Behind the Lines

Behind The Lines: December 2008

Our writers at Better Farming have been writing about stray voltage longer than there has been a Better Farming.

While a reporter with the now defunct Farm & Country magazine in the mid-1990s, Robert Irwin filed a freedom of information request to access Ontario Hydro documents about management of stray voltage on farms. The provincial utility cited “competitive reasons” for attempting to keep the information secret. When the information arrived after a time-consuming appeal process, some of it was blacked out.

Since then, the agricultural community has come a long way. The Ontario Legislature passed a law in 2007 to deal with stray voltage on farms and, recently, the Ontario Energy Board recommended that the standards for allowable current be reduced by 20-fold.

Behind The Lines: November 2008

Ontario’s sheep industry has long been the envy of shepherds elsewhere in North America – and in Oceania for that matter. In the past, producers elsewhere have told us that the “Toronto” market is the highest-priced in the world.

We knew that the ban on exports following the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy crisis in 2003 took a toll, but at least lamb isn’t dependent upon export markets, like beef. Ontario eats twice as much lamb as it produces. So we were surprised to learn about the challenges that producers face in this seemingly profitable industry. Our story starts on page 14.

Behind the Lines - October 2008

Readers of Better Farming are familiar with the story of Pigeon King International, published last December. And those who read our website ( have watched the saga unfold over recent months. A company, which once promised to save the small family farm through breeding its pigeons, buying them back and selling the offspring to other breeders, is now bankrupt and many farmers have lost their investment and worse. As we watched the crisis unfold, a serious question remained unanswered. How does a potential investor know when a business venture is sound and whether there are solid markets to maintain sales?

We began a quest for answers, looking at a number of exotic ventures which have taken root in Ontario in recent years. Some have been failures, some have struggled and some producers have flourished. This feature story begins on page 14.

One solid warning came from a study of “speculative bubbles” in agriculture at the University of California Davis in the United States. The study says, in part: “Advertising that focuses on attracting additional producers, limited information on the investment, control of the available information by industry representatives, investment appeals directly mostly to small-scale investors, and commonly held misconceptions perpetuating unreasonable prices are telltale signs that have been prominent throughout the history of speculative bubbles in agriculture.”

This issue marks the ninth time in as many years that Better Farming has published information collected from the Ontario Ministry of Environment’s Spills Action Centre about the frequency and location of sewage spills and overflows and bypasses, mostly from municipal sewage facilities and services.

We began this annual report in 2000, a few months after the Walkerton tainted water crisis, when livestock agriculture in particular was at the centre of all things wrong, in the public mind, with water in Ontario. This year, Ground Zero for concern about what happens to municipal sewage waste dumped into streams and rivers is the City of Ottawa, where beach closures downstream from a ­malfunctioning sewage system have caused an uproar.

This story begins on page 34. For something more local to readers, the charts, recording spills and bypasses, recorded by municipality, can be found on page 39. How is your municipality doing?

Often, when we publish, it feels like we are preaching to the choir. Maybe this year, with public concern about sewage spills centred on Canada’s capital, things will be different. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind The Lines: August/September 2008

“Faith in Arlan Galbraith, Ontario’s Pigeon King,” the cover story in our December 2007 issue, is the winner of the 2008 American Agricultural Editors’ Association Writing Awards Program Team Story category. As this issue of Better Farming reaches your mailbox, field editor Mary Baxter is in Tampa, Fla., accepting the award.

Our story was selected from among 24 entries from publications across the United States and Canada by judge John Schneller, associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

We are in good company; Better Farming columnists Barry Wilson and Alan Guebert have both won in earlier years.

In mid-July, our Pigeon King story won bronze in the Trade Association Business Publications International worldwide awards. More important to us than the award, however, were the judge’s comments: “I think that this feature did more for the industry than any other feature entered in the contest. Great job with reporting. Great job with writing and editing. Overall, an A+.”

And in May we accepted the top award in the magazine category for investigative reporting from the Canadian Association of Journalists for the same story.

Since first writing about the Pigeon King breeding venture, we’ve felt like we were watching a car crash in slow motion. Hundreds of calls and emails from worried investors and their friends and relatives took on a new urgency in mid-June when Galbraith, the Pigeon King, walked away from the people who had entrusted him with their money. Many, including Amish and Mennonites, were staunch church-goers who felt they could trust someone who shared their values.

Our comprehensive coverage of the Pigeon King collapse and other breaking news can be found on our website at:

Those proud or grateful that they hadn’t invested should remember that each year thousands of people lose their investment in various schemes. Not just the naïve and the faithful are convinced of a scheme’s integrity. Only weeks before the meltdown, Conservative agriculture critic and former Ontario agriculture minister Ernie Hardeman supported the Pigeon King’s vision even when presented with opposing arguments and evidence by fellow Conservative and former PKI salesman Bill Top.

The Better Business Bureau said that everything was fine while the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ontario Provincial Police and Waterloo Regional Police were unable to identify any problems. Following the meltdown, a published report quoted Waterloo Police as describing Pigeon King International as “an investment that’s gone bad,” offering the endorsement: “This was a company that ran well for five or six years.” In fairness, the officer involved later apologized.

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food, and Rural Affairs officials consistently told media that they weren’t aware of complaints. We’ve been told that two staff members had received a warning and documents from Top a year or more before the end came. Mark Wolf, a former PKI marketing and business development staff member, says that he also tried unsuccessfully to warn the Ontario agriculture ministry when he left his job as salesman about a year ago. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind The Lines - June/July 2008

Grain-based ethanol turned from an environmental darling to a pariah in a far shorter time than it took grain producers to put together capital and build a processing plant. A plant that is scheduled to come into production shortly was a natural place for us to go to illustrate a story about the future of ethanol.

Visiting an ethanol plant that is under construction can be an interesting experience, as Better Farming’s photographer Rachel Lincoln found out at the Integrated Grain Processors Co-operative (IGPC) site in Aylmer recently.

The places where she could shoot photographs were greatly restricted.

Behind The Lines - May 2008

It doesn’t take too much flipping through back issues of this publication to realize that farming, in one way or another, goes from crisis to crisis.

The BSE crisis struck in 2003 and still plagues the beef industry. In 2004, American pork producers launched countervail against Canadian exports. Only two springs ago, grain and oilseed farmers were rallying tractors in Queen’s Park and Ottawa and taking countervail action against corn imports from the United States. Now high feed prices and a weak U.S. currency threaten to bring livestock farmers to their knees.

Behind the Lines - April 2008

A three-paragraph story in a local newspaper pointed senior staff editor Don Stoneman to this month’s tragic cover story. A young man farming north of Guelph in Mapleton Township had been very badly injured when struck by a large bale that fell off his loader.
That short story started a week-long search for answers to questions about farm safety here in Ontario. We found out that that many farmers do exactly what this young man was doing.

They move three bales at a time with a front-end loader that has a guard which protects them against only two bales. Most of these farmers get away with it. Some have close calls as bales precariously perched on loaders fall off. Our story, all too illustrative of the risks that farmers take, starts on page 12.

Behind the Lines - March 2008

The best business opportunities make use of resources that are already at your disposal. In this issue, staffer Mary Baxter writes about the opportunity presented to some former pig farmers in Middlesex County to use their manure facilities for storing liquid biosolids before they are spread on farm fields. However, Nick and Colleen Wiendels encountered stiff opposition to their proposal from within their community and other hurdles to leap. Their story starts on page 16.

Many in mainstream agriculture know little about the relatively new phenomenon of milking sheep to make exotic cheeses. Nor do they understand the potential of the market. Petra Cooper, a former book publisher and owner of an operation recently started in Prince Edward County, also heads up the Ontario Cheese Society. Cooper says some of these cheeses are the type that you eat after opening a $100 bottle of wine.
You’ll find Don Stoneman’s story on sheep milk production on page 36.

He explored where this fledgling industry is going and talked to farms and processors, too, who are aiming to replace some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in imported sheep cheese that discerning consumers are now buying.

For now, at least, sheep milk production and products fall between the cracks in provincial regulations. Is this a cheap way to get into dairying?

Perhaps, but Stew Cardiff, the largest sheep milk cheese processor in Ontario, has words of warning. It’s hard work to pry retailers and distributors from suppliers they are using to achieve a comfortable profit. Produce too much cheese and overwhelm the market, then everyone loses.

“Sadly,” says Cardiff, “this industry is littered with the corpses of farms and cheese plants with incorrect assumptions and over-idealistic business plans or simply ones that were overwhelmed by the daily challenges.”

Last month, Better Farming launched an improved website where we will be publishing important and time-sensitive news of interest to the farm community. You can access this website at Readers can go there to find some features, such as our annual soybean chart, which were formerly published in the magazine. At Better Farming, we feel that with high-speed access becoming more common in the province, the Internet has come of age in the farm community. It’s just another indication of how agriculture moves forward in Ontario. BF

Robert Irwin & Don Stoneman

Behind the Lines (February 2008)

The inspiration for this month’s cover story on food labelling came last year when a supermarket meat counter attendant directed Better Farming senior staff editor Don Stoneman’s attention towards a “special” just in time for the end of the barbecuing season. It was a steak labelled “Product of Canada” but bearing an inspection logo from the United States Department of Agriculture. Since Canada hasn’t quite been declared the 51st state yet, he started on an odyssey to find out what gives.

Behind The Lines (January 2008)

Times have rarely looked tougher for Canada’s pork and beef producers than projections indicate for 2008. Reportage on the status of these major livestock industries begins on page 14. High feed prices, fluctuating currency, more regulations on both raising livestock and processing – it is taking a toll.

On top of all of that, markets between Canada and the United States no longer seem to be in synchronicity. A volatile Canadian dollar is not a good thing for mainstream agriculture in this country. While the prices that farmers get for the commodities they produce change almost immediately with currency fluctuations, input costs do not. Ontario Pork chairman Curtiss Littlejohn has described the result of the poor prices as “an equity avalanche.”