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Region’s farmers bucking provincial trends

Posted on Jun 26th, 2017 by Rebecca Degelder

Region’s farmers bucking provincial trends

WATERLOO REGION - Our farmers are Ontario's youngest. They work some of Ontario's smallest farms without an abundance of technology. Yet they earn more than most farmers, generating $564 million in annual revenues.

"This is something to be proud of," said turkey farmer Mark Reusser, who helps direct the Waterloo Federation of Agriculture and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. "It's kind of unique in Ontario to have such a concentrated area of intensively-farmed land."

The unique profile of local agriculture leaps from Canada's latest farm census, released in May. Farmers say much of what's unique is explained by the influence of Old Order Mennonite and Amish farms.

"They like the idea of a small family farm. That's part and parcel of their outlook on life," said Jeff Stager, past president of the Waterloo Federation of Agriculture. He grows corn and soybeans and raises beef cattle near New Dundee.

Canada counts its farms every five years. The latest count in 2016 found 1,374 local farms, down 15 from 1,389 in 2011. The loss of three farms per year points to a stable farm community that's shrinking five times slower than the rest of the province.

The census found 1,985 local farmers. Many raise cattle and grow soybeans, corn, wheat, alfalfa, oats and barley.

Their youth is relative. At 49, the average local farmer is a decade older than the average local resident. Yet among farmers this is young. The average Ontario farmer is 55. There's no other place in Ontario where the average farmer is younger than 51.

Local farms are small, averaging 156 acres compared to the provincial average of 249 acres. This is interesting because agriculture is typically driven by economies of scale: farms get bigger to get the most out of expensive machinery. Yet while the average Ontario farm grew by five acres over five years, the average local farm shrank by three acres.

Being small didn't hurt revenues. Waterloo Region farm revenues are among Ontario's highest at $410,210 per average farm in 2015, the census found. That's well above the provincial average of $304,977 per farm.

At $2,622 per acre, local farms generate the third-highest revenue in Ontario among 49 districts. It's more than twice the provincial average. Only farmers in wine-growing Niagara and in Essex County earn more from each acre.

Reusser points to Old Order farms. It's a cultural community that expects its youngsters to keep farming and does not seek economies of scale.

"It is not their intention to grow bigger in size," he said. "It is their intention to derive enough income from that piece of property to look after their family."

To achieve this, Old Order farmers raise livestock, add fruits and vegetables, and launch side businesses. They sell eggs at roadside stands or make furniture or make farm equipment. This maximizes revenue. It also provides jobs for family members who are expected to stay on the farm.

"One of the things they intentionally do is to make sure that everyone has work, children included. If they don't have work, they devise work," Reusser said. "Work is a virtue."

Reusser argues that this attitude about the virtue of work extends beyond local farms, helping to explain how this region became an industrial centre for food processing and distribution.

"We have probably the most dynamic working cultures in Ontario, if not North America," he said.

Local farms rank high in automating the feeding of animals and in automating barn controls. Reusser uses technology this way, monitoring his Petersburg turkey barn remotely through his smartphone or laptop, controlling ventilation and temperature.

However, local farms generally rank low in the use of computers, laptops and smartphones, the census found. Local farms typically use less technology than farms in neighbouring Oxford and Perth counties.

Natural farming remains rare. Local farms apply weed-killing herbicides to just over half their acres, the census found. This exceeds the provincial average. Commercial fertilizers are widely applied. About one in four local farms applies pest-killing insecticides or fungicides.

"Chemicals are a way that we produce food economically," Stager said. "Anyone who's had a garden knows if it's not the rabbits, it's the slugs, it's the bugs, it's the weeds that take over your garden."

Pesticides are safe when applied correctly, these local farmers say.

Chemical-free organic farming remains tiny at three per cent of local farms, double the Ontario average. In part that's because farmers can't grow crops organically at a price the public wants to pay.

Outhit, Jeff. "Region's Farmers Bucking Provincial Trends." TheRecord.com. TheRecord.com, 23 June 2017. Web. 26 June 2017.