What It Takes To Farm Up North

By Ryan Spence and Isabelle Legault

In their series of three blog posts, Ryan and Isabelle of Field Good Farms in Cache Bay, Ontario share their experiences of farming in Northern Ontario and how they analyze their farm’s numbers to make operating decisions. They are champions of Richard Wiswall’s The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook. Other opportunities to glean Richard’s knowledge can be found in his blog post on this blog or at this Agriwebinar presentation, Planning for Profit (you will have to register for a free account on Agriwebinar before watching). 

Looking back at the last few years, we are amazed to see how natural farming has become. It’s easy to forget that while we both grew up in rural areas, we followed the cohort trend and left to pursue higher education in other fields (no pun intended). It was only while living in Montreal that we took a keen interest in all things food related. We sought out local options, artisanal foods, and ecological production. Before long we found ourselves in a movie theatre watching Food, Inc. Hearing Joel Salatin rant about our broken food system was a turning point. We started scrolling through job postings on Good Work Canada looking for opportunities that would enable us to better understand the underlying issues at the source.

We completed a six-month internship at a farm in Northeastern Ontario that was part of the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT). We learned everything from vegetable production and animal husbandry to health unit regulations and food policy. It was amazing, exhausting, overwhelming, and grounding. The seed had sprouted and five months later Isabelle and Ryan were in the process of creating Field Good Farms.

As it turns out, farming had become a way for us to live out our desire to make a small change in the food industry. More specifically, we aimed for greater regional food security, ecological farming and building community involvement around food and agriculture.

Luckily, access to land wasn’t a huge issue for us since Isabelle’s family farm was being rented out for hay. Isabelle’s parents agreed to rent us ten acres to try our hand at our own operation. Isabelle spent nine months developing a business plan while Ryan worked to raise some capital to start investing in the farm. With no background in business, Isabelle recruited the help of the local business centre to learn how to build a business plan, which funding opportunities were available, how to comply with government regulations, the best marketing strategies for limited budgets, and how to do our own bookkeeping. Our business partnership was officially established in 2011.

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We now have a five-acre market garden that supplies food to a one-hundred and ten member regular season CSA, a twenty-seven member fall/winter CSA, two local restaurants, a co-operative local food hub and grocer and a Saturday farmers’ market. In 2015, we grew forty-six different types of vegetables.

We have always followed organic practices, and almost went through with an application last year, but found that our local market was indifferent, if not wary, of certification. We hope to help develop a peer-to-peer organic certification in our area in the near future.

Since the farm is our only source of income we have had to focus our efforts on effective productions methods so that we can be both ecological and profitable.

Has it been easy? Certainly not. Unforeseen challenges have sometimes left us physically and mentally exhausted. We’ve found that the hardest part about farming is making informed decisions in a timely manner. How and when do we spend money? When do we increase production? Or, when do we stop growing a specific vegetable because it just isn’t worth it any more?

Having an honest and clear set of missions and values is key. We think that this is a big reason why we have been successful at running a small scale farm. While these elements may evolve, they are consistently guiding our decisions. They have allowed us to shape and visualize the farm and focus our energies. Because we both wanted to continue working full-time on the farm while maintaining our mission and values, we saw the need for a yearly cost of production analysis.

We implemented our cost of production analysis at the farm in 2014 after reading Richard Wiswall’s book, The Organic Farmers’ Business Handbook. This went much further than our business plan since it helped to us to clearly see which crops were profitable and which were being sold at a loss. Rather than going on a hunch, we were making decisions based on solid numbers and our farm’s reality. Our second blog post will focus on how we have implemented Wiswall’s techniques and what we have learned from our experience.

Working in tandem with the knowledge gained through Wiswall’s book, implementing lean principles to our farm processes have helped us to evaluate where we could gain a bit of time and energy by working intelligently. At the time, Ryan started reading a book on creating a lean culture which helped us to make small changes to maximize efficiency (there is now a book that focuses on lean farming titled The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work and while we have yet to read it, this book is receiving rave reviews by none other than Richard Wiswall, and is on our reading list for this winter).

After our blog on cost of production, our third blog discusses farming in Northern Ontario. Our regional reality offers us certain advantages and disadvantages.

In terms of advantages, land prices are still affordable for a start up operation. There are fewer small scale ecological growers than in the south which equates to less competition. We are also separated from southern Ontario by a nice band of trees in the Muskoka area, which means that we tend to have less disease and pest pressure. A nice cold spell will also reduce the ability of certain exotic pests to overwinter.

We do, however, have a shorter growing season, more expensive inputs due to shipping costs, and a small population that is only now starting to support locally and/or ecologically produced food. Far from being insurmountable, these challenges offer the opportunity to be creative. With new technologies being made available, there is ample opportunity to make the most out of our farming season.

Our winter growing 96’ greenhouse houses spinach, mild mustard greens, kohlrabi and kale.

Our winter growing 96’ greenhouse houses spinach, mild mustard greens, kohlrabi and kale.

Our little girl is due in November which means that time and energy will be more precious than ever. We will need to rely on our most effective tool on the farm, our ability to make informed decisions. This will allow for greater profitability while remaining small and equates to more family time and an ability to follow our mission and values.