cheese factories and meat-packing plants that once dotted its side roads are getting fewer and fewer.

But supply management is keeping Oxford strong. There may be fewer farmers, but the ones in production agriculture are investing in new facilities and technology in Oxford. “Over the last few years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in capital spending,” says Hardeman.

Immigration continues too. The difference now is that many European farmers come with money to invest. They can milk cows here with less debt and there’s farmland available for the next generation.

Hardeman was delivering and selling feed when supply management was introduced and saw a resulting shift toward specialization in dairying. Industrial and fluid milk was pooled so the standards increased. Additionally, the returns were better and more stable, so more money was available to invest into things like bulk tanks and herd expansion. Without supply management Hardeman thinks that consolidation would be extremely rapid with much fewer people in agriculture and less returns per cow unit.

Land and quota prices are rising. “We worry that quotas are too high but the price is based on what people can buy, pay it back and still make profits.” says Hardeman. “In a way, it’s positive to see the free market bidding up the right to produce.”

known for cheese making. Their farms attracted more processors, which in turn attracted more dairy farmers. Of course, these farms needed dairy supplies, such as milking equipment, feed, veterinary services, and eventually good genetics.

“Historically it’s a proven consistent area for profitable agriculture,” says Heeney. “It’s close to populated areas for transportation of low shelf-life fresh milk and this is also attractive for family living as we’re close to schools, towns, shopping.”

Nearby services are an advantage when you’re dealing with livestock and a perishable product. Today, Oxford County claims over 100 commercial and industrial agri-business ventures. “Obviously, competition for goods and services, and milk transportation are the key advantages,” says Heeney. “An ability to work together when it comes to custom work and sharing of ideas would be two other advantages.”

New barns are continually being built in this part of Ontario, and the huge capital investment in dairy farming continues. The county authorized 275 agricultural building permits in 2008.

Oxford County loam comes at a higher price than other parts of the country and that’s a benefit for a multi-generational farm. If you own or inherit 100 acres you can borrow more on it to buy some quota. The dairy quota in Oxford county is roughly estimated to be worth $700 million, or an average of roughly $2 million per farm. That’s a lot of buying power.

“That land allows for good collateral for borrowing power to buy more good land and expensive quota to expand,” says Heeney, who’s fifth generation in the dairy business. This solid capital asset has allowed the Heeneys to expand. They now milk 250 cows three times daily, and keep almost 500 cattle.

Although all farms are consolidating into larger units, supply management in the dairy sector allows for smaller family-run farms to remain profitable. “Supply management is a system that works, just ask the beef or pig farmer in Ontario these past 15 years. It’s incredibly consistent. It’s a forum where supply equals demand at a price where buyer and seller are willing to trade,” says Heeney. “It has it’s flaws but the system works: History proves that.”

“Our quota system is indeed expensive and it’s hard for new entrants to enter,” says Heeney. “But so is a Tim Horton’s franchise.” CG

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Senior Business Editor

Maggie Van Camp

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