David Cohlmeyer Sustainable Good Foods Consultant

January Newsletter

The Conference Season is coming

Now is the time to get out and greet your fellow farmers and farm purveyors. Or just attend one of these gatherings to better understand what’s happening in the foundation of Ontario’s largest industry. See you there.

The Ecological Farmers of Ontario have organized a terrific set of full-day workshops in Guelph on January 31st. You can choose between:

  1. Holistic orchards
  2. Labour in the Market Garden
  3. Direct Marketing
  4. Interpreting Soil Tests
  5. Working with Your Butcher
  6. Small Scale Market Gardening
  7. Ecological Beekeeping

The granddaddy conference of them all is the Guelph Organic Conference. It starts the following day on February 1st and continues until February 3rd. This has become North America’s best-attended ecological conference – even more popular than California’s famous Eco-Farm Conference.

Billed as Canada’s Premier Horticultural Event, the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Conference has more of a conventional agriculture orientation. But there are many worthwhile workshops to attend in Niagara Falls on February 20th and 21st.

What started as a mini-Guelph (made up of repeat presentations from the Guelph Conference) is Eastern Ontario’s Eco Farm Day. This has grown into a fine conference in its own right – well worth a trip to Cornwall for the weekend of February 23rd.

“It’s amazing how much healthier and greener the plants are now. The new regimen [you recommended] is working really well.” Rhonda Teitel-Payne, The Stop Community Food Centre.
“It’s amazing how much healthier and greener the plants are now. The new regimen [you recommended] is working really well.” Rhonda Teitel-Payne, The Stop Community Food Centre. 

The 2011 Agriculture Census Released

In December 2012, Statistics Canada released much of the agricultural data from the 2011 census. I thought it would be interesting to track how much Ontario agriculture has changed since I became actively involved with farming in 1988. So I made a list of comparisons during the 20 years between the 1991 census and the 2011 census.

Percent change from 1991 to 2011

     +33%    increase in Ontario’s population


     –26%    number of farm operators

       –4%    acres being farmed

     –23%    heads of beef cattle

     –27%    dairy cows

     +26%    chickens

     –16%    acres for horticulture

     –48%    acres of orchards


   +111%    farm capitalization (88% of this is land and buildings)

     +82%    annual farm expenses

     +26%    average annual farm sales

    (–30%    sales from farms under $500,000 annual sales)

    (+206%  sales from farms over $500,000 annual sales)

     –62%    farm earnings (EBITDA)


    +450%   years to retire farm capitalization

     –67%    farm operators under 35 years old

       +7%     farm operators over 55 years old

     +13%    average age of farmers


   +460%   increase in the number of organic farms

  +3000% (sic) increase in sales of organic food

With a 33% increase in population, one would think there would have been a corresponding increase in food production. In fact, there is a considerable reduction. This is not contributing to a secure food supply. For me, the scariest number is the –67% reduction of farmers under 35 years old. (Who is going to teach this complex profession to our grandchildren?) After seeing the rapidly declining returns farmers receive, this abandonment comes as no surprise! Read Ralph Martin's column.

The other frightening figure revealed in this analysis is the increase in time it statistically takes for a farm to retire its capitalization. Due to higher land costs and lower earnings, this has gone from a reasonable 12 years to an impractical 66 years. With today’s unrealistically low food prices, only careful attention to selling into niches can hope to provide a viable farm business.

The 2011 Agriculture Census Released

The demand for organic foods continues to increase by an astonishing 20% annually.  Over 20 years, this has geometrically increased 30-fold to over $1.1 billion (wholesale) in Ontario. But there are not enough farms or farmers stepping up to fill this demand. So now only an estimated 20% of Ontario’s organic food comes from Ontario farms. (This has little to do with our climate.)

  1. More and more people are searching for foods:
  2. grown without pesticides,
  3. raised without antibiotics,
  4. locally grown,
  5. fresher,
  6. more nutritious, and
  7. providing more flavour.

Even though the statistics point to doom; some amazing famers view this as a shining opportunity. I am available to help. My clients have included several market gardeners, an orchardist, a cash cropper, a dairy, a greenhouse grower, a beekeeper, a compost maker, a community garden, and a food distributor. It has been a very exciting and successful year. A couple of clients are even celebrating their first time to have the honour of paying farm income tax!

I recommended that my clients at Vicki’s Veggies go for growing lots of leafy greens for November and December markets. It paid off.
I recommended that my clients at Vicki’s Veggies go for growing lots of leafy greens for November and December markets. It paid off.

Profitable niches do remain in all categories of farming. The newfound popularity of chicken has benefited many large producers. The decline in conventional large-scale horticulture has in turn opened many options for small-scale Market Gardening. Premium alcoholic beverages from quality fruits and specialty grains provide profitable options. The secret for each enterprise is to determine the Customer Value Proposition.

For me as a consultant, the takeaway from this analysis is that it seems to be advantageous for farms to generate over $500,000 in annual sales to have a viable business. For many farms, this is going to take significant help from investors, lenders, and educators. But mostly it is going to require that the federal government simply stop allowing dumped imports from entering our supply chains. Removing unfair (illegal) subsidized alternatives would allow our farmers to once again charge fair prices. Then we could begin rebuilding our food security.

I hope one of your New Years resolutions is to continue supporting our farmers in every way you can. The current system is broken. It will take many people with a lot of goodwill to fix it.

How our Government is Helping

The broader public sector consists of institutions such as schools, hospitals, government offices, prisons, museums, etc. They actually purchase more food than the supermarkets. So the Ontario government has been providing grants to encourage them to join in the local foods movement.

I was asked to participate on the Advisory Panel to recommend allocations of over $5.5 million. An average of about $100,000 was eventually distributed to the 56 applicants who were expected to double this in purchases from local food sources. For me, it was rather embarrassing to see so much public money go to huge multi-national distribution companies.

I was also asked to participate in allocating $44,000 of micro-grants to farmers. An average of about $650 was eventually distributed to 68 farms with the anticipation this could help them meet demands to bring more local food to their customers. For me, it was rather embarrassing to award such meager amounts to the people who are actually building the systems to provide the local food. 

Help Sustain Ontario provide Access

Beginning farmers should have the opportunity to share in the opportunity of the rapidly growing chicken sector. Chefs and customers clearly want naturally grown chickens. In Ontario, we manage the number of chickens grown for meat so that farmers receive a fair price. This is good. But right now this means that farmers have only 2 options:

  1. Buy quota at $1.75 million for the right to produce a minimum of about 90,000 birds a year. With this investment, the farmer’s banker will not allow taking any chances such as avoiding antibiotics, or letting the chickens out of their cages, or feed anything different than the scientifically formulated rations.
  2. Buy no quota and produce a maximum of 300 birds per year; that can only be sold at their farm gate. 300 birds can hardly be considered a profitable enterprise. Customers do not want to travel to a farm to obtain their carefully raised chicken.

To advocate for intermediate options, send an email to the Farm Product Marketing Commission. Please support this Sustain Ontario Initiative.

Beef, Lamb and Pork have no supply management. So farmers can grow as many as they wish and in whatever ways their customers request. The demand for this quality meat remains high. However, stringent new regulations have forced over 40% of Ontario abattoirs to cease operations. It is becoming just too arduous for specialty farmers to supply their discerning customers. Please learn how you can help the Sustain Ontario Meat Processing Initiative rectify this dilemma.

Help Sustain Ontario provide Access

Technomic, food industry consultants, has determined the Canadian Food Trends for 2013 will be:

  1. The year of the Chicken (local, natural, humane)
  2. More vegetables on the plate:
    1. Kale
    2. Brussels Sprouts
    3. Carrots
    4. Cauliflower

Consider these as you plan for the coming year.

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Contact David Cohlmeyer

David Cohlmeyer smiling with his farm in the background
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6556 Line 9, RR #3
Thornton, On, LOL 2N0