David Cohlmeyer Sustainable Good Foods Consultant

Farm Supports benefit the economy

The 2016 Ontario Agriculture Week press release credits 52,000 farm families as the key enablers for 790,000 employees to produce $36 billion per year by the agri-food sector. Another way to consider these numbers is that each worker creates over $40,000 of value; and each farm facilitates nearly $700,000 toward the GDP. Since all these benefits primarily come from renewable resources – healthy soil, clean water, warm sunshine, along with some seeds, effective tools, and knowledgeable farmers, there a much higher than normal multiplier effect. It is clear that enabling more farmers to produce more local foods and agricultural products is a very effective strategy.

This example demonstrates that farmers and agri-food workers earn (on-average) unattractively low incomes. This is the key reason why farm populations continue to decline. But it need not be this way. Our governments understand that by learning to manage and market more wisely, incomes could increase significantly. So various governments and agencies have launched a Pledge to Plan program.

This program is based on the Dollar$ and Sense report produced by Ipsos market research company. They discovered that only 26% of Canadian farmers have a Business Plan; and those with an annually reviewed Plan have an impressive five-times higher return on assets! (This clearly pays for the endeavour.) In addition, the report found that successful farmers also:

  • Never stop learning
  • Keep financial records up-to-date
  • Seek help from Advisors and Consultants
  • Know their Costs of Production

My own anecdotal experience as a farm consultant is that these findings are so true. Most farmers (especially ecological farmers) are very good at learning and rapidly adopting improved techniques. Financial records are usually current, but only for the income and expense accounts. Since banks and the CRA do not typically require farmers to record assets and liabilities, these important accounts are too often ignored. The usual opinion is that Advisors push too many products and Consultants don’t say anything not already known. Paying Advisors directly (not as a percentage of purchased products) is a better strategy. As an experienced farm Consultant I know that farmers have no shortage of knowledge – so my function is to question answers, not to answer questions.

Not knowing the full Costs of Production is the most common problem I encounter. Since full costs also include some assets and liabilities, these must be determined first. Allocating costs to each product demands detailed production records. All these elements then require judicious analysis. If costs of production for an item are low, it behooves the producer to make use of creative marketing techniques to sell more. If costs are high, either prices must be increased, efficiencies found, or production ceased. An appropriate response for each product can quickly result in improved profit (along with reduced workload) – a win-win result.

Whatever your business, make the Pledge! There are many resources to help you assess, plan, implement, and evaluate. Growing Forward (GF2) typically provides 50% cost-share grants for the type of work found to be so beneficial in the Ipsos report. The next farm producer GF2 intake date for these capacity building projects is November 3. For assistance, please contact me right way.

Please contribute toward framing the GF3

GF2 funding expires in March 2018, so Federal, Provincial and Territorial governments are already in the process of framing a GF3 program. I encourage you to enter your thoughts in this Survey.

My own overall suggestion for filling in this survey is to have less emphasis on exports and risk management. These are supports for cheap food. As with cheap vehicles and cheap housing, we are learning that cheap food also means higher costs over the long-run. It is easier for the government to brag about exports. But the public wants local foods and it is easier on the environment to produce mixed crops for local consumption. Risk Management is code for heavily subsidized insurance on cheap mono-crops when they fail. Instead, farmers should relay on the intrinsic security that comes from the long tradition of producing mixed crops. There needs to be more emphasis on helping farmers and processors access local markets and invest in equipment and soil building that will prevent catastrophes (i.e. self-insurance instead of “risk management”).

Of prime importance for GF3 is a need for more support (a return to 75% cost-share) for business development that would also include coaching and mentoring. There should be more supports for technology transfer, collaborative research, and adapting to climate change. There needs to be more support to build public trust from basic market research to marketing stories. Through it all, keep in mind that Monsanto has usurped the word “sustainable” to mean that pesticides are required for farmers to sustain their businesses. So be sure to include a note that this is not in your definition of “sustainable”.

Enhancing our understanding

Vitamins are by definition necessary for life. But dietary researchers are now becoming aware that other factors can contribute to more satisfying lives. Prebiotics are soluble fibres that are digested by Probiotic bacteria. This beneficial relationship improves both gut and brain wellbeing. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for probiotic bacteria to pass through the stomach to establish communities in the gut. So you want to always have sufficient prebiotics available to feed the naturalized probiotics.

A closeup of a sunny field of lush, tall green clover.
A fall crop of Oats and Berseem Clover grows vigorously while everything else is dying. Soil biology feeds on the living roots through the fall; and on the decomposing plants under the winter snows.

For many years it has been known that plants require minerals for healthy plant growth. But Soil Scientists are now becoming aware that biological activity contributes to healthier and more flavourful plants. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to establish soil biological communities while using pesticides. So you want to always have plenty of organic matter in the soil to feed whatever biology is present.

A sunny field of lush, tall green carot stems, with dried crops and tall trees in the distance.
My research carrots grow just fine in a very low-fertility long-term hay field because the undisturbed soil has developed a very active soil life.

Disturbances are detrimental to soil life. So think of this every time you consider tilling. A shovel or hoe is not bad, but a rototiller has the potential to quickly cause long-term problems. An undercutting knife, tines, discs, or a power harrow are more gentle tools.

A second year without Neonics

Due to the new Ontario neoniticinoid (neonic) pesticide ban next year, our neighbour decided to try growing his corn crop without any this year. There have been no apparent problems in his fields. And last year he used none on his wheat.

On our property we could once again enjoy outdoor picnics and bonfires without being pestered by mosquitos. The swallows once again darted about normally as they scavenged for insects. We finally had more reasonable numbers of monarch butterflies, dragonflies, honeybees and bumblebees. The tadpoles in our pond once again developed normally. Hopefully we will once again have a full chorus of spring peepers next year.

As neonics become banned in more and more jurisdictions, the predicted catastrophe is simply not occurring. Now the pesticide manufacturers are introducing flupyradifurone (flupy). It also works as a neurotoxin but may be even more persistent. So the non-target bees, birds, worms, spiders, small mammals, frogs and aquatic bugs may continue to be at risk.

Early Season Conferences

Food Secure Canada (FSC) will be holding its 9th biannual conference from October 13 to 16 in downtown Toronto. It has something for everyone who cares about equitable, healthy and sustainable food. Resetting the Table will provide discussions about food justice, agriculture, climate change, local food, Indigenous Nations, school food, healthcare food, fisheries, global food security, and much more.

Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) has their annual conference from November 29 to December 2 in downtown Kingston. The first day will be devoted to sharing 2016 Farmer Led Research results, and planning for 2017 projects. Then the main farm oriented Resilient Agriculture: Our Soils, Our Systems, Ourselves conference begins with workshops on horticulture, livestock, field crops, seed saving, soil health, and tours of nearby farms, retailers and processors.

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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