First hand learning
Participants in the April 25 LFA Farm Tour and event organizers, pose for a photo at Fortune Farms with Ray and Jamie Fortune. From left, LFA secretary-treasurer Andrea McCoy-Naperstkow, driver Andrew Joy, Lanark County CAO Kurt Greaves, Beckwith Township reeve Richard Kidd, Ray Fortune, Mississippi Mills councillor (Ramsay ward) Val Wilkinson, LFA director Lorne Heslop, Tay Valley Township deputy reeve Brian Campbell, Beckwith councillor Brian Dowdall, Carleton Place deputy mayor Jerry Flynn, Beckwith deputy reeve Sharon Mousseau, Lanark 4-H Association president Melissa Renaud, Jamie Fortune, county tourism manager Marie White and Andrew Donaldson, special projects tourism intern.      Pinder-Moss photo

Showing that Fortune Farms is very much a family business, four generations of the family; Jamie Fortune, his father Ray, Jamie’s wife Sherry, one of their daughters Laura and her four-month-old son Harvey Reedy – pose for a photo following a visit April 25 by the farm tour participants to their maple syrup operation outside of Almonte. Pinder-Moss photo

by Dianne Pinder-Moss
AgriNews Contributor
LANARK COUNTY – Ask Mississippi Mills councillor Val Wilkinson why she would want to spend more than six hours visiting various agricultural operations in Lanark County and she makes mention of the fact she is a rural landowner and has animals herself.

“I am interested in the farming community,” the councillor for Ramsay ward states. “I think it is important to support the farm community.”

Likewise, Beckwith Township councillor Brian Dowdall believes that agriculture is an important industry in Lanark County and sometimes gets taken for granted.

“A lot of people don’t see it as an industry but it is,” says the former KCAT graduate. “We have some very large operations and some small.”

On April 25, Dowdall and Wilkinson got to see examples of each as they took part in a farm tour organized by the Lanark Federation of Agriculture (LFA) for municipal politicians throughout the county. With the first event in October 2016 being deemed a success, the LFA decided to repeat the tour this spring.

The two municipal councillors were joined by four of their counterparts from throughout Lanark County – two others had confirmed but ended up being unable to attend, as well as some county staff, LFA directors and a representative of the Lanark County 4-H Association, for the tour of four agricultural operations. The County of Lanark provided the driver Andrew Joy and Thomas Cavanagh Construction Limited provided the bus.

LFA president Lillian Drummond views the tour as “a casual way to get information back and forth” between the Federation and members of local municipal councils.

“A lot of councillors don’t have the agricultural background that they used to at one time,” she stated in a phone interview afterward. “It’s just a way to get them familiar with some of the issues and get them a chance to understand the (agricultural) industries.”

The first stop of the day for the contingent was Sunol Farms Ltd. in Beckwith Township. The third generation of the Hammond family to be farming there, Amanda Hammond-O’Connell and her husband Jason O’Connell played host to the tour.

Farming alongside Amanda’s dad Stuart who oversees the planting, haying and harvesting, Sunol is one of the largest dairy operations in the county. Approximately 130 cows are milked through a voluntary system utilizing three robots. The tour participants watched with awe as cows entered on their own the stalls for the robotic milking.

It’s been about three years since construction started on the robots and the O’Connells are pleased with the results. Along with the system allowing them to go to three milkings a day on average – some cows will be milked up to four times and others two – Amanda pointed out that it allows them more free time around scheduling other farm work.

When asked about the cost of the robots, the couple replied that while the price tag for each has been around $200,000, they have been cost effective.

“We find it kind of similar to having a labour payment,” Jason stated.

Currently, Sunol ships 10,000 to 11,000 litres of milk every two days. When the O’Connells started farming in 2006, approximately 3,500 litres were being shipped.

“We kind of tripled our size in the last 10 years,” Jason noted.

In addition to the dairy operation, Sunol is also involved in cash cropping – soybeans, corn, wheat, alfalfa and grass hay – and supplies many other large dairy farms with the hay and straw they need. Likewise, Jason has partnered with his dad Kevin O’Connell on his beef farm.

Currently, Stuart, Amanda and Jason, with the help of two full-time employees and two students, farm more than 2,000 acres in a five-mile radius.

“We’re constantly trying to build our land base and cow base,” Jason said. “The goal is to expand by 10 per cent per year” with some years being more, others less.

Dowdall was interested in knowing the biggest challenge for the O’Connells moving forward.

“Right now, (it’s) access to quota,” Amanda stated, pointing out that they were dealing with a 1.5 per cent quota cut announced for the five eastern provinces due to overproduction, “which sucks.”

In order to meet the quota reduction, Jason said they had two options – either cut back on feed in an effort to reduce production or milk fewer cows.

Beckwith reeve Richard Kidd who is also a LFA director, queried the O’Connells about the impact of free trade on their operation. The response from Amanda was that the various international trade deals that Canada has signed on to has resulted in the country’s dairy farmers losing access to 14 to 15 per cent of the Canadian market.

“As a country, we could be shipping 15 per cent more milk within Canada, which is significant,” she stated.

After leaving Sunol and having lunch at Temple’s Sugar Bush, which was complimentary of the LFA, the group headed to Fortune Farms outside of Almonte.

As Jamie Fortune welcomed those on the tour, he shared how this was very much a family business. On this day, he was joined by his parents Ray and Ruth, wife Sherry, one of his daughters Laura and her four-month-old son Harvey.

In what Ray Fortune said was the story of many sugar bushes, he and Ruth purchased the home property of Fortune Farms in 1972, after previously starting out on a small scale with a sugar bush near Carp that wasn’t being utilized. Based on what is known about the property, the sugar bush has been in use since the 1800s when the land was settled, he recounted.

In 1998, the operation was expanded with the acquisition of a second sugar bush near Clayton. Today, between the two properties, Fortune Farms has 7,400 taps with 4,300 on the home site alone.

Along with being federally registered as a sugar operation, Fortune Farms is also a certified maple forest and a member of the Eastern Ontario Model Forest program. Interestingly, Jamie pointed out that there are trees in the forest that are 300 to 500 years old, dating to pre-settlement.

“There’s not another woodlot like this in Lanark County,” he highlighted. “This old growth forest is very rare and very valuable.”

Since 1972, Fortune Farms has been partnering with the Ministry of Natural Resources in the management of the forest. To maintain diversity in the woods, there is a mixture of conifers and different species of deciduous trees, which Jamie said was very healthy for the ecosystem.

Pointing out that Lanark County is blessed with beautiful forests, which support the forest, maple syrup and tourism industries, he stressed the importance of making sure they are well managed.

“They contribute an awful lot to our lifeline and life on the planet,” he noted. “We have to look after them.”

Following Fortune Farms, the next destination was Lilbri Holsteins near Union Hall, which is owned by Brian and Lillian Drummond.

A smaller dairy operation than seen earlier in the day, Lillian who does the milking of the herd of approximately 30 cows talked about her love of the cows and the focus on breeding.

The results of these efforts were evidenced by the honours filling the walls of the office in the barn. These include Lilbri Holsteins being named a 2014 recipient of a Master Breeders shield from Holstein Canada, which according to the association’s website, is “the pinnacle of success for any Holstein Canada member.”

As well, the farm has had numerous cows over the years be classified as “Excellent”. When asked by a municipal councillor about the classification process, Lillian explained that it relates to the confirmation of the cow and “how she looks.” Attributes like the udder, legs/feet, size and body depth are included in the evaluation.

As to how Lillian keeps up with everything, she replied that there’s considerably more paperwork than there used to be.

On the issue of international trade deals, she told the tour participants the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — depending on the outcome of the current negotiations – are likely to be the two that have the greatest impact on the dairy industry.

“We just have to make sure we have the best quality we can and convince Canadian consumers to buy Canadian products,” she stressed.

The farm tour finished off at Locustview Shorthorns in Mississippi Mills, the home of Steve and Joyce Bartlett. After previously being involved in dairy and pig farming, Steve started raising beef approximately 22 years ago. Starting off with two cows, he has built the purebred herd up to its current size of 80 head.

In response to a question regarding his choice of shorthorns, Steve stated that probably more breeds originated from shorthorn.

“They are very docile, good for marbling, easy for calving,” the president of the Lanark County Association of Beef Farmers of Ontario added.

There are 70 acres of tillable land and 25 acres of bushland on the home property with an additional 40 acres up the road being rented for haying. While Steve remarked that it was “kind of like a one-man operation,” now that his three children are raised, he also made it clear that he has “a lot of good neighbours” that are willing to lend a helping hand.

Beckwith deputy reeve Sharon Mousseau took part in the tour as a learning experience. In particular, she said she gained an appreciation of the commitment that farmers make to their livelihood “24/7, 365 days of the year.”

“We take it for granted when we eat the great food they produce and drink the high quality milk,” she remarked.

Her favourite part of the day was seeing the robotic milkers in action at Sunol Farms. The same was true for Tay Valley Township deputy reeve Brian Campbell.

“I thought it was absolutely amazing that cows know when they need to be milked and milk themselves,” he commented, adding that he “really enjoyed” the day overall.

While Carleton Place councillor Doug Black was only able to attend part of the tour, he was impressed with what he saw.

“I have always been fascinated by the concept of people-less farming (automated processes),” he said after visiting Sunol Farms. “It was quite fascinating.”

For Black, being part of the tour was important, noting that members of the farming community “are our good neighbours.”

Jerry Flynn who is the deputy mayor of Carleton Place took up the invitation to be part of the tour because he wanted to see “what was going on in the farming world these days.”

“It’s good to touch base with my roots,” he stated.

Flynn said the event not only rekindled memories of his childhood on the farm but also reinforced “my respect for the farming industry and people who have to work so hard to maintain a living.”

For County of Lanark staff members like CAO Kurt Greaves, the tour was certainly worthwhile.

“I think it was great,” he said of the experience.

In addition to providing an educational opportunity to get out of the office and see how members of the agricultural community “make a living,” Greaves made mention of how the tour participants got to see different topographies from prime Class 1 agricultural land, to the land that is more suitable for pasture.

County tourism manager Marie White likewise enjoyed the tour.

“The LFA Farm Tour was a fun and educational day that provided an opportunity to meet with the innovative and award-winning people working within the agricultural industry here in Lanark County,” White stated.

The president of the Lanark 4-H Association who was also in attendance on April 25 believes tours like these are important to experience.

“They (the participants) see firsthand the struggles, the triumphs and the goals farmers/producers are trying to achieve and overcome,” Melissa Renaud told the AgriNews in an email response following the event. “The general public gets to witness firsthand where their food comes from, the basic steps to get it there, without going too deep on these tours. Because even from the things we got to see and watch, there is still so much more happening behind the scenes that many people will never know.”

As to whether the tour should be held again, Kidd replied with an emphatic “for sure.” Particularly next year, he stated, as municipal elections are being held this fall and that can often result in up to 25 to 30 per cent of the council seats in municipalities around the county being occupied by new faces.

“It is important to get them early in their term and let them know how important agriculture is to the economy of Lanark County,” Kidd said.