Ont. farmer works both sides of street

RIDGETOWN, Ont. — Fiete Suhr farms large in Ontario, both organically and conventionally.

Cash flow is greatest with his conventional corn-soybean-wheat rotation: more than $1 million in annual profit on 7,000 acres in Bruce County east of Lake Huron.

It added up to an average of $158 per acre over the past three years, but the calculation doesn’t include Suhr’s land costs.

Farmland rents for $120 and $250 per acre in the region, which makes for thin margins.

His organic corn, soybeans, spelt and clover netted him $447 an acre, again before land costs, even though the clover, which is used for rotational purposes, lost money. Suhr also grows oats, peas, hay and black beans and raises a 100-ewe flock on his 750-acre organic operation.

“I think organic agriculture is here to stay. I think the demand will stay. It’s profitable. It’s sustainable,” he said.

“I also think it makes you less dependent on corporate agribusinesses…. We all hope the pest control industry stays ahead of the pests. One of these years there could be a problem.”

He said in a later interview that he may eventually drop the conventional side of his family’s farming enterprise and expand his organic production to perhaps 1,000 acres.

Suhr, who immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1984, managed a large cash crop operation before striking out on his own in 2000. He gradually built his stake in organic farming and at one point worked 9,000 acres conventionally before competition drove up his land costs.

Custom operators do all the conventional farm work on rented land with Suhr overseeing the effort. Suhr, family members and one hired hand look after all aspects of the organic operation.

Margins are wider with organics, but challenges remain.

It wasn’t easy in the beginning to find trustworthy buyers, but Suhr said that’s changed.

“Now I have one buyer who purchases all my organic production. You can contract everything you want for 2016 right now,” he said.

As on conventional farms, untimely rain can play havoc with weed control, but unlike conventional farms, there’s little in the way of rescue treatments.

Suhr currently relies on extensive tillage, which begins with cultivation, usually three times for corn and twice with soybeans, to remove weeds before planting.

He said his tine weeder is used both before and after planting.

“It’s the most essential tool I have. It’s like a harrow going through,” he said.

“When you see tiny white root hairs, you need to go out there with it.”

Suhr also scuffles row crops using an Einböck Row Guard system that attaches to his three-point hitch. It uses a forward-pointing camera that distinguishes between the green rows and the earth between and automatically shifts tillage action by up to 20 inches. This allows him to work within an inch of the crop plants.

He said interested farmers should expect to pay $30,000 to $40,000 for a 20-inch, 12-row unit.

“I got the first one that was sold in North America so I got it at reasonable price.”

He feels this type of camera-dependent system is more accurate than real time kinetic technology, and it doesn’t require precision guidance for seeding.

The manual override may be necessary if heavy weed pressure makes it difficult for the camera to distinguish between the crop and weeds.

“Both my daughters can run it, and they don’t have to worry so much about the accuracy of their driving.”

Fertility is another challenge. Suhr relies on rotation and, for corn and soybeans, municipal compost applied at two tons per acre and manure from his sheep.

His organic corn yielded 100 bushels per acre over the past three years, compared to 150 bu. for his conventional corn. He hopes achieve 120 bu. without buying organic nutrients.

His organic soybeans have averaged 36 bu. compared to 44 bu. for his conventional beans.

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