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  • Bruce Moore, OMAFRA North Team Lead

A Path Forward for Northern Agriculture Development

Taken from the Spring 2019 issue of Breaking Ground

Pierrette Desrochers and Barry Potter, Agriculture Development Advisors with OMAFRA's Northern Team, recently made a presentation at the Northern Ontario Ag Conference in Sudbury. Pierrette and Barry outlined projects undertaken in 2017/18 specific to Northern Ontario. The projects were funded in part, through the Growing Forward 2 program. The highlights of the Applied Agricultural Research project, which was managed by NOFIA will be outlined in the next issue of Breaking Ground. Highlights of the Meat Processing, Mentorship/Internship Options, Crop Infrastructure and Beef Benchmarking projects are below:

Meat Processing Study:

The overall intention of the study was to check in on the meat processing sector in Northern Ontario. The project involved surveying meat processing facility operators and free-standing meat plants. Both Provincial and Federal facilities were included. The study was undertaken by RSM (formerly known as Collins-Barrow).

Project Objectives:

  • To characterize the extent of meat processing and handling systems in Northern Ontario

  • Assess gaps and develop recommendations to address these gaps

Thirty-seven provincially- and federally-licensed meat plants across Northern Ontario were included in the study. The sector is an important part of the value chain with development opportunities tied to local food initiatives, production diversification (i.e. poultry), supplying community demand for specialty product like goat, veal, lamb and further processed products like ready-to-eat meals, and to supply restaurants and the broader food service.

A key intent of the project was to determine the specific factors that are impacting livestock and meat processing in Northern Ontario. Several general challenges were identified in the project, including lack of throughput, adapting to provincial regulations, availability of trained labour, high input costs (including higher energy costs) and distribution restrictions.

Mentorship/Internship Options Study:

The object for this project was to review current mentorship and internship options for agri-food producers and processors. It also assessed the possible adaptation or adoption of existing programs for Northern Ontario.

Input was gathered through in-person meetings, interviews and online polling from 80 stakeholders. The Agri-Food Management Institute (AMI) conducted this study for OMAFRA.

Findings from the study generally showed producers had little interest in hosting an intern. Food processors and the horticulture/greenhouse sector were more interested in an internship program. There was more interest in a mentoring program and continuing education for existing operations.

Those contacted suggested factors for a successful mentorship program if one was to be developed:

  • Provide a simple application process

  • Ensure a robust vetting of candidates to ensure participants have a strong work ethic

  • Experience working outdoors

  • Good time management skills

The internship program would have to be geared to the sector - for some sectors, the growing season would be the appropriate length. There was also the suggestion of preparing a work plan, providing training for the host farmers and a standardize curriculum. Farmers and interns emphasized that there should be a way to terminate an internship that was not going well without being financially penalized.

On the mentorship side, respondents were more interested in mentoring people with some knowledge of their respective sector and saying that it may be a more appropriate learning model for experienced farmers interested in gaining new skills or building on existing ones. Respondents identified continued education gaps, including marketing, sales, administration, accounting and business expansion.

To improve the knowledge transfer between generations, the sector could focus on developing networking between young and more mature farmers. There was also a suggestion to get more younger farmers, particularly women, involved in industry organizations.

Crop Infrastructure Study:

The purpose of this study was to inventory and categorize current crop system facilities and transportation services in Northern Ontario, including elevators, trucking companies, feed companies and crop-based food processors. The study looked at current system capacity, including production volumes and potential capacity, including expansion plans for these facilities. For the purposes of this study, crop handling systems were defined as infrastructure and activities that facilitate linkage across the crop production value chain. Crops included under this project were winter and spring wheat, barley, oats, canola, soybeans, corn, flax and buckwheat. This study was also undertaken by RSM.

26 individuals and organizations were interviewed, including NOFIA. In addition, statistical data and information was collected from several publicly-available sources. Since 2008, Northern Ontario has experienced a major increase in overall production of corn, wheat, soybeans and canola. Between 2008 and 2016, the region's acreage harvested for those crops has increased from 53,000 ha to 102,756 ha. Production has nearly doubled as well, increasing from 60,500 tonnes to 144,900 tonnes. This trend is continuing with the recent installation of tile on 41,773 acres and 10,271 acres cleared.

A common theme from interviews with producers is the need to increase on-farm storage capacity, which would lead to operational flexibility. This is particularly important in Northern Ontario, given the shorter growing season, distances transportation companies need to travel and lack of grain elevator capacity. To that end, 58% of producers interviewed indicated that they were planning to increase storage capacity within the next 2-3 years.

Beef Benchmarking Project:

This project involved conducting research on beef cow-calf production in Northern Ontario (OMAFRA North Region) and Quebec (Abitibi, Temiscamingue, Lac St. jean and Outaouais) to collect data for the determination of key performance indicators, leading to sustainability. One short-term objective was to examine the similarities and differences in beef production between Ontario and Quebec.

The project was a partnership between OMAFRA, the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue and MAPAQ. Factors studied included herd size, herd health practices, pasture management, nutrition, handling facilities and marketing channels.

Outputs from the project included a symposium held in Rouyn-Noranda, PQ in February of 2017, where participants from Ontario and Quebec were invited to learn about the results of the on-farm analysis, an in-depth analysis of participating operations, an Ontario/Quebec comparison report, a benchmark document and a Best Management Practices document. Copies of the Beef Benchmarking report are available through Barry Potter at OMAFRA.

These projects were undertaken by OMAFRA North region teams based on needs identified by the northern agriculture sectors. these research projects give the northern ag sectors potential directions as projects and activities are pulled together to help move agriculture in Northern Ontario forward.

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