Not so long ago, all the buzz was about unleashing Canada’s full agricultural potential on a world that desperately needs our farmers to produce more and more. Global population was booming, more countries were more prosperous, and consumers everywhere were changing and improving their diets.
Now our country needs Canada’s farmers to succeed too. Whether you see the COVID-19 pandemic as a hiccup or the new reality, no one can doubt there are huge expectations for agriculture to lead the country out of its economic morass.
So, as always, Country Guide went to the farmers. We asked, what opportunities do you see ahead? What changes are you introducing to your farms as a result.?
What these farmers told us is they are being strategic in assessing new ways of thinking and farming. They’re looking beyond expansion to new ideas and options, and they are carefully calculating their risks and potential gains in order to boost the success and sustainability of their businesses.
Read on to hear their thoughts about further processing, shorter value chains, connecting with consumers, adding value, adopting new land management strategies, and more.
For Canada’s farmers, the future is one of great opportunity, and they’re up for it.
Nerbas Bros. Angus
Opportunity in the climate crisis
On more farms, a key opportunity is for farmers to become the people who help save the global environment. For them, it’s time to take a lead role in mitigating climate change.
The Nerbas Bros. Angus farm near Shellmouth, Man., has been specializing in grass-fed beef genetics, both for breeding and live animals, and adopting intensive grazing methods for several years.
Their cow-calf farm includes a 600-head herd of Black Angus and they also sell bulls and replacement heifers.
It was post-BSE when Arron Nerbas and his brother Shane returned to the family farm. In other words, it was a time of uncertainty; the entire family was looking for new opportunities for their livestock operation. So began their investigations into the potential in holistic management techniques.
They introduced a multi-paddock grazing system to the farm, developing an intensive grazing method that involves rotating livestock through a large number of short-term, small paddocks rather than using a traditional large pasture.
It’s been a game changer for their operation, enabling them to maximize their forage production, reduce winter feeding costs and improve soil health, says Arron Nerbas.
“That’s been a huge thing for us to improve our operation,” says Nerbas. “We haven’t really added more cattle per se but we’ve been able to extend the grazing season longer and winter feed less.”
Adopting these methods to raise cattle make this western Manitoba farm part of the regenerative agriculture movement that is attracting such broad attention in both agricultural and non-agricultural circles nowadays. They use no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on their grasslands, with nutrient recycling through their animals doing the job. This allows their farmland to carry on its timeless task of sequestering carbon and cleaning and holding water via improved soil health.
“We want to lead by example,” says Nerbas, who believes that these are the kinds of strategic production choices that will get agriculture to a better place long-term. They’ll let farmers take the lead in defining how we lessen our carbon footprint, and he foresees animals in agriculture and mixed farm operations once again becoming a popular farm model.
“I really think the opportunities in agriculture are on the road less travelled and not maybe doing the norm or what is expected in modern agriculture,” Nerbas says. “I really think that ag producers that are more in tune with holistic regen-style ag are positioned nicely to connect more with the consumers.”
Nerbas devotes considerable time on social media to talking about their farm, and he says it’s proved a great marketing and communication tool with people who care about the environment and want to know where their food comes from.
“We are doing this on a small scale now but really hope to do more and complement our current business model.”
Henk and Rita Mans
Many farmers across the country say finding ways to bridge the divide between consumers and producers is imperative, and they see opportunities in making those reconnections.
It’s a reversal of a decades-long trend that’s seen farmers rendered nearly invisible in the food system.
The opportunity that’s emerged — and is being seized by more farmers — is to increase engagement with consumers both in finding out what people need and want. Explain how you farm, Henk and Rita Mans are telling themselves. Pursue more vertical integration, and take control of entire supply chain from farm to plate.
In southern Alberta, the Manses began converting their small farm a few years ago to an organic vegetable farm, seeing growing sales and new market opportunities. Canada’s organic agriculture sector was really taking off, with demand for all types of organically grown grains, vegetables, meat and dairy exceeding the rate of production.
But equally important at that time was positioning their farm for the next generation. Their son Andrew was in university studying engineering when his parents, who’d previously had a small cattle backgrounding operation, began the 2007 conversion of the farm at Coaldale, Alta.
“We looked at the whole situation and saw a market opportunity and also opportunity to keep a small-scale farm,” says Andrew, who returned to the family farm in 2012 with his young family.
Mans Organics today is an intensely managed, sophisticated operation comprised of 100 acres of irrigated farmland and an acre of greenhouses.
Their production is sold through multiple locally owned grocery stores, providing a stable and exceptionally receptive market and one “thrown wide open” this year as demand for locally grown food skyrocketed, Mans says.
At this point they’re just trying to keep up with demand.
“It is a growing opportunity,” Andrew says. “And I think with everything that’s happened this year there’s just more room for it.”
Their farm is part of an intensifying trend on the Canadian Prairies, too, which represents a significant portion of the country’s organic production with 80 per cent of all organic field crops.
Exploit the unexpected
Hugh Simpson is a commercial beekeeper in Grey County, Ont., and until the stock market crash of 2008 his farm was only a place he expected to retire to. His plans completely changed that year.
“2008 was a black swan and many people’s lives changed,” says Simpson, who was a marketing executive in the financial sector until then. He bought his Collingwood-area farm in 1999 and moved there in 2008.
He then spent the next two years working for local farmers, in effect, apprenticing to become one himself. “I didn’t know anything about farming, really,” Simpson says, “other than that it was attractive to me.”
He explored various types of production, eventually choosing beekeeping as the right fit for his land base. Today he runs between 300 and 400 hives, and sells honey wholesale under his farm name Osprey Bluffs Honey to restaurants, chefs and bakeries in the Greater Toronto Area.
This spring he began selling to additional markets, including food processors and through online sales.
The COVID-19 pandemic essentially forced that change, says Simpson. Like 2008, this spring’s pandemic necessitated a change of plans and a rapid pivot. With restaurants shuttered at the beginning of March and spring advancing, decisions to diversify his markets — and find them — had to be made very quickly.
“We had to make a choice,” Simpson says. “It was one of those pivots that came not because I’m strategically clever but because we really had no choice. The markets that I had made my living in had disappeared.”
He already had a strong social media presence so adopting e-commerce sales made sense. His restaurant and bakery customers remain his primary market, but already Simpson sees diversifying his market being good for his business long-term. He has also invested this year in new equipment to introduce maple syrup as a new product offering.
The experiences of 2020 reinforced his view that opportunity will either come at you as an unpredicted event, or you can go looking for it, he says.
There’s no mistaking which side of that coin he is betting on.
“More and more, it would be not responsible, from a business point of view, to just keep doing exactly what you’re doing,” he says. It also means getting directly in front of the customer.
“A farmer today, I think, is wise to stand back and think not only of his or her marketing board or the commodity market or just, as in my case, the chef sector in Toronto, and to start to think about where the real power is and ask ‘How can I position my business so that the consumer feels connected to what I do?’”
Building markets based on trust
In 2002, Jake Ayre emigrated from England to Canada with his parents and siblings. Today he and his father and sister operate Southern Seed, a farm and farm retail business growing and cleaning seed at Minto, Man.
“Canada is still known as this place where you can come with nothing in your pockets and make it,” says Ayre, today a farm leader with the provincial farm lobby group Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP), too.
Ayre says a key business opportunity is tied to becoming a trustworthy sources of trusted messages. Increasingly sophisticated technology in agriculture enables farmers more than ever to show consumers how they grow safe and healthy food while protecting the soil and surrounding environment.
On the Ayre farm, they have adopted new field mapping technology to record everything happening on their farm from seeding to harvest. “Effectively we can map our data and our yield from seed in the ground to harvesting,” Ayre says.
Ayre sees these kinds of technology enabling agriculture to much more openly talk about how, why and what the farm does, and to provide the kind of traceability assurances consumers and the food industry want, as well as to talk about land stewardship.
“Public trust is something I would say is a factor for every farm business,” says Ayre.
“The consumer wants to know what’s in their food,” he says. “As we keep moving forward, this is something that I feel is going to become industry standard. And, as well, doing this will aid in that relationship between farmer and the public.”
“In my mind, I see this as an opportunity not as a challenge.”
Farms never stay the same. They are always evolving as opportunities present themselves. Or, as is sometimes the case, when the opportunities seem to vanish. Such was the case for this farm an hour east of Toronto.
“Our business has been in a state of constant change from 1975 to today,” says Steven Brackenridge, whose Squirrel Creek Farms is located at Millbrook.
Their business at one time was a feed dealership and they raised hogs. Today it operates as a Pioneer seed dealership.
His father built the on-farm elevator in the 1970s, recognizing they’d never be able to expand the farm to produce enough feed for the hog herd they had at the time.
Since 2004 the Brackenridges have diversified to become suppliers of maple syrup production equipment, too. His grandfather produced maple syrup himself and the family saw an opportunity to start selling equipment and supplies to others doing so.
Ontario is certainly an enviable part of Canada when it comes to being able to tap new opportunities like these, thanks to a much higher population density.
“We’re all concentrated in a very small corner of Ontario so that does provide you with those opportunities,” he says. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored, it doesn’t matter where you live if services and infrastructure are lacking.
The lockdown has given many farmers new opportunities to direct market and engage with their customers, but those opportunities weren’t equal for everyone, he says. Those who have reliable internet were able to build websites and build new relationships, but where connectivity was poor it was a lot more challenging. The same goes for those now trying to operate home-based businesses and teach their kids online.
A director with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Brackenridge says agriculture can create jobs and prosperity but improved broadband internet is critical. “That’s something we’ve been advocating… that investment in rural Ontario provides great opportunity for all Ontarians.”
More farm partnerships
Erin Harris is her family’s next generation at Kootenay Meadows Farm near Creston, B.C., milking about 90 cows on a dairy farm her parents Wayne and Denise Harris established two decades ago.
Today their farm produces both milk and cream sold in glass bottles as well as a line of artisanal-style cheeses. Their farm product is sold through their on-farm store. And when customers visit, the farm itself is open to the public, too.
The Harrises are very proud of their farm model and especially their work to protect the environment around it, and they find customers are genuinely interested.
“Small processors like ourselves are few and far between,” Harris says. “It used to be much more common to see particularly dairy processed more locally than it is now.”
The Harris dairy farm has also become an important source of local employment. They have 15 staff in both full- and part-time positions. Those wages, earned and spent at home, in turn bolster the local economy.
But employees aren’t the only human resource Harris says are important for farm business advancement. A missed opportunity is for more farmers to look at how partnerships and co-operation among them can be mutually beneficial, she says.
“For me. I think opportunity lies in trying to partner with other farms.”
She’s eyeing expansion into milk products from other types of animals including goats to optimize use of their processing facilities. “I’d like to work with some other farmers to make a bunch of us viable, and also create some community among us.”
Neepawa, Man. cattle producer Matthew Atkinson says the real story out there is that land conservation will be better achieved through proper management.
“And one of the greatest forms of management is well-managed grazing,” he says.
Atkinson adds that when he thinks about opportunities, both missed and yet-to-come, he thinks an opportunity lies in more farmers reintroducing at least a version of the mixed farm into their farm model.
That doesn’t mean everyone needs to own cows, but with more arrangements struck between grain and livestock producers, cows could be grazing more crop land again.
“I think we could see some great benefits environmentally and financially in some cases by seeing the specialized grain producer and livestock producer work together,” Atkinson says.
“I think if we could focus more towards that type of management in agriculture and stop putting a million dollars worth of equipment between a cow and the food she eats, that would be an opportunity. But it’s tough now when we’ve all become so specialized. ”
Teresa and Martin Van Raay
Opportunity often doesn’t smile. Sometimes it can look mighty ugly to begin with. Teresa Van Raay and her husband Martin have farmed in southwestern Ontario near Grandbend since the early 1980s and have weathered extreme market volatility in the hog industry.
In 2009, the Van Raays had their next generation returning to the farm and needed to find ways to support more families using their existing land base. “We knew that we had to make a change and at that time we were looking into capturing markets,” Van Raay says.
Obvious to them at the time, too, was that pork prices stayed much the same in grocery stores even while farm-gate prices were plummeting. The Van Raays began direct-to-consumer marketing, delivering half and whole pig packages, which evolved into their on-farm store The Whole Pig. They also began growing garlic in 2014.
Today they market about 15,000 finishing pigs yearly, working with Conestoga Meats, one of two federal plants in Ontario owned by 157 local hog family farmers, and they sell pork products through their store. A local abattoir processes the meat returned from Conestoga.
They certainly saw a sales increase this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Devastating as the pandemic has been, it has given farmers something long lost: more visibility in the food system.
“People are starting to appreciate what is actually in Canada,” says Van Raay. “And it also highlighted the food chain and what happens if a well-oiled machine gets a little rust. Otherwise nobody even thinks about it.”
Just how long this opportunity to sell and serve will last, however, is another question. Van Raay says her guess is that consumer interest in local food will stick around awhile, but she also expects consumers will eventually return to purchasing their least expensive food options.
Where she sees further opportunity is through improved relationships between grocery chains and suppliers, with grocers becoming a more supportive partner in the supply chain.
“We are strong together,” says Van Raay.
Investing in risk management
In Tisdale, Sask., Ian Boxall calls the export market the underlying opportunity for farms like theirs, based on the reality that the world will always need nutritious, affordable food.
“When I think about what I produce on my farm, and that my farm in Saskatchewan has a hand in feeding people around the world, that to me is an opportunity that we can take pride in,” he says.
Boxall and his wife Lisa, and his brother and sister-in-law produce grains, oilseeds and pulses and are the fourth generation of their family to farm.
The farm equipment and other technology they deploy would astonish past generations, of course, but at the same time they’d see a farm family as committed as ever to land stewardship and growing safe and healthy food.
But even as Canada looks to the farm sector for growth, there are opportunities being missed right now that place farmers at a real disadvantage, Boxall says.
For one, it’s clear that current business risk-management programs were not designed for disruptions like the pandemic, or for recent trade-related volatility, he says.
“We need to ensure that our government recognizes that we need a suite of business risk management programs to weather events, whether that’s trade issues, or other issues.”
Internet connectivity is another critical support for modern agriculture, but rural Canada lags behind urban centres, leaving farmers along with other rural Canadians stuck on the wrong side of this digital divide, he says. Without a major investment in digital infrastructure, farmers can’t fully utilize and optimize the ag technology that’s been developed and is otherwise available to us. That spells missed opportunity, says Boxall.
“It’s a cart before the horse situation,” he says. “I think that’s where the ball’s been dropped. We need proper coverage rurally, so that the money invested in Canadian agricultural technology can be implemented at the farm gate.