On­tario farmers ex­per­i­ment with new crops

The Woolwich Observer - - VENTURE -

SIX YEARS AGO, UNIVER­SITY of Guelph re­searcher Glen Fil­son de­ter­mined that world crops – then called “eth­nic veg­eta­bles” such as okra and ama­ranth, ones that On­tario farmers could po­ten­tially grow – could be a huge im­port re­place­ment op­por­tu­nity for On­tario farmers.

He es­ti­mated they rep­re­sented a $60 mil­lion­plus per month market in the Greater Toronto Area alone.

Then there’s the rest of On­tario. And the rest of the coun­try.

Farmers were lis­ten­ing. A new study from the On­tario Fed­er­a­tion of Agri­cul­ture and the Agri-Food Man­age­ment In­sti­tute (AMI) in­volv­ing 400 crop pro­duc­ers shows that nearly one-fifth of them have tried grow­ing a new, dif­fer­ent crop in the last five years.

Soy­beans, corn and wheat still rule. Drive around the countryside and their pres­ence is ev­ery­where. But be­hind the scenes, in fields and test plots, there’s a lot going on.

“My over­all im­pres­sion of the re­sults was that there is a very cre­ative and

en­trepreneurial group of farmers out there try­ing new things,” says Ash­ley Hons­berger, AMI ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor.

Adds fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Keith Cur­rie: “We know On­tario farmers are in­ter­ested in grow­ing new crops, and are look­ing for timely in­for­ma­tion on mar­ket­ing a crop, find­ing buy­ers and lo­cat­ing pro­ces­sors.”

Sys­tems are in place for grow­ing, har­vest­ing and mar­ket­ing the most pop­u­lar field crops. But there’s a lot of catch­ing up to do with world crops.

So the fed­er­a­tion is en­cour­ag­ing the prov­ince to keep its foot on the gas and sup­port On­tario-grown world crop pro­duc­tion with poli­cies and pro­grams that source On­tario prod­ucts and in­gre­di­ents by lo­cal farmers, pro­ces­sors, dis­trib­u­tors, re­tail­ers and food ser­vice busi­nesses.

Why would farmers ven­ture out­side the norm? Well, for one, fill­ing market niches can be prof­itable. In the sur­vey, they cited chang­ing mar­kets and emerg­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, along with crop ro­ta­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits, and re­duced risk over­all through di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion.

Among the most pop­u­lar crops On­tario farmers say they’ve ex­per­i­mented with are buck­wheat, hazel­nuts, hemp and quinoa.

Oth­ers are in­deed in keep­ing with the drive to meet market niches cre­ated by new Cana­di­ans or emerg­ing trends, such as bok choy, Chi­nese eg­g­plant, hard cider ap­ples, hops, malt­ing bar­ley, fava beans, Jerusalem ar­ti­chokes and pap paw.

Still oth­ers serve var­i­ous pur­poses, such as ro­ta­tion, sus­tain­abil­ity or al­ter­na­tive en­ergy. They in­clude Aus­trian win­ter peas, switch­grass, flax, mil­let, oats, mis­cant­hus, mus­tard, spelt and peas.

And sev­eral have spe­cific health-re­lated traits, in­clud­ing gar­lic, goji berries, haskap berries, kale, pur­ple pota­toes and per­sim­mon.

AMI has just started of­fer­ing an on­line plan­ning tool to help farmers pen­cil out whether a non­tra­di­tional crop is for them. It fea­tures five in­ter­ac­tive mod­ules that users work through on their own sched­ule to de­velop a busi­ness case for di­ver­si­fy­ing their farm.

Agri­cul­ture, Food and Ru­ral Af­fairs Min­is­ter Jeff Leal is fond of point­ing out that On­tario al­ready grows more than 200 dif­fer­ent com­modi­ties.

There’s lit­tle doubt that more are on the way.

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