Tough times for family farms

I grew up baling hay, picking strawberries, and herding cattle for small pay on family farms throughout Northumberland County. At the eastern end of Ontario’s Greenbelt, straddling the Oak Ridges Moraine, this is some of the most fertile and productive agricultural land in Canada. And yet, so many of the farms I remember are now gone, or are barely making ends meet. Small farm owners have been stuck with the choice between competing with massive corporate farms on mainstream crops or growing niche crops without a clear route to market. Until now.

“The acquisition of local hops is a challenge for small Ontario breweries and, at the same time, we have all these farmers who could easily be growing an acre or two of hops if they knew they could sell them.”

The Ontario Agri-Food Venture Centre is a 15,000 square foot solar-powered processing and packaging facility being erected in Colborne just off Highway 401. It was built through collaboration between the County and the Government of Ontario to support a sustainable agriculture industry in Northumberland. Opening spring 2015, the centre will be equipped with facilities to wash, hull, cut, flash-freeze, pack and label small batches of almost any crop —on demand, and at cost. Perhaps most importantly, the centre will also act as a sort of small business incubator, facilitating relationships between the retailers or consumers in need of niche local food products and the farmers with the land and expertise to grow them.

Big opportunities for small crops

“Hops, for example, is an in-demand product right now due to the growing craft beer industry,” says Northumberland County’s Director of Economic Development and Tourism Dan Borowec. “The acquisition of local hops is a challenge for small Ontario breweries and, at the same time, we have all these farmers who could easily be growing an acre or two of hops if they knew they could sell them.” With the Agri-Food Venture Centre to connect the breweries with the farmers, as well as providing the processing and packaging facilities, market gaps like this can be closed to everyone’s benefit.

It might look unassuming as you drive by on the 401, but this facility is a big step towards keeping sustainable agriculture alive in Ontario’s Greenbelt. For the first time in a long while, I’m optimistic about the future of those small family farms that are the lifeblood of this province.