By Connor Lynch
EARLTON — In 1982, when Norman Koch moved a six-hour drive north from his home at New Hamburg, just west of Kitchener, he didn’t plan on farming.
Koch’s business was building barns and silos, and he moved to the northern Ontario town of Earlton, (current pop. 1,266), to do just that.
Farmers in the area watched their sons and daughters leave the farm, going into the mining and lumber industries that paid more for similarly difficult work. Farm Credit Canada had too much land on inventory, and was looking to get rid of some, Koch said. Plenty of land was for sale at reasonable prices. In those days, in that area, that meant tile-drained land was going for $300 an acre.
High-interest rates helped keep prices down as well; young people weren’t interested in taking on large debt loads that were going to be growing by 20 per cent annually.
Koch bought land while it was cheap. Custom operators were few and far between, so he got himself some equipment. The opportunity to buy some farms came up, and he took them.
Now, the builder-turned-farmer crops between 10,000 and 11,000 acres on 80 parcels in the Little Clay Belt in the Timiskaming area. He also has a 1.8-million bushel capacity grain elevator, and runs a trucking business. His farthest parcel is a two-hour drive away, so a local farmer crops that one for him.
There’s increasing interest in moving north for cheaper land, especially amongst the Mennonite communities. “In the last 15 years, there’d be 100-plus families that moved up here, for sure.” Koch said. About 20 were Amish families, and between 30 and 40 were Mennonites.
Even farther north there’s opportunity, Koch said. Two hours north in the Cochrane-area, home to the Clay Belt, there’s lots of land, though not much infrastructure.
There’s plenty of opportunity for beef and crop farmers especially in northern Ontario, he said. There’s plenty of land at much cheaper prices than in Western Ontario, so a farmer with land to sell can get himself a lot more land to work with.
Tile-drained land in the area has gone up in price since the 80s. It’s in the neighbourhood of $3,000 to $5,000 an acre now, said Koch. Bushland that isn’t tile-drained goes for $2,000 an acre or less.
Koch knows five farmers who live six hours south, in Western Ontario, who have tried buying land up north but not moving. It hasn’t worked out. Making the long drive means you can easily miss patches of good weather for planting, spraying or harvest, and then you have to drive back, meaning you might also miss good weather on the home farm during your 12-hour round trip commute.
Northern Ontario isn’t exactly the frontier, but it’s about as close as you can get while staying in the province. Farmers moving north should be prepared to be a little more independent. You may need to plan a little extra on how to get your inputs, you’ll want more on-farm storage than is normal in Western Ontario, and maybe pack some extra winter clothes, he said.
Planting season rarely gets started before the beginning of May. In almost 40 years of farming in the north, Koch has planted only twice in April. Normally the first killing frost isn’t before late September, although it’s come as early as late August before, he said.
His major crops are spring and winter wheat, oats, and canola. He does grow some soybeans. “Just a couple thousand acres,” he said, without a trace of irony in his voice. He grows grain corn as well, though fewer acres than his soybeans.
Farmers may think of northern Ontario as being the frozen north, but Koch’s farmland isn’t even as far north as Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In good years, his crops do as well as they do anywhere else, he said. Some farmers have gotten soybean yields as high as 55 bushels per acre, although Koch usually shoots for 40 bu/ac. “Our season is shorter, but it doesn’t take any more management or anything to grow corn and beans up here.”
Silage corn is more popular than grain corn because of the economics. Silage can go to the beef and dairy animals on northern farms. But marketing corn means sending it south, and the shipping costs make growing grain corn a lot less attractive.
However, as long as you know how to grow a crop on your home farm, you can grow one up here, he said. Make sure you buy a shorter-day variety of your corn or soybeans. Tile-drainage is extremely important on any farm, but doubly so up north, Koch said. It gets you as much as an extra six weeks in the season, a very important bonus when the growing season can be as short as four months.