Ontario group’s plan to lure beef producers north slow going

A Beef Farmers of Ontario effort to attract producers to northern Ontario is generating interest but faces plenty of hurdles.

Matt Bowman, president of the provincial organization and the fourth generation to farm his family operation near New Liskeard, said the goal of the Beef North campaign is to add 100,000 cows to the province’s herd over the next 20 years. Currently, the herd stands at 275,000 animals.

Recruitment began in 2014 and targets a broad spectrum of producers, including those in the southern portion of the province squeezed out by urbanization and high land prices, as well as recent college and university graduates looking to start farming.

Another aim of the campaign is to put into production one million acres of crown land in the Clay Belt — a stretch of land that occupies much of the Cochrane District, an area in the north of the province around James Bay.

The main focus is an area close to Kapuskasing that has access to roads and electricity.

The beef farmers group is working with the government to get land released, Bowman said.

“There also is a certain amount of private land (available) as well.”

Organizing the release of crown land progresses slowly, and Bowman acknowledges some frustration.

Different ministries have to be consulted as well as interest groups such as First Nations and the touring, logging and mining industries, he said.

Dave Cockburn, who owns a 25-cow Charolais purebred breeding operation near Timmins, said he supports the initiative but would like to see more discussion about the many challenges that will face farmers who buy in.

Cockburn, 30, bought his 80 acre farm in late 2013.

“My wife and I both make extremely good money off-farm, and we’ve struggled to get this off the ground,” he said.

Lack of infrastructure for the cattle business is the issue.

Until this year, no large animal veterinarian served the area. The closest farm supply store is two hours away in New Liskeard. There are no sale barns and no agriculture specialists at local banks.

With little demand nearby for the bulls he produces for breeding, he has to ship animals and seed stock south or out of province.

“This week I drove to Saskatchewan and Manitoba and spent all week out there going to bull sales because there’s nothing around here and I have to advertise and I have to travel.”

He ships in hay from Quebec. Growing his own isn’t an option — the equipment is too expensive to justify buying for the short period he would use it. Moreover, because he works off-farm, it’s tough to find the time to harvest during the very short window of opportunity that’s usually available.

“Our mean average temperatures in the winter are pretty comparable to Fort McMurray,” he said, “but we get way more moisture in the wintertime than (western) provinces do.”

Cockburn has also had to clear land.

Provincial grants are available to support clearing and tiling, but he said producers must weigh clearing costs against the impact on land values.

“There’s no way that you can make a living here farming full time cattle unless you have a serious (financial) backing.”

Andrew Gordanier, who has leased Agriculture Canada’s former beef research farm in Kapuskasing since 2015, also talks about the lack of infrastructure.

He raises beef and sheep and like Cockburn, he has had to ship in feed, but he’s working with local growers to establish a steady supply of barley. Last year, he started Kapuskasing Meats to sell beef, pork, chicken and lamb.

He has even begun to sell livestock feed to people in the area who hobby farm. Through a new business, Kapuskasing Agri-Services, he is working with Collège Boréal to deliver introductory training for cow-calf production.

Gordanier said every week people call him to find out about farming in the region. And at a regional agricultural symposium held in Kapuskasing in March attended by 225 people, he estimated one-third were either farmers or planning to farm.

“I think that’s a good sign.”

He’s encouraged too that the Ontario ministry of agriculture is searching for a services adviser for the corridor. It shows government commitment to the area, he said.

He predicts that long-term optimism will be the best driver of the northern expansion. Good prices for an extended period of time will generate that enthusiasm, and he sees promising signs.

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