By Sheila Phibbs
The Haldimand Press
Diversification in agriculture is becoming increasingly common as farmers strive to meet changing consumer demands while maintaining a viable income. From raising multiple kinds of livestock to adding new crops into rotation to improved technology, diversifying can lead to greater efficiency and income stability.
To put it simply, today’s farmers don’t put all their eggs in one basket.
According to Will Stoneman, Member Service Representative with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) for Brant, Haldimand, and Norfolk, farm diversification is on the rise as, “Producers need to look to higher value crops or value-added enterprises to remain competitive.”
He explains that a smaller number of farmers, in terms of percentage, have to supply a larger number of consumers. He says, “While this may not imply diversification, it does require adaptation to new farming techniques to meet higher demand.”
Henk Lise, current president of the Haldimand Federation of Agriculture, is familiar with adaptation on the farm. After growing up on a cash crop farm with a variety of livestock, he purchased his farm in Oneida in 1997. He says, “It was an ongoing broiler farm with 200 tillable acres and had an old dairy barn, which fit well with the 30 cows I had acquired growing up. It didn’t take me long to switch some of the land over to hay and pasture.”
Lise sees a variety of reasons for diversification, including the need to increase income or upgrade land, barns, or equipment. He suggests that off-farm jobs in manufacturing, hydro, and construction are also common. He “dabbled” in construction from 1997 to 2006 and says, “From my experience the extra off-farm cash helped me improve the technology in my old broiler barn. It was part of the business plan to have 10 years of off-farm income to help pay the mortgage.”
Today the Lise family farm has two newer barns (built in the last 10 years), 45 acres of pasture, and 140 acres of hay. The beef herd includes 50 cow-calf pairs and some replacement heifers. There is currently no off-farm work as Lise says, “I am focusing on what I do best – raising chicken and beef, and quality time with the four kids who are growing way too fast.”
The Jarvis area farm of Tom and Teresa Beischlag, their son Matt, his wife Amy, and their sons, was first established in 1959 and consisted of 100 acres and a hip roof cattle barn. Over three generations, the farm has expanded and diversified to include broiler chickens and cash crops. In 2020, Beischlag Farms Inc. continues to be family operated with the fourth generation now working on the farm.
For the Beischlags, risk management is the top reason to diversify. Tom says, “We don’t rely on a single commodity or a single source of income.”
He explains that with the broilers, supply management adds a level of stability to the income on the farm. There is also year-round work for the whole family and he says, “Whether it’s cleaning out barns, grass cutting, or running equipment at planting or harvest, we are all involved.”
Matt decided to farm full time alongside his dad in the early 2000s. His interest in crops created a new opportunity to diversify, expand, and improve the farm. Initially, expanding acreage was required for manure management after more barns had been added for the broilers. At that time, Tom grew wheat and oats for straw for the chicken barns. Soybeans later replaced the oats.
Matt began diversifying the crops and now grows corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, and red clover. He also uses a diverse selection of cover crops including oats, peas, sunflowers, canola, rye, and crimson clover. According to Matt, these provide ground protection by leaving roots in the ground all year long.
He says, “With multiple crops, field work and machinery usage is spread out as each crop has different harvest times and planting times.”
He has also moved to strip tillage rather than conventional ploughing as it leaves 60% of the ground covered with crop residue, reducing soil erosion.
Diversification has also benefited the farm with improved technology.
The chicken barns are controlled by computers as monitors make adjustments to the ventilation as needed and gauge feed and water intake. Each barn is equipped with cooling systems to keep the birds cool during extreme heat periods.
In the fields, technology has evolved to include variable rate planting, prescription fertilizer maps based on yield and soil types and tests, GPS systems, and even drones.
The family admits that keeping up with technology can be a challenge and they are learning to “manage with it while not being managed by it.”
Being a manager is just one of the many jobs of farmers today as they take care of livestock, crops, equipment, buildings, and, of course, their families. Improved farm practices enable farmers to produce a quality food supply in response to consumer demands. Stoneman describes it aptly as he says, “More dynamic farmers are able to diversify to meet these needs.”