By Connor Lynch
VARS — Dairy farmer Gavin Hamilton was 15 in 2009 when he told his dad he didn’t want to farm. Neither did his two sisters.
Hamilton went on to study at Algonquin College and became a carpenter, working for Gary Nyentap building barns. By 2013 he had changed his mind.
There was one problem, and it was a doozy. His father, Jeff Hamilton, who farmed at Vars, east of urban Ottawa, sold the 35-head herd and 42 units of quota in 2009 when his son told him he wasn’t interested. He didn’t have much choice, as the work was too much for one man to handle, the younger Hamilton said. His father suggested he go to Kemptville College first where he was one of the last graduating ag diploma students.
At the home farm, the barn was still up, used to house the neighbours’ cattle and his father still had 200 of acres of land to grow corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. So Hamilton applied to the Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s New Entrant Program. It was his only chance to get 16 litres of quota on loan with a deadline to buy 16 more. For almost three years, Hamilton worked for a roofing company and waited. He got an early present one week before Christmas in 2017. The DFO told him he had to be ready to start milking in six months.
The barn needed work and was full of animals. The Hamiltons gave their tenants until March to move them out. The farmers needed a new milk house, so they built one, put in a TMR feeding system, new stall mats and poured concrete for a new calf-raising area.
Inside of two months, the barn was updated.
In between building, pouring, and updating, however, they had to find time to fill their empty barn. That would prove a more difficult task. The pair was working the phones and meeting with farmers every day from before Christmas to June, hunting down a herd. Their semen salesmen ended up hooking them up with a retiring farmer in Quebec. The farmers got first pick at 25 animals, and topped off their herd with another seven from a buddy, dairy farmer Herb Henderson of Ashton, just outside Ottawa. Henderson is no ordinary breeder. He was premier breeder at the 2016 and 2014 Eastern Ontario-Western Quebec Championship show, and was runner up in 2013, having already won numerous times before.
Getting a solid herd and an operation up to snuff isn’t cheap. Financing the whole operation was through the bank, made easier by the fact that so much infrastructure was already in place.
But a few years without cows meant young Hamilton was a little rusty at cow-watching. His biggest obstacle so far has been getting familiar with his herd, and being able to spot cows that are off their feed. The farmers use six-automatic takeoff units that hook up to a milk pipeline in the ceiling, with Gavin largely handling the milking and his father handling the feed. Those units were a piecemeal purchase from neighbouring farms and friends from school, as was the TMR machine the Hamiltons use.
Now, six months into farming, he’s bought another 1.6 litres of quota on the quota exchange, enough to help fill the farm’s production from its 32 cows. His father milked about 35 head. Young Hamilton would like to meet and exceed that. “I’d like to keep growing and bidding as much as possible.” Assuming he keeps growing at the same rate, he’ll equal his father’s 42 kilos of quota in about four years.
Dairy country has floated the criticism that the New Entrant Program is “just enough rope to hang yourself with.” Hamilton said that the second income from his nurse girlfriend helps immensely, as did the existing infrastructure on the farm. “If you didn’t have a farm, it’d be tough. It certainly puts you against the wall.” Being able to buy quota right away also helps, he added.
In the short-term, the operation is lean. “I work for free,” said Jeff Hamilton. The farmers are in a constant state of borrowing to buy as they try to get more and more quota, but they’re hoping to be in the black by spring, a few months shy of their one-year anniversary.
Now 58, Hamilton elder is quite pleased that he’s gotten the chance to pass on the farm. Even though this would be his 10th year in retirement, the idea that the farm would continue was never far from his mind. “Nothing makes a farm, a family business, better than the next generation taking over.”
A lot has changed, he said, but for the better. “They seem to have a lot more figured out than when I was working.”
Gavin Hamilton and his girlfriend are hoping to build a house on his parents’ property this year.