Behind the Lines

Behind the Lines - November 2010

Farmers are arguably more individualistic than most and, often, you have big challenges on your mind. In quieter moments, however, have you ever wondered about the way others manage both the lifestyle and the profession you’ve chosen? Have you ever asked yourself: “Am I talking too much on my cell phone?” Are you curious about how farmers outside your immediate circle really feel about this profession you’ve chosen?

As Better Farming enters its 12th year, we are proud to introduce a new feature entitled 
“Up Close.” In it, we hope to provide you with a personal glimpse of how some of this province’s top commercial farmers see their world. In this issue, we feature Steve Twynstra, who grows a variety of crops on 3,000 acres near London. Is there a leading farmer you would like to see profiled in a future “Up Close” feature? Please send your nomination to:

Roundup tolerance put into key crops revolutionized weed control on farms across North America. Farmers and scientists have been concerned about overuse leading to resistance to this commonly used herbicide for years. Now the first case of Roundup resistance in Ontario has been documented. “Ground Zero” is a soybean field ironically located beside Windsor International Airport in Essex County. This story, written by Mary Baxter, starts on page 18.

Ontario farmers have always looked eastward towards Quebec, where agriculture is perceived to be better served by governments, at least partly because the province makes efforts towards food security and self-sufficiency. Writer Suzanne Deutsch looks at incentives for young farmers to get a suitable education before they return to the farm or set up their own agricultural operation. Some of these students get their education at Alfred College in eastern Ontario, sitting beside Ontario francophone students who have no such incentive to keep their noses in books at night. Her story can be found on page 32.

Farm leaders still find that getting a grip on the consequences of Ontario’s 
Clean Water Act, pushed through the Legislature in 2006, can be tricky. Some are dismayed. Don Stoneman’s story on this legislation, which may have repercussions on how you farm and use your property, begins on page 44.

Many of you thought geese were the solution for Crop Scene Investigation number 27, which was published in our October issue. To find out what really 
went wrong turn to page 52. BF


Behind the Lines - October 2010

In the 1960s, some futurists foresaw the farmer relaxing in a rocking chair on the front porch 
of his farmhouse, watching a robot-controlled tractor go up and down his field.  

Forty or more years later, augmented Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that can steer tractors and self-propelled sprayers and harvesters up and down fields are in the province now, as writer Mary Baxter lays out in our cover story starting on page 14. These systems are trimming costs like seed, fertilizer and spray while letting tractor operators work accurately for longer hours with less fatigue. (Sitting on the porch was just fanciful imagery.) Whether this technology will encourage the trend towards larger and larger operations remains to be seen.

Ten years ago, Better Farming first published “The Sewage Double Standard,” our annual report about municipal sewage spills and bypasses. Our 11th annual report is in this issue. At the time, the fact that “storm events” overwhelmed sometimes antiquated sewage treatment systems, so releasing untreated and dangerous sewage into waterways, came as a surprise to many municipal councillors, federal and provincial politicians and the media. The provincial government ministry responsible for the environment made light of the effects of dumping essentially untreated sewage mixed with chlorine into the environment. Meanwhile, agriculture was being singled out for perceived environmental abuses.

Some time during the last decade, municipalities, non-governmental organizations and the mainstream press caught on to the issues at stake, and governments began moving to close the gaps. Still, a double standard remains, as writer Don Stoneman explains, starting on page 36. Agriculture must be vigilant as Source Water Protection regulations come into play.

In mid-2009, the Ontario Energy Board brought new standards into place and ordered power providers to deal with the contentious issue of stray voltage on farms. It seemed that a long-standing farm issue had finally been dealt with. Now, new concerns are surfacing, in particular for dairy farmers. Stoneman also writes about this, starting on page 51.

After its annual summer hiatus, our regular feature, “Crop Scene Investigation,” returns on page 50 with a challenge for wheat growers. Over the years, we’ve awarded dozens of wireless weather stations to those who have participated in this popular series. After four months, however, no one has yet submitted a solution to the problem with Art’s Alfalfa, featured in our May issue. So why not pull your May issue off the pile and see if you can win a weather station for alfalfa and another for wheat? BF



Behind the Lines - August/September 2010

Over more than 10 years we’ve published many articles in Better Farming about the economical sustainability of family run farm­s, often looking at farm policies. In this issue, writer Mary Baxter looks at the effect that farm size has on its economic sustainability focusing on big and small farms. She found, to no one’s surprise, that the middle isn’t a good place to be. Big seems to be the best place to be. Small farms have their place as well but it is a struggle to make a reasonable income. How farmers feel about the way governments make policies and who gets support may be a bit surprising. You can decide. That story starts on page 16.

In our June issue we explored the rural frenzy to bring small solar power generators (microFIT) on line by the Dec. 31 deadline in order to take advantage of relatively low domestic content rules and obtain potentially lucrative rates for the electricity produced. By the time we were in mailboxes the backlog was­­­­ immense. Mary Baxter delved into the issue again and found that even lenders were becoming leery, threatening to slow down the process even further. That story begins on page 34. As this issue was going to press the Ontario Power Authority had just announced that it’s proposing to reduce payment for ground mounted microFIT systems from 80.2 cents/kilowatt hour to 58.8 cents. It’s too soon to know what impact this will have.

To our small operation readers, here is a chance to have your say.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council is researching the
labour needs on farms with less than $100,000 in gross receipts. Responses will be used to better understand employment needs of smaller farms and will ensure that operations from Ontario are represented in the research. Go to or call CAHRC at 1-866-430-7457 ext. 228 to complete the survey by phone. Here’s an incentive: all respondents can enter for a chance to win $100.

Back in December 2007 we published the results of our investigation of Pigeon King International, the ill-fated Ontario pigeon breeding scheme that many farmers in Ontario and elsewhere lost millions of dollars on. On page 42 Mary Baxter has put together a PKI update as bankruptcy proceedings and police involvement both mark their second anniversaries.

Are there any alfalfa experts out there? Back in the May issue of Better Farming we posed a problem in our CSI series. We didn’t think the challenge was that tough for anyone who is serious about growing alfalfa yet for the first time in the three and half year history of this popular feature no one has come forward with the correct answer for three months. It’s time to dig out your back issues of Better Farming. If you know what’s ailing Art’s alfalfa the odds of winning have never been better. The first person with the correct answer wins a wireless weather station. CSI will resume in the fall with some easier challenges. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind The Lines - June/July 2010

What is the fastest growing crop on Ontario farms this summer? We’ll give you a hint. This crop has reinforced concrete roots and stalks that connect to the province’s electrical grid.

If you haven’t guessed by now, it’s those solar panel units that are popping up like mushrooms after a summer rain on farms across Ontario.

Field Editor Mary Baxter looks at the ins and outs of this phenomenon starting on page 14 – with a reminder that this phenomenon is spawned by a shower of government policies and that these contain quirks.

In the same vein, engineer Jake DeBruyn of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs writes on his visit to Europe, where he looked at existing solar electricity producers and reports on what it takes to get the most out of a system. That story begins on page 30.

Anhydrous ammonia, that ubiquitous nitrogen fuel made from natural gas and used to grow corn crops across North America, has rarely been tagged as a “green” energy source. It may not always be so. Baxter also looks at the research going into making ammonia from renewable sources and using it, not just to fertilize crops, but also to fuel tractors, trucks and cars. Whether the technology is close to reality remains to be seen.

It certainly seems like Ontario farms in the future are going to be producers of energy as well as food and fibre. Energy might be the most profitable of the three for the time being as Ontario’s farm sector faces yet another year when profits will be hard to squeeze from crops and livestock.

And one more note on energy. Beginning at the end of this month, most of us will face the impact of smart meters on our electrical costs. On page 51, engineer Ron MacDonald concludes his two-part series on the most effective ways to deal with time-of-use billing.

Good news and bad news with our highly popular Crop Scene Investigation feature. The bad news is that the column takes its annual hiatus for the summer while farmers do their own real life crop investigations on their farms. The good news is that, since the problem in our May issue has everyone stumped, we are extending the opportunity to submit your solution until our next issue. So if you are interested in winning a free weather station, pull out your copy of the May issue and tell us what you think is ailing Art’s alfalfa. CSI will return in the fall. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind the Lines - May 2010

Forty years ago, property taxes were the flash point in rural Ontario that led to a farmer uprising, and to the birth of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the province’s largest farm organization. Fast-forward 40 years and property taxes continue to be a sore point.

Most farmers are land-based, so it’s only natural that a hike in their assessment would raise their hackles. And the fact that it’s not clear how an assessment is arrived at is a sore point as well.

That lack of transparency in making assessment decisions is central to our cover story, starting on page 14. Writer Susan Mann explores the controversies surrounding how the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation assesses farm properties. Many farm owners find that its system is wanting. While complaints, both rural and urban, are a fraction of the number compiled before an Ombudsman’s report in 2006, there are still many on the farm side. We doubt you will find this story enjoyable. We hope you will find it compelling reading.   

And while we’re pondering the need for farm lobbying, our political columnist Barry Wilson offers his insight (see page 70) on how farm leaders can harm their credibility by offering public praise for government programs.

“Compaction pioneer” Bob Misener says land degradation caused by heavy machinery may be the biggest threat to agriculture today. One of Misener’s biggest fans, Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario president Ken Nixon, credits Bob and his brother Tom with making “a religion of reducing soil compaction.” The Miseners retired last year and the mantle of compaction fighter appears to have been taken up by Wellington County pork producer Jake Kraayenbrink.

He has turned his attention to the challenge of reducing compaction from heavy liquid manure spreaders. This story, by Don Stoneman, begins on page 24.

Kraayenbrink already has a reputation as a farm innovator. In 2006 he won a Premier’s Award for his system for delivering breeding stock to customers while maintaining biosecurity in his own herd.

Our popular Crop Scene Investigation (on page 40) begins its annual summer break with this issue. That leaves you with one last chance to win a wireless weather station before the series returns in the fall. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind the Lines - April 2010

Farmers are often puzzled when they encounter bureaucracy. The concept of dealing with a problem in any other way than the one that gets the job done most efficiently is just so foreign to practical people.

Our cover story this month is foreign in every sense. Writer Suzanne Deutsch looks at the current employment insurance system, which allows foreign workers to collect $5,000 in parental benefits from the Canadian government after paying just $200 into the system for a season’s work in this country. The bureaucrats handing out the money can’t say for sure whether there is a real baby involved and don’t seem very receptive when alerted to the possibility of a fraudulent claim.

This story points to a quandary because no one involved has come up with a solid plan for a better system. It is not surprising, therefore, that some industry people approached for information were unwilling to talk.

Tree farmer Adrian de Boer wasn’t one of those people. In fact, he’s someone who has difficulty accepting wrongdoing and feels compelled to try to make things right. He tried dealing with the bureaucrats by writing letters. When he felt he wasn’t being taken seriously, he approached Better Farming. That puts him in the distinguished company of many other so-called whistle blowers who, with nothing to gain personally and much to lose with colleagues, have turned to the media.

Unless the current system changes, abuses will get worse. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, agricultural employers will need an additional 38,000 seasonal workers by 2013.

Labour isn’t the only challenge farmers face. There is clearly a shortage of organic material in some fields these days and growers are looking for answers.

In the London area, farmers are trying an urban compost mix from Orgaworld.

­It hasn’t been subjected to widespread independent research yet and it comes with an unwanted ingredient: salt. Nevertheless, farmers have been willing to pay $12 per tonne plus trucking to get it into their soil. Mike Mulhern’s story about this development begins on page 48.

Keeping the emphasis on soil for a moment, we think you’ll find Keith Reid’s account of variable rate N technology a profitable read. To be sure, the bugs aren’t all out yet, but the idea of improving crop yields while reducing costs through variable rate N truly is, as Keith terms it, the “Holy Grail” of fertilizer application technology. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind The Lines - January 2010

Take your pick: snake oil, voodoo, foo foo dust, or woo woo. These are some of the non-believers’ terms for products and practices that can’t be validated scientifically. We really only noticed how prevalent these phenomena are as we researched material for this month’s cover story. It’s about alternative farming practices.

Writer Mary Baxter focused on trends like the growing interest in biodynamic farming, a more extreme offshoot of the organic movement. Certified biodynamic farmers treat their operations as closed systems. They protect crops against disease using special preparations made on the farm from common medicinal herbs and animal sheaths.

Another “alternative” practice is the manipulation of so-called electromagnetic fields to improve crops, livestock production and even the health of farm families. The very existence of these electromagnetic fields is a matter of conjecture (some say misrepresentation), as is their supposed detrimental effect on humans, livestock and crops.

Stories like this are challenging to write. Journalists are supposed to be critical thinkers, not easily swayed by those with an agenda. We are also expected to maintain an open mind and attempt to accurately portray the views of everyone involved in a story.

When reports of scientific breakthroughs cross our desks, we have a professional responsibility to look for bias by determining who funded the research. We should also give more credence to results that have been published in reputable scientific journals where results have been reviewed by respected scientists who aren’t involved in the research.

The challenge with our cover story this month is that, on the one hand, a significant number of readers practise the ideas being featured, so the story does needs telling. Yet none of the concepts described however have successfully withstood scientific scrutiny. Not only have some of the theories not been published in a reputable journal, some have actually been disproved. 

As our story progressed we asked ourselves “what’s the harm” even if none of this works? Using that search term we discovered many links for websites that attempt to answer this question.

We couldn’t find any harm, however, in the case of someone practising biodynamic farming. In fact, there might even be a business opportunity lurking there for a savvy marketer who is perhaps willing to put in even more effort than a hardworking conventional farmer. 

We hope though that when someone embraces alternative methods over critical thinking in areas like electro-magnetism or animal communications that they aren’t risking more than they can afford to gamble. Especially where the health of their animals or families are involved. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind the Lines - December 2009

This issue of Better Pork might best be summarized by a simple phrase commonly heard in rural households: “What’s old is new.”

With pork prices stuck in the cellar, producers used to a high level of specialization are looking to diversify to other enterprises they can rely on for income in either the long or the short term. Field editor Mary Baxter writes about this trend in Ontario pork production and that story starts on page 6.

Some of the producers featured took a lesson on the dangers built into commodity pork production more than a decade ago and acted upon them then. The current consumer trend favouring locally produced food is benefiting them now. The logical conclusion is that their businesses are already based upon sound principles or they wouldn’t have made it this far.

Other producers are moving in this direction as the industry appears to be downsizing in the face of high feed costs, a high Canadian dollar and growing imports from the south.

It’s interesting to note, however, that a Farm Credit Canada spokesman expects that pork production will recover, with some adjustments.

In other “what’s old is new” trends, erysipelas, a skin disease that went out when pigs went indoors, is making a comeback in some parts of North America, according to herd health columnist Dr. Ernie Sanford. This disease has some nasty health implications for pigs. The good news Sanford has for us is that there are new tools which make diagnosis easier. That story begins on page 30.

Finally, our European columnist Norman Dunn looks at differing trends in weaning dates in Europe. While German producers favour short weaning periods, the Scandinavians are letting piglets stay with their mothers for more than a week longer. Part of this is because of perceived welfare implications. The reasoning, and other trends in European pork production, are covered on page 41.

As we write this, there is a frenzy of concern across Canada about receiving H1N1 vaccinations. While barn workers are not a priority group, they are being urged by the Ontario Veterinary College to get their shots. At this date of writing, months after concerns about the virus arose, there have been no accounts of pigs passing the virus to people, nor to birds for that matter. BP 


Behind the Lines - December 2009

Farming in the north has its challenges, and its rewards, as Senior Staff Editor Don Stoneman outlines in “Farming Northern-Style,” our cover story this month. The 2009 International Plowing Match was centred around the farm of Norm Koch, a relative newcomer to the area who has become a farming and agri-business force there. But visitors to the match will have noticed some other challenges as well. Some of them have to do with a simple thing such as spelling.

The Province of Ontario refers to the District of Timiskaming in all of its literature that we could find. The event north of New Liskeard was called the 2009 Temiskaming International Plowing Match and Rural Expo.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture refers to farmers and staff that represent the Temiskaming area. The lake is Temiskaming. The region of Quebec on the other side of the river is called Abitibi-Temiscamingue.

Clearly, “Temiskaming” appears to be the preferred local spelling. What gives?

An article from the local New Liskeard newspaper (published by the Temiskaming Printing Company), just after the plowing match, sheds some light. According to a report in The Speaker, the Territorial District of Temiskaming was formed in 1912 with the correct and locally preferred spelling. When the boundaries were re-aligned in 1927, the name was misspelled in the amended act and this spelling has been used by official bureaucracy ever since. There is a movement afoot in the north, partly precipitated by interest following the plowing match, to have the name officially changed to the preferred local spelling and bring the confusion to an end.

The real story about farming in the north, however, is the people. Although we’ve both visited the region often, we always come away with new respect for their warmth and enthusiasm. And that’s why a plowing match held so far from the hub of Ontario agriculture was such a remarkable event.

This month, we’re pleased to welcome farm writer Bernard Tobin to the pages of Better Farming. A former editor and colleague from Farm & Country days, Bernard has been writing about farming for two decades and we’re glad to have him take over our Crop Scene Investigation feature. Starting in this issue, Bernard will be working with a range of provincial field crop specialists and leading agronomists to bring you a new agronomic adventure along with a chance to win a weather station every issue.

Kevin Simpson is another former Farm & Country writer who is making his debut in this issue. The Certified Financial Advisor is a futures broker working almost exclusively with agricultural businesses, helping them to put together and execute marketing strategies. He will be contributing to our Better Decisions column on a variety of business topics. We are happy to have him aboard. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman