Behind the Lines

Behind the Lines - November 2009

“With this issue, we proudly introduce Better Farming, a new magazine produced by experienced writers and editors and dedicated to the interests of the farmers of Ontario.”

Ten years ago this month, those words introduced Ontario agriculture to this magazine. In the same letter to readers in that November 1999 issue, we wrote that “we earnestly believe that small-town and rural Ontario were better served when newspapers and journals were family-owned and operated, and when publishers and editors called the shots from Main Street digs.” That was when we set up shop at the Farm Museum in Milton.

A decade and 100 issues later, we still believe in the Main Street concept. And we are even more certain that this was the right direction as we watch the disintegration of news media across North America in general.

We still believe that objective reporting at arms length from advertisers is the way to achieve greater credibility for all. Ten years ago, advertisers appearing in this magazine demonstrated their belief in an independent voice for Ontario agriculture.

Our November 1999 magazine was 64 pages; the one you are now holding in your hands is 90 pages. A little more than two years ago, Mary Baxter opened our newest bureau in London. In addition to her magazine contributions, Mary – who won gold and silver at the recent farm writers’ awards – now supervises a number of new reporters who contribute to our news service on the World Wide Web. That kind of growth is rare these days in the world of publishing, where cutbacks layoffs and closures are commonplace.

We are no longer in the former Farm Museum, now known as Country Heritage Park. Editors and reporters operate from small offices spread across the farming areas of the province in what amounts to a “cyber newsroom,” a concept that wasn’t possible much more than 10 years ago.

Like our readers, on farms across the province, we depend on a combination of modern technology (rural Internet service, for example) and time-tested techniques to compete in a marketplace dominated by multinational competitors. Like farming, publishing is fraught with risk and constantly driven to greater efficiency and economies of scale. Another similarity is the job and lifestyle satisfaction that both writers and farmers get when things go well.

We are still publishing with an independent voice and we thank those who support our efforts by advertising in these pages. We also deeply appreciate the encouragement we received from some true visionaries at the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Ontario Pork, The Co-operators and many other farm groups and organizations. Without their support in the early years, there would have been no Better Farming.

Most of all, we thank you, the readers, for believing in us and for calling, writing or simply stopping by our farm show booths to share your thoughts. You’ve told us to maintain our sharp focus on the business of farming in Ontario and to keep on digging for the real story. With continued encouragement from the Ontario farming community, we promise to do exactly that.

We’re looking forward to seeing where our “main street digs” concept takes us over the next 10 years. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind the Lines - October 2009

It’s no surprise that, since rural electrification was completed in Ontario in the middle of the last century, farmers have come to depend as much upon reliable and abundant power as they do on the sun and rain.

It may be a surprise, though, that promises of working with power retailers to save on costs can be an expensive experience, and that more electrical rate shocks are on the way as Hydro One Networks Inc., which delivers power to more than 91,000 farm properties in the province, introduces “time of use” charges.

Field editor Mary Baxter explores the ins and outs of electricity contracting in this month’s cover story starting on page 10.

October marks our annual environmental issue, in which we list and examine spills and bypasses from municipal sewage treatment plants across the province. We began this series of reports in 2000, the year of Walkerton and the peak of the environmental backlash against livestock agriculture in Ontario. Many other media have followed our ongoing coverage, but readers tell us that the need for this information has not gone away.

The environment continues to be an issue, particularly where agricultural and non-agricultural interests clash in recreational areas. We know that farming tends to carry the blame, justly or otherwise, particularly when beaches are polluted.

Last spring, the environment pressure group Ecojustice, formerly known as the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, garnered a lot of exposure for the issue when it released a report concluding that sewage spills, bypasses and combined sewer overflows aren’t good for rivers or lakes where they are discharged and may be a threat to the health of Ontarians.

On another subject of environmental interest, Vancouver based technical writer Peter Ion reports on the advances made in producing oil from algae (“oilgae”) and the promise this holds as a new revenue source for farmers. This story can be found on page 37.

Back to the subject of milestones, this fall marks the 10th anniversary of the launch of Better Farming in November 1999. Next month, we plan to revisit some of the issues that were in the forefront then.

After its regular summer hiatus, our popular Crop Scene Investigation challenge returns this month on page 52. If you can figure out what damaged Matthew’s corn send us your answer and you could be the winner of a weather station.

Of course, this summer you didn’t need a weather station to know there was something wrong with the weather. If you’re wondering what caused the problem, Henry Hengeveld has some answers this month in his regular weather feature. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind the Lines – August/September 2009

It’s now debatable whether Rome, anxious to finish off an old Imperial rival, actually ordered its soldiers to sow the fields with salt around the razed city of Carthage so that nothing would grow at the end of the third Punic wars in 146 BC. Certainly, it has been known for many centuries that salt and crop growing don’t mix.

Salt washed or blown off roads into fields and orchards is the topic of this month’s cover story by writer Mary Baxter, starting on page 14. While it’s mostly an issue where delicate horticultural crops are grown in the Niagara area, salt damage to field crops has been reported in other areas of the province, particularly where commuter traffic is heavy.

Road salting is certainly toxic, but it gets an exemption under provincial pollution laws if there is runoff. Keeping highways open and safe by clearing them chemically of snow and slush is a priority in high traffic areas. With populations growing in urban centres around western Ontario in particular, and winter storms becoming more violent and unpredictable, we can expect reports of salt damage to crops to increase.

In October, in our environment issue we will continue with our annual series about sewage spills and bypasses from municipalities. We began this reporting in 2000 at a time when hog farms were being vilified and a majority of the population seemed unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that the problem was bigger than just pig farms and included human waste.

The topic has since received a lot of urban media coverage in early summer as an organization called Ecojustice, formerly known as the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, published its report on spills and bypasses in 2006 and 2007, entitled “Flushing out the Truth.” Cities have some catching up to do in dealing with their overloaded and antiquated sewage systems and urban media still have some catching up to do in writing about it.

Waste, whether human or livestock, is certainly a divisive subject that generally separates along urban and agriculture lines. It’s not the most highly charged subject we’ve brought you over the years, however. Climate change takes that prize.

On that theme in this issue, our Stateside writer, Alan Guebert, challenges one climate change denier to think of how his grandchildren will feel if he’s wrong.

“If I’m wrong, my grandchildren will curse my name,” is the sobering response. Alan’s column appears on page 77.

And on page 74 our veteran weather writer, Henry Hengeveld, explains the impact contrails (those vapour trails left by jet planes) have on climate change.

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind The Lines - JuneJuly 2009

Innovation and cost-saving are hallmarks that define modern agriculture. So, too, unfortunately, is a low rate of return expected on the investment to make these things happen.

That’s also the way it is with wind turbines. Farmers are eager to increase their independence and reduce their power input costs, and turbines operating on their farms are seen as a way to do that, even if it will take more than 10 years to get their money back.

But is even that low rate of return realistic? Not always, as writer Don Stoneman explains in this issue’s cover story, best described as a cautionary tale.

Some things became clear while he was researching this topic. First, what goes around, comes around. A century ago, windmills were a major source of power on Ontario farms.

Behind The Lines - May 2009

The growing presence of women in agriculture in Ontario is the subject of this month’s cover story by staff writer Mary Baxter. The story is mostly about the rise in the number of women who are listed statistically as the operators of a farm.

Their numbers are rising, albeit slowly, at the same time as the number of farm operations reported, in general, is falling. The trend is seen in the United States as well, and less so across Canada.

The rising role of women as decision-makers has spread to farm organizations as well. Coincidentally, after this article was written, that growing role also showed itself at Ontario Pork with the election of Wilma Jeffray as chair and Mary-Ann Hendrikx as vice-chair at the board’s inaugural meeting in early April. It’s a situation that is certainly unprecedented in Ontario’s major farm commodity organizations and likely elsewhere in Canada as well.

Prior to the most recent elections, six of 14 Ontario Pork directors were women, more than many other farm organizations. How that came to be is an interesting story in itself. Hendrikx explains that, in 1995, Ontario Pork’s bylaws were changed to allow two votes per enterprise for electing county councillors.

“It was just seen as a more inclusive way to get more participation,” she explains. The bylaw change allowed not only spouses but farm staff to have a role.

With so many farms functioning as a husband and wife partnership, the stage was set for a change in the gender makeup. In the case of Hendrikx, she says she became involved as a secretary-treasurer of her district and then moved up.

In the letters section, beginning on page 6, there is reaction to our April cover story, “Food or fuel, documenting the effects of the provincial government’s new Green Energy bill.” The proposed law, and our cover story, seem to have struck a nerve across Ontario. Farmers, who have long considered themselves as stewards of the land, are dismayed that developers may be empowered to turn productive land into “solar farms.” At the same time, some farmers hope to cash in on the potential to reap revenues at several times the going rate for electricity produced in traditional hydro-driven facilities by using solar technology on roofs and along fence rows.

We expect this story to unfold in the coming weeks and, at press time, we were awaiting results of an Ontario Municipal Board arbitration process in the case involving the Township of East Hawkesbury and Solaris Energy Partners Inc., on which we reported in our April issue. Stay tuned for up-to-date coverage of this issue and other Ontario farm news on the Breaking News section of our website: BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind the Lines - April 2009

In case you hadn’t guessed, we at Better Farming are strong believers in the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words. In most months, we log a lot of miles getting photos to illustrate the stories we bring you.

There’s an important photo missing from this month’s cover story written by Mike Mulhern. However, it wasn’t for lack of effort on our part. After an exchange of emails and telephone calls over several weeks, Greg Pruner, president and CEO of Solaris Energy Partners Inc., declined to have his photo run in this issue.

Pruner co-operated fully in an interview and with other staff members in subsequent discussions. Nevertheless, the man who appears to be leading the solar revolution in eastern Ontario is understandably wary. He’s been involved in a lot of news coverage lately and he feels most of it is biased against him or his company or, at the very least, more focused on the location than on the merit of his $10 million dollar project in the Township of East Hawkesbury.

If it becomes law, the Ontario government’s recently announced Green Energy Act will make it easier for solar and wind projects to move forward. To do this, however, the Act will apparently reduce the opportunities for opponents to use the legal process to stop projects such as Pruner’s. He says that, if it had been in effect when he started, the proposed legislation could have prevented the delays and losses – he estimates his costs at $150,000 for the hearings – which he’s suffered.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) supports the idea of a Green Energy Act. Many farmers are expected to try to cash in on anticipated opportunities in alternative energy and the last thing they need is costly opposition. OFA support in getting rid of obstacles is, therefore, natural enough. On the other hand, the federation doesn’t support the use of prime farmland for solar energy projects. And that’s where a few details will need to be sorted out.

A prime argument in the East Hawkesbury situation is a neighbour’s contention that the solar plant will be built on prime farmland. Pruner disputes the “prime” designation, but insists it’s a moot point, since livestock will be able to graze beneath the panels, regardless.

In East Hawkesbury, an Ontario Municipal Board hearing was scheduled to rule on the farmland issue among others, in late March.

Sometime after that, possibly in May, we will learn how both the OFA and the Ontario government balance the traditional right to object legally and the need to preserve farmland, with their shared objective of removing obstacles to green energy.

Better Farming will be following this issue carefully. For the latest details on this and other breaking farm news, visit our website at BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind the Lines - March 2009

Ontario’s wine industry has earned a considerable reputation, and deservedly so.

Inspired growers and winemakers plant and nurture the right grape vines on those special soils in the Niagara Peninsula and other mild-weathered parts in the south of the province. Years later, the fruits of their labours grace tables in homes and restaurants. There is an air of sophistication associated with grapes and wine. There are also overtones of nationalistic pride, and consumers drinking a glass feel a connection to local farmers. What’s not to like?

The complex public relations campaign that is involved in communicating this story to the consumer hides the turmoil lying behind this highly regulated and, surprisingly, largely foreign-owned, wine industry.

The collapse a year ago of Niagara Vintners, a highly promising producer-owned consortium selling wine under the 20 Bees appellation, garnered widespread attention. Then, last fall, the province paid millions of dollars in a short-term solution to help growers dumping thousands of tonnes of grapes on the ground. In spite of growing wine consumption, there were no buyers for those grapes.

In our story, beginning on page 16, writer Don Stoneman looks at the issues and possible solutions. Independent growers and wine makers said time and time again that their biggest challenge is getting wine into the hands of consumers. There are few legal avenues, one of them being the provincially-run liquor stores. In the opinion of growers, there’s confusion as to which wines are made from grapes grown in Ontario, and which are not.

As this story was being finished, Premier Dalton McGuinty was publicizing one of his solutions to the growing economic crisis in Ontario; do away with the red tape and bureaucratic rules that prevent businesses from doing business. The wine industry would be a good place to start.

We’ve reported on biochar before, but we feel it’s worth tracking this technology carefully because of its potential for yield enhancement and carbon absorption. See our latest report by Peter Ion on page 28.

And don’t forget to check out our annual listing of soybean varieties. This year, to allow for last-minute developments with new varieties, and to make the chart searchable, we’ve moved things online. You can find this year’s chart, along with the day’s breaking news, at: BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman


Behind the Lines - February 2009

In early January, Farm and Dairy, a publication based in Salem, Ohio, listed nine people farmers should watch for in 2009. President-elect Barack Obama and his first choice as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, are no surprise.

But one of the nine is a Canadian. His name is Arlan Galbraith.

The magazine describes Galbraith as “on the hot seat during 2009 as creditors from his now defunct Pigeon King International come calling for their share” of the millions owed to them “for pigeon breeding contracts, barn rentals and trade contracts.”

Ohio is the home to many former Pigeon King investors. Galbraith’s business was based in Waterloo and Moorefield in western Ontario and he ran a pigeon-raising scheme which collapsed last June.

Readers of this magazine will recall that Better Farming published its first article on the Pigeon King in December, 2007. We’ve been following the Pigeon King-Arlan Galbraith saga ever since, reporting ongoing developments on our website ( along with other breaking agricultural stories.

On Jan. 6, 2009, we were the first to report that the Waterloo Regional Police fraud squad and the RCMP had committed four officers and other resources to an investigation of the Pigeon King. One officer described this as the largest fraud investigation in Waterloo history. Days later, other media picked up our story. One of the reasons we bring this up now is to encourage you to look to our website for Ontario farm news when it happens. Yes, other media depend on our site to keep on top of events in Ontario agriculture, but our real purpose is to help farmers in Ontario stay on top of breaking farm stories which affect their businesses. Even readers with slow Internet connections can get breaking farm news because we’ve designed things with dial-up Internet connections in mind.

When we initially wrote about the Pigeon King, a clear warning was sounded. “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

That warning comes through loud and clear again in this issue with regards to a more common farm commodity – beef.

In early January, we got word that a heavily-publicized local beef-raising scheme in Grey County, which initially promised farmers returns well above market prices, had collapsed, leaving farmers owed tens of thousands of dollars. Police and government officials won’t say if they suspect wrongdoing in the case. This cautionary tale begins on page 26. 

Another important topic much in the news is locally-produced food. This month, writer Mary Baxter looks at the possibility for something else that is local – beer, and the possibility of growing hops and barley to make it. She found out that, because of the weather, it’s a risky business. This story starts on page 14. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman


Behind The Lines: January 2009

The farming centre of Harriston, part of the Town of Minto, in Wellington County, has an odd claim to fame. According to Ookla Net Metrics, a U.S. company which tests Internet Service Provider (ISP) speeds through their website (, Harriston residents have, on average, access to the fastest Internet service in Canada.

We asked the town of Minto’s mayor David Anderson, who lives in Harriston, about this and he credits a local telecommunications company, Wightman Communications, which installed a fibre optic cable last summer linking Harriston with the town of Palmerston and the village of Clifford.

Harriston’s status is one of the things that we discovered while researching a story into getting broadband Internet access across rural Ontario. Every rural resident deserves broadband access, Huron County planner Carol Lemming told us, and the feeling appears to be ubiquitous across Ontario. How to get broadband access is more contentious. Our cover story starts on page 12.

Parking yourself on a fibre optic wire is one way to get it, but most farm businesses will make a connection via either a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) through a telephone company telephone line or a wireless network.

One of the wireless ISPs in north Wellington, near Harriston, is Everus Communications Inc., formerly known as High-Speed FX Communications Inc., which bills itself as the largest wireless Internet provider in Ontario. Its president and Chief Executive Officer is Richard Cantin and Wightman Communications is a major competitor. Cantin argues that the Speedtest results aren’t a good way to rate a company. He says that speed ultimately depends upon the route taken and the amount of Internet traffic at a given time and the distance.

Cantin goes further, making a comparison between a Mustang and a Porsche in a zero to 60 miles per hour test. The Porsche may get there in 3.8 seconds compared to the Mustang’s 5.2 seconds. Ultimately, when the speed limit is 60 miles per hour, does it matter? he asks. The slower Mustang is still “a pretty darn good car.”

We asked Doug Suttles, founding partner and technical director for, based in Montana, which performs 600,000 tests per day. He had kindly supplied us with a database of average speeds of ISPs in Ontario. He agreed that distance is an issue.

Suttles told us that connects with 250 servers worldwide and tests against servers in the area. So a person testing from their computer at home in Harriston might be speed-testing to and from a server in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, or even Kippen, where Tuckersmith Communications Co-operative Ltd. hosts a test server for “Some ISPs might argue. Others actually refer to us to show what their speeds are,” Suttles told Better Farming. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind The Lines: December 2008

The theme behind this issue of Better Pork is getting on with business. And, in this regard, at a time when prospects for the Ontario pork industry seem to be at ebb tide, we found inspiration in western Ontario-based Paragon Farms.

Our readers will be familiar with some of the players in Paragon. We featured them in a cover story on Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points (HACCP) in the pork industry in the inaugural issue of Better Pork, published in February, 2000. Then, the people running Paragon  Farms’ operations were part of Cold Springs Farm, a storied turkey and pork producing operation based in Thamesford.