It Was Mr Mustard, On The Farm, With A Pitchfork!

Time to learn a little about where all the delicious food we cook and eat comes from!

For this week’s blog, I had to get to know a farmer. Even though I’m living in Toronto, I knew this wouldn’t be a problem because I grew up in the country, on a farm. Well, more of a hobby farm than a full-time farming operation. We had about 2 dozen chickens, several egg-laying hens, a few pigs and some beef cows. Even though I grew up surrounded by farmers that did it for a living, I never learned the details about their way of life.

The farmers I chose to talk with were family friends of ours, the Mustards. Like a lot of the farmers in our area, Craig and his twin brother Chris inherited the family farm. They are 5th generation farmers, who grew up helping out on the family farm. Their dad Grant, also wanted them to know what life was like off the farm, so throughout high school, he made them get summer jobs away from the farm. Their dad never pressured them into taking over the farm, but it was in the boys’ blood.

Chris and Craig went to the University of Guelph, as all farm kids do that want to go into agricultural and farming. Since Grant knew of the boys interest in farming, he positioned the farm in such a way to allow for an expansion in operation. After university, Chris & Craig joined their father full time on the farm in 2004. The brothers started with 360 acres and they’ve expanded their land to 800+ acres, some of which they own, some they rent. Chris’ area of expertise is the dairy cows, while Craig’s is the field crops and farm machinery. Chris lives on his family’s original farm with his wife Jill, while Craig lives just down the road with his wife Rebecca, who he met at Guelph while she was there on a year exchange from Sydney, Australia. It was Craig and Rebecca that I talked with.

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Chris and Craig farm via conventional agriculture instead of organic. Some of the reasons they don’t farm organically, is that it’s more time consuming, expensive, labour intensive, and can’t feed the growing population since there is less yield per acre used. Since it’s only the brothers and their dad running the farm, they wouldn’t be able to make a living farming organically. Craig also believes that conventional agriculture can be just as sustainable or more than organic farming as long as you look after your land. Clearly their family has been doing something right if the land is still fertile and productive after five generations of farming on it. Some of the ways to ensure the sustainability of the land is through the use of manure as a natural fertilizer and crop rotations to replenish the soil. They would plant hay first because it leaves lots of nitrogen in the soil after it’s harvested, and than corn, which needs lots of nitrogen to grow properly. They also grow soya beans and wheat. Better technology, such as GPS sprayers, map out exactly where the crops have been sprayed, so there is no overlap when spraying a few hundred acres of land at a time, which reduces the amount of pesticides needed.

When I asked Craig if there were any political or environmental initiatives or stances that he supported, he answered so quickly that I could barely finish my question. He is a big supporter of Supply Management for dairy. He supports this system of farming because it’s better for rural economies, there is no boom and bust cycles, so you don’t need to have a huge amount of cows to ensure you can produce enough milk to make a living. Since the supply and demand is regulated by the Dairy Farm Control Board, farmers can be assured of a consistent stream of income which allows them to budget their expenses better. The steady income also allows them to buy better equipment without worrying about going bankrupt if they have a bad crop year or the selling prices drop dramatically. Supply management also ensures fair prices for everyone, from the farmers, to the dairy processors to the consumers. All dairy farmers have a certain amount of quota of butterfat they can produce per day from their cows for sale.

The downside is that it’s hard and expensive to get into dairy farming because there is a central pool of quota and only a limited number of quota available for farmers to buy. It costs $25,000 to purchase 1 quota, giving you the right to produce & sell 1kg of butterfat per day, which is roughly equal to the milk produced from 1 cow.

The Dairy Association also wants to help new dairy farmers start out, so they reserve a certain number of quota to encourage young farmers. The quota system helps farmers better manage and control their milk production so they aren’t dumping litres of excess milk if they overproduce, nor are they struggling to get by if some of their cows get sick or go dry. If a farmer realizes that he is constantly overproducing more than his 1kg/per day, he can sell a quota of butterfat back to the Dairy Board and into the central pool of quota, where another farmer could buy it. Chris and Craig have about 60 cows and 78 kgs of butterfat quota.

Farming on such a large scale is a lot more complicated than I realized, and I don’t think farmers get nearly enough respect and appreciation for their hard lifestyle, working from dawn to dark. The amount of business knowledge you need to properly run a farm surprised me and I admire them for having to do both the physical work and business/paperwork side. I can’t say that I entirely understand the quota system but it was certainly interesting learning about it. We never had dairy cows growing up, so I had no previous knowledge or experience with dairy farming. From my limited understanding of supply management, it sounds like a pretty good system. I can’t say that I know much about the commercial production and selling of beef either since the beef cows we had, we raised for ourselves and friends vs for commercial sale.

Craig and Rebecca are fun people to chat with anytime, so I enjoyed talking with them about their passion for farming. (Check out Twitter for more of Chris & Craig’s farming adventures.)

It’s been fun, until next time.

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