Behind the Lines

Behind the Lines - October 2011

A decade ago, with consumers concerned about genetically modified organisms in food, organic production, registering high growth rates year after year, was the darling of an otherwise mostly flat agricultural sector. Things have changed, as Better Farming staff writer Mike Mulhern found out when he looked at the state of this micro-sector.

Economic realities present one challenge. Others are coming from “local,” “sustainable” and “natural” products, even though – as diehard organic proponents point out – there is no force of law behind them such as there is behind “certified organic” labels. What is the future for organic? This story starts on page 16.

Ontario’s major non-supply-managed commodity groups have been lobbying for years for a risk management program (RMP) to cover beef, pork, sheep and fruits and vegetables, as well as grains and oilseeds. This fall they have one.

At the grassroots level, the grains and oilseeds program is particularly controversial. Does it provide farmers with what they need to manage risk in volatile markets? Senior Staff Editor Don Stoneman looks at that issue through the eyes of farmers and it is a particularly touchy one in the run-up to a provincial election early this month. We will be covering the election results from an agricultural point of view on our website,

The RMP program requires that farm premises be registered with OnTrace, the provincial traceability agency. Like it or hate it, traceability of food products in Ontario took a couple of big steps forward this summer. Read about staff writer Mary Baxter’s take on the advantages of this process starting on page 28.

In another story, Baxter found out that concerns about salmonella spread by fowl aren’t just in the milk; disease can be spread to cows. Getting birds out of the barn and keeping them out can be a challenge. That story starts on page 46.

This issue also contains Better Farming’s annual report on sewage spills and bypasses from urban sources.  Federal and provincial governments are aware that effluent from sewage plants, treated or otherwise, is a threat to water quality and human and animal health.  They are spending money to improve and upgrade infrastructure, but it’s not clear how well this strategy is working to make the environment better. That story starts on page 60.

Tractor manufacturers, too, have been working to safeguard the environment as they develop innovative ways to meet emission requirements and boost fuel efficiency. These improvements, though, haven’t come at the expense of horsepower or speed, as you’ll see in Mike Mulhern’s report beginning on page 80.

Two of our most popular features, Crop Scene Investigation and Up Close, will end their summer hiatus and will return to Better Farming pages next month. BF



Behind the Lines - August/September 2011

Some concepts for stories leap out at you. Others knock persistently at your side door. This month’s cover story, “Winners and losers in the dietary wars,” is in the latter category.  

The research behind this story was sparked by two items that caught our attention recently. A speaker at the 2011 London Swine Conference saw a dismal future ahead for the meat industry. “Generally accepted medical opinions are that we eat too much red meat,” the speaker said. “Dr. Oz, one of the more recent Oprah protégés, has recommended that a good way to control your weight is to have meatless lunches.”

A second genesis was a “Letter from Europe” column published in our June/July issue about Denmark imposing a saturated fat tax on meat and dairy products as a means of controlling obesity. “Whatever way we look at it,” wrote columnist Norman Dunn, “farmers end up paying for the policy.”

That set us looking at the price that Ontario’s farmers have paid as dietary trends, scientific or otherwise, wax and wane. The cost has been substantial and is incalculable. Meat farmers took it in the teeth throughout the 1980s and ’90s as government health agencies, doctors and food processors spoke out against fat. Farmers changed the animals they raised, and the way they raised them, to meet the demands of the time.

Yet, as award-winning science writer Gary Taubes notes, obesity levels among North Americans have continued to rise, as has the incidence of Type 2 Diabetes. In heavily-researched New York Times Magazine articles and two books on the subject, Taubes documents that current dietary trends are very much guided by government policy that was driven off the track of science many years ago by, guess what, politics.

The June 2011 Consumer Reports, which attempted to rate weight-loss diets, says, “It’s clear that fat is not the all-round villain we’ve been taught it is. Several epidemiological studies have found that saturated fat doesn’t seem to increase people’s risk of cardiovascular disease or stroke.”

The article continues: “A nutrition researcher, Frank B. Hu, M.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health, recently wrote that he believes refined carbohydrates are likely to cause even greater metabolic damage than saturated fat in a predominately sedentary and overweight population.”

Where, we wonder would it leave our readers, if carbohydrate foods and especially sugar (including fructose from corn and fruit), replace fat as the villain in the next food fad? BF



Behind the Lines - June/July 2011

When the local food movement took root a couple of years ago, many critics thought it was a fad and predicted it would be short-lived. Who would have dreamed that the big food chains, including the granddaddy of all retailers, Wal-Mart Inc., would jump in and brand itself as local as well in order to get a piece of this potentially valuable market territory?

It’s happening and on-farm markets are having to dig harder into their local food niche in order to keep their position. Our writer Suzanne Deutsch writes about how to do that in this month’s cover story. Read about selling consumers more than just food, starting on page 16.

When we published a letter from a Mississauga high school student decrying the inhumanity of modern “factory farming” in our April issue, we sensed it would hit a nerve, and it did. Our readers wrote back. You can read those letters defending modern agriculture on page 6.

Look carefully at the footnote at the bottom of long-time contributor Keith Reid’s column over the past two months and you will read that he has changed jobs. He still writes about soil fertility for Better Farming, however, and this month he seeks to debunk some myths about the loss of phosphorus from agricultural soils. Keeping soil from eroding isn’t enough to prevent this essential nutrient from being washed away, Reid writes, beginning on page 54.

Our other regular crops writer, Pat Lynch, argues that, by leaving a forage crop in the ground for years at a time to save on seed costs, farmers are actually costing themselves money in terms of total yields. That story can be found on page 49.

No-till has been a growing trend on Ontario farmers for many years and cost-conscious farmers have mastered its use on many soil types. Irony of ironies, other technologies that have led to stronger corn stalks are driving farmers back to tillage in order to deal with crop residues.  That story, on so-called “vertical tillage,” is the next instalment in our multi-part series by Mike Mulhern, which begins on page 60.

Finally, a political note.  Last month, the federal Conservatives achieved a goal that had long eluded them, a majority government that allows them to govern. That means the door has now been closed on federal participation in a Business Risk Management program for Ontario’s farmers, argues our Ottawa correspondent Barry Wilson. That’s on page 56. BF


Behind the Lines - May 2011

Ian Barker, a retired professor of wildlife diseases from Guelph, calls Lyme disease, also known as Lyme borreliosis, “the most political disease in North America.”

Farmers who spend their time in tractor cabs aren’t likely to get it. Those who work in woods and fields in the summertime are vulnerable.

Diagnosis and treatment of the disease are steeped in controversy, as our writer Mary Baxter found out. She talked to farmers and others who have been diagnosed with Lyme and have lost faith in the health system. Doctors on both sides of the many issues, and the Public Health Agency of Canada, agree that Lyme disease, once limited to the southern fringe of this province, is spreading north with ticks carried by wildlife. Thus, it is a potential threat which farmers need to be on their guard against.

More than a decade ago, in the pages of this magazine, we wrote about a rare sighting of the Henslow’s Sparrow. Under the federal Species At Risk Act, the farmer-owner of the field was forbidden from harvesting his hay crop until late summer, when it was deemed useless and hauled away.

Flash forward to 2010, when the Bobolink, a once common bird in southern Ontario which lives in hayfields, is designated as “threatened” because of rapidly declining numbers. Early harvest is good crop management but threatens the Bobolink’s nests and habitat. Under the provincial Endangered Species Act of 2007, anyone who messes with a named species is subject to possibly crippling fines. However, an apparent solution is on the way, thanks to farm groups who worked with both the provincial government and wildlife groups. Editor Don Stoneman writes about this, starting on page 44.

Readers will recall that the Crop Scene Investigation published in our March issue was a departure. We asked readers to suggest a possible cause of a “crop square” found last October in Perth County. Because there is no “right” or “wrong” answer, we departed from our tradition of picking from the pool of correct answers and drew a name from all of the suggestions to win a Wireless Weather Station. Congratulations go to John Good of Baden. For some of the theories advanced, look at Bern Tobin’s CSI column on page 50. We may never know what actually created that “crop square.”

In our April issue, we challenged readers to guess “which pest invaded Jeffrey’s corn field.”

Gord Jones of Centralia correctly identified corn earworm. CSI doesn’t appear in the summer months, but Bern Tobin and his experts will be out looking for new problems to stump you with when this popular feature returns in the fall.

This month marks the debut of a new series by Mike Mulhern. It sprang from comments received on Pat Lynch’s column on a demonstration at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show last fall. With so many new innovations in tillage and no-till available, we thought we would look at this essential act of farming in the past, present and perhaps even into the future. Mulhern’s series begins on page 56. BF



Behind The Lines - April 2011

When we heard about a southwest Ontario goat farm operator who was planning on expanding to more than 1,000 milking does, we found it intriguing. Then we caught the news that a goat milk brokering co-op had joined forces with a smaller processor co-op which had made inroads into grocery stores. Add to that some very large farms that are processing their own milk as well as that of other farmers and we figured there was a trend worth examining.

Goat milk processors told us their customers are concerned about health, not price, and that sales are growing in spite of an uncertain economy. Is this something for farmers in other commodities to think about? This story about enthusiastic producers and processors by staff writer Mike Mulhern begins on page 12.

Does higher priced milk at the farm gate result in higher prices in the stores and then lead to lower consumption? Some critics of supply management think so and point towards the downward trend in per capita fluid milk consumption experienced over many years. Writer Don Stoneman found a parallel downward trend in fluid milk consumption in the United States, where there is no supply management. But whether Canadian per capita fluid milk consumption is higher or lower than in the United States depends upon how the figures are calculated. An economist for the American promotion group says their consumption is higher based on weight rather than volume, with some other factors thrown in.  This story begins on page 34.

Politics is involved here. American producer groups are supporting a move towards supply management to bring some stability to prices. Processors, not surprisingly, are fighting it.

One thing is for certain, Canadians buy more fluid milk per capita than was reported in a story published in the March issue of Better Farming. We published consumption figures found on a Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) website. DFC says the number quoted was an “experimental” calculation from Statistics Canada estimating the amount of fluid milk actually drunk, rather than wasted or used for cooking. DFC told us this was explained in a footnote on the website but, though we looked, we couldn’t see that footnote.

A student from Mississauga has written to Better Farming expressing his concern about “inhumane” farming practices. Some readers will no doubt find his views disturbing. They are certainly ill-informed. The letter is on page 6. We wonder if this person, and maybe his teachers, will receive an invitation to visit a farm.

We’ve had excellent feedback from readers who enjoyed the column about tillage by Pat Lynch in our March issue. This has prompted us to launch a series on tillage. Keep an eye out for the first installment by Mike Mulhern in our May issue. BF


Behind the Lines - March 2011

Norfolk County, known in the day as the centre of Ontario’s once profitable tobacco industry, has a new claim to fame. Now it is home to the province’s first Alternative Land Use Services project. Started in 2008, the pilot made the successful jump to a permanent project last fall.

The project did not make the conversion easily, as our writer Mary Baxter notes in this month’s cover story starting on page 16. The idea of buying ecological goods and services is finding traction elsewhere in Ontario but facing hurdles as well. On top of that, there is a lack of clarity as to what is a true ALUS project, and proponents contend that the lack of a government buy-in is holding back the ecological goods and services concept.

We’ve written about on-farm solar energy production in the past, but there has been so much interest we thought it deserved more coverage. The feed in tariff  program that took off like wildfire seems like a new thing, but writer Mike Mulhern found it dates back to the late 1970s in the United States when there was an energy crisis and conservation was on everyone’s lips. His story looks at what works in getting medium scale projects off the ground. Some good advice from installers is to plan ahead a year. That story begins on page 53. As this magazine was being prepared for press, Hydro One, which services the majority of the province’s rural communities, was reportedly declining microFIT applicants in some areas the opportunity to connect because the grid couldn’t handle their production. For continued coverage of this development, see our website at

Our European writer Norman Dunn reports on the dioxin scandal on the other side of the pond. In a note accompanying his story, he writes “the revelations about shoddy testing of feed are getting more alarming every day.” But he notes that the story is changing fast.

Planting season isn’t much more than a month away in some parts of our coverage region. With that in mind we decided two publish two timely offerings by crops writer Pat Lynch. The first of those columns is on page 42.

This month’s Crop Scene Investigation scenario is a little different! It involves a particularly interesting situation as related by Huron-based crop consultant Mervyn Erb.

The story is on page 38. Erb took additional photos of the corn, which are available for viewing on the Better Farming website ( We invite readers to submit their solution to this puzzle. In an upcoming issue, we’ll bring you Erb’s theory and a collection of reader solutions. Be sure to get your answer to us by March 10 to make our publication deadline.

Send your solution to Better Farming at: or by fax to: 613-678-5993. This time all the answers (not just the correct ones) will be pooled and one reader will win a Wireless Weather Station. BF


Behind the Lines - February 2011

U.S. Country-of-Origin Legislation (COOL) took effect in March 2009. Canada’s exports of live animals for finishing and slaughter then dropped dramatically. This month’s Second Look columnist, Ontario Pork’s Patrick O’Neil, examines the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement process that ensued. Although the matter is complex, O’Neil says one of the issues that could influence the outcome is a letter written by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in February 2009, which contained a threat of tougher regulations unless meat processors held themselves up to a higher standard than that outlined in the initial rule. You can see O’Neil’s analysis on our back page.

But if you think regulations are challenging here in Ontario, consider what Manitoba producers are facing. Almost two decades ago, it was hard to find a pork trade show anywhere in the world that didn’t have a Manitoba government exhibition extolling the advantages of pork production in that province.

In the past 10 years, however, Manitoba has introduced at least 40 new regulations affecting the industry, and more are on the way. Their marketing system has also changed and we occasionally hear talk about this affecting Ontario. Two years ago, Manitoba Pork Marketing began a merger with Saskatchewan’s SPI marketing group to create Hog Administrative Marketing Services and, although leaders there play it down, they don’t rule out the possibility they could open a satellite office in Ontario.

To discover whether there are any lessons to be learned from the Manitoba experience, we sent reporter Mary Baxter to meet with the province’s producers and industry leaders. Her cover story begins on page 6.


Behind the Lines - February 2011

Back in 1997, when Bern Tobin was managing editor of Farm & Country, he wrote a cover story for that publication called “Farming the Internet.” During a recent conversation about the cover story he has produced for this month’s issue of Better Farming, Tobin, familiar to many of you as our Crop Scene Investigation writer, recalled his original Internet story.

“It was just as the consumer world was embracing the Internet and we were exploring how farmers and agriculture would use the information highway – you may remember that term. Thirteen years later, here we are writing a story about farming by phone. When I wrote that story 13 years ago, few would have dared predict where we would be in 2010 – and I think very few predicted the story I just wrote.”

The pace of technology and change in farming is accelerating rapidly and we suspect we are just scratching the surface of this latest trend. That story starts on page 10.

There is another side to technology that we haven’t touched on in this month’s report. The Better Business Bureau says complaints about the cell phone industry top their list and The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a non-profit consumer protection organization, recently released a 218-page report that says Canadian consumers are getting a raw deal from the telecommunications industry. The report’s author, Michael Janigan, told CBC News that, four years after deregulation, Bell, Telus and Rogers (which control over 90 per cent of the market) are making “super-normal profits . . . ”

We want to be able to tell more on the story about farming with smart phones,
so if you or someone you know is willing to share first-hand experiences, good or bad, please get in touch.

In his monthly column from Ottawa, Parliamentary reporter Barry Wilson warns that the ground appears to be shifting against supply management as Mario Dumas, a former chief economist for Quebec’s powerful l’Union des Producteurs Agricoles changes sides, suggesting that supply management with quotas, pricing setting powers and high border tariffs be abandoned in international trade talks that take place this year. “It is one man’s opinion but from an iconic figure in the supply management wars. The ground seems to be shifting,” Wilson writes. That’s on page 58.

Last year was good for crop farmers and many are re-investing in agriculture, buying more assets such as land and machinery. At Better Farming we had a good year, too, and decided to reinvest in our business by hiring a new writer. You’ve seen some stories by Mike Mulhern before on our pages. Based in West Lorne, Mike is a former London Free Press reporter and a farmer himself.

Why are we doing this rather than following industry norms and simply taking a good year’s returns as dividends to shareholders? You might call it a longer-term look. We are always aware that we grew out of a bankrupt publication funded by three blue chip organizations and that our future depends upon providing advertisers and readers with the best journalism possible. BF


Behind the Lines - January 2011

Farmers complained about predation of livestock when some of Better Farming’s editors still had a full head of hair more than 30 years ago. Now predation is worse than ever. Provincial statistics show that, in recent years, livestock losses have grown and farm groups have attempted to chronicle the damage to crops as well. Our story about farmers facing predation challenges and efforts to get compensation from governments (the Crown claims ownership of wildlife) begins on page 14.

An accompanying story on coyotes explains what science has revealed about these creatures in recent years and dispels some commonly held myths. That story begins on 
page 26.

There is another myth we would like to dispel. Agriculture has a legacy of doomed business fiascos. Some, like Ontario’s Pigeon King International, spawn widespread media coverage. Of course, the quirkiness of the idea helps. Some also boast a line-up of unusual characters. The Great Jerusalem Artichoke Circus: The Buying and Selling of the Rural American Dream, for example, chronicles a strange mix of religion and zealous belief in a new crop during the 1980s.

Two decades later and closer to home, those two fundamentals loom large in 
the Pigeon King fiasco. Pigeon King staff spoke about the “pigeon religion,” so it’s 
no surprise that many devout Christians were drawn in.

We mention this to help dispel the offensive myth being promoted by some media that PKI investors were out “to get rich quick.” We’ve had an opportunity 
to speak with large numbers of PKI investors and found that very few fit this category. Keep in mind that until Better Farming’s cover story, “Faith in Arlan Galbraith, Ontario’s Pigeon King,” was published in December 2007, at least one Canadian chartered bank endorsed the project and no official regulatory agency had anything untoward to say about it. Even one Ontario Provincial Police officer invested personally.

Prompted by recently laid but unproven charges of fraud against PKI founder Arlan Galbraith, we revisit this subject with a story on page 30, citing Cindy and Allan Frank, an apparently prudent eastern Ontario couple who simply saw PKI 
as a way to make ends meet and create flexibility to meet family obligations.

As noted above, some of these failed farm business fiascos have involved interesting characters. In this issue, beginning on page 34, we chronicle the checkered career of the Franks’ pigeon salesman, former PKI district sales manager Mark DeWitt, a disbarred New Brunswick lawyer. DeWitt has not been accused of any wrongdoing in association with PKI but, according to a New Brunswick court, once managed to sell an apartment building that didn’t exist to an unsuspecting buyer. BF



Behind the Lines

Agritourism, in its broadest definition, is any agriculturally based operation or activity that 
brings visitors to a farm or a ranch. But where does agriculture give way to just plain tourism?

This wouldn’t be an issue if it didn’t involve land use planning and come into conflict with both local and provincial authorities and regulations that often limit the scale of an agritourism operation.

Exploring those conflicts is the basis for this month’s cover story by Mary Baxter – timely because the province is reviewing its Provincial Planning Statement. Farms have had to expand in size in order to stay in business. Some agritourism operators argue that also applies to their on-farm tourism businesses. This story starts on page 14.

Also bearing on the subject of farm expansion – a hot topic, particularly in western Ontario – are policies having to do with severing surplus farm houses. This month’s article focuses on Perth County where a policy banning severances has been fiercely disputed. Is a severed farmhouse an opportunity for a next-generation farmer to start “small” by buying a house rather than an unaffordable farm, and the means of stemming the rural exodus, or is it a possible impediment to commercial livestock operators who won’t be able to expand because their planned barns are too close to a rural residence? This story starts on page 34.

As noted here before, people often ask what are the odds of becoming a winner in our CSI series. Our standard response is something like: “pretty good actually.” 
As regular readers know, we draw the winner’s name from a pool of correct answers. Some months, there could be several dozen correct entries. Other times just one or two. And we’re still waiting for the right solution to “What’s ailing Art’s Alfalfa,” which was featured in our May issue. This month’s winner, Pascal Roy, from Clarence Creek in eastern Ontario has achieved a new milestone for CSI. This 
is the first time anyone has ever won twice. And Pascal has managed to win two months in a row.

CSI first appeared in our December 2006 issue and has been increasing in reader popularity ever since.

Another hit, it seems, is our newest feature Up Close, which provides a personal glimpse of some of our province’s most successful Ontario farmers. Well-known London area cash-cropper Steve Twynstra agreed to participate in the launch in our November issue.

This month, we’ve increased the space for Up Close and we feature Brenda Lammens, who farms with her husband Raymond near Tillsonburg and who has been a moving force in the fruit and vegetable industry.

Do you know someone who should be featured? Please send along your nominations to:  BF