SIMCOE — To ensure their beef is a cut above, Simcoe beef farm and processor VG Meats launched a chop school to hone the cutting skills of would-be butchers.
Unable to find enough skilled workers, the Van Groningens — brothers Cory, Chad, Kyle, and Kevin and their parents, Wayne and Joan — teamed up with grocery chain Longo’s to create their own training program.
Flooded with 300 applications, nine students were chosen to complete 100 hours of classroom sessions and hands-on practice, including a field trip to the farm. The Van Groningens also developed a two-week farmer-in-training program to show retail employees how meat is produced.
Last month, the chop school earned the farm a $75,000 premier’s award for agri-food innovation excellence. Along with a $50,000 minister’s award and three $25,000 leaders in innovation awards, 45 farms and agribusinesses across the province received $5,000 for their bright ideas.
Here is what made a few of the Western Ontario winners stand out.
971082 Ontario Inc.: Merlin crop farmer E. Blake Vince plants a mix of 15 species of cover crops after wheat harvest to regulate nitrogen levels, reduce fertilizer and herbicide use, increase soil water capacity, and cultivate soil organisms.
TVF Farms Inc.: Chatham farmer Jeff Van Roboys experimented with parthenocarpic cucumber varieties that don’t require bee pollination, finding that handpicking the smaller cucumbers for gherkins and baby dills resulted in longer cucumbers perfect for sliced pickles and developing a system that increases efficiency by one-third.
Streef Produce Limited: To reduce waste, spillage, shrinkage, and dehydration related to selling green beans in bulk, the Princeton farmers commissioned a system to separate beans and fill bags to prevent bunching, increasing cases packaged per hour from 40 to 120.
Celmar Dairy Ltd.: To fill their tower silos in half the time, Norwich dairy farmers Herman and Marcel Steen installed a custom-built, in-ground concrete pit, which unloads wagons in less than two minutes, transferring grain to an electric-powered blower and a two-stage conveyor system to fill multiple silos from one location. The Steens earned one of three $25,000 leaders in innovation awards.
Bonnieheath Estate Lavender & Winery: After harvesting their last tobacco crop, Waterford farmers Anita and Steve Buehner planted 3.5 acres of lavender and 10 acres of cold-hardy grapes, converting their 5,000-sq.-ft. barn to a winery and retail store, using a tobacco kiln as an essential distiller, and drying lavender on old tobacco racks.
Lakeside Game Farm: Expanding from 100 to 8,000 silkie chickens per week, Lakeside chicken farmer Jim Ebert has contracted three more producers, installed a new incubator to boost hatch rate, and is building a new growing barn to help supply the dark-fleshed chickens to the Asian market.
Bright Cheese & Butter: To supply an importer with a local alternative to internationally-sourced Asiago cheese, the Bright cheesemaker tweaked its recipe with different cultures and modified the aging process, creating a cheese ready four months sooner that won best hard cheese in the 2014 British Empire Cheese Competition.
Jewels Under the Kilt: Fergus farmer Elizabeth Burrow roasts her walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts in flavourings ranging from chipotle to pumpkin pie, growing her nuts using sustainable practices such as shellfish-based fertilizer, strategic inter-planting, and organic insecticidal soap.
Best Baa Dairy: To balance the desire of Amish sheep farmers to avoid using electricity but also comply with regulatory milk cooling requirements, the Fergus cheesemaker went off grid, equipping a stainless steel tank with a small engine and later solar panels to drive a standard refrigeration compressor to both cool milk and heat wash water.
Paul Bechtel: For a cost of $1 per tonne, Baden farmer Paul Bechtel added the mineral zeolite to the aerobically-composted manure from his beef feedlot, which slashed methane emissions and doubled nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as well the price Bechtel can charge.
The New Farm: Since 2007, the Creemore organic vegetable farm has organized fundraising dinners and concerts featuring artists like The Tragically Hip, which have raised more than $150,000 for The Stop Community Food Centre to purchase local farm produce for low-income families.
Bighead Hops: To avoid the price tag of a commercial pellet mill, the Meaford hops grower formed a co-op to adapt a pelletizer to scale, producing 3,000 kg of hops for craft breweries in 2014 and with a few tweaks, cutting processing time in half this year.
Clear Valley Hops: Hops producers Laurie Thatcher-Craig and John Craig invested more than $1.3 million into a freshness system, including immediate post-harvest transfer to a 40-ft. high oast house for low-heat drying, pelletizing, packing into material that blocks oxygen and ultraviolet rays, flushing with nitrogen, and flash freezing. The Collingwood farm earned the $50,000 minister’s award.
KLS Farms: Through 17 years of experimentation, Dunnville crop farmer Dean Glenney has devised a no-till strip cropping system to plant on the same row year-after-year to mimic the soil structure of fencerows, reducing inputs and runoff and increasing drought resistance and soil fertility to produce 270-bushel-per-acre corn.
Perfect Patch Strawberries: St. Catharines farmer Nico Verhoef grows continuously-producing strawberries in raised troughs on variable-speed belts to keep the crop drier and reduce disease and pesticide use. The $50,000-per-acre system has increased plant density by 70 per cent and cut harvest time by one-third.
Beverly Greenhouses Limited: To cut pesticide use to nearly nil, the VanderHouts experimented with techniques to grow “banker plants” to feed a host of beneficial insects that destroy cucumber bugs in their 20 acres of Waterdown greenhouses.