The International

I hope you are embracing the cool gloominess of fall – I am looking forward to some bright, clear days when the trees will reveal their full glory before slipping into dormancy for the winter.

When I was 19 years old, I was enrolled to attend Kemptville Agricultural College. That summer, I decided I ought to visit the campus and town.   When I found I would be stuck in a sleepy village, spending two years learning about soybeans and Holsteins, I balked at the prospect.  Instead, I moved as far east as I could, and pursued the same sort of back to the land luddite fantasies as the hippies of the 70’s  (with the same level of success).

Last week, twenty years later, as a more or less conventional farmer, and resident of a sleepy village, I found myself again on the campus of the now defunct school.   Funny how life works…

I was there participating at the International Plowing Match – North America’s largest outdoor rural expo – as an exhibitor for the company we sell maple equipment for, LS Bilodeau. Having never been to an IPM before, I was quite impressed with the affair.  The plowing competition is “International” in the same sense that Major League Baseball has a “World” Series (it’s a roving, Ontario based event) but the plowing itself generates the pretext for the important aspect of the Match: a massive seasonal gathering of the clans.

Not only a brief departure from toil, agricultural fairs, competitions and exhibitions are how farmers come together: reaffirming social bonds, developing new ones and sharing information, equipment and technologies that keep the industry competitive.  Farmers are actually more co-operative than you might imagine: the long journey from seed, to harvest to market is supported by a myriad of often multigenerational connections, and things like the IPM are where these connections are cemented and reaffirmed in a celebratory and relaxed atmosphere.

I had no idea what a huge “thing” the IPM was, though – being a first generation farmer, I am still just discovering these rituals; it holds a special place in many farmers’ hearts.  A dairy farmer visiting our booth related to me:

“I remember my first IPM, it’s just like your first girl: you never forget your first.  It was in 1974, north of Oshawa.  You came in through the gates and up over a hill, and there was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen: one hundred acres of brand new farm machinery…”

So as much as I was honoured and excited to be a part of such an exciting happening, I was disappointed to learn that the event has been shrinking over the years.  It used to be that major manufacturers set up large exhibits, with their own band stages, lounges, etc.  Today, for instance, it is only local dealers, all of whom are short enough on resources as it is, and the field of equipment was more like 5 acres than 100.

This is not all that surprising however given the general decline in the agricultural community as a whole.  A generation ago, south of us in the village of Lansdowne, there may have been 50 or so family farms active on the plain.  Today there may be ten.  So with fewer and fewer individual customers there’s less and less reason for John Deere to roll out the red carpet.  The average age at the event was also very reflective of the average age of the Canadian farmer: 56 years. 

Which points to something I find very interesting and encouraging:  there are actually massive opportunities in agriculture for those with the nerve to take them on – the brutal and expensive nature of the business being the main deterrent – but the opportunity remains: high risk, high reward.

Let’s take maple syrup production for instance: International demand outstrips supply and Quebec recently added an additional 5 million taps to their quota system.  Pipeline installation crews currently have a waiting list of almost two years.  There’s just no men to do it.  Now take Ontario – Ontario produces less than 5% of the syrup Quebec does.  It has less than 10% of the syrup makers that Quebec does.   Yet Ontario has many many more maple trees than Quebec…   There’s actually a huge swath of the province north of Highway Seven and south of Algonquin unsuitable for agriculture, but perfect for maple, that’s absolutely going to be developed in the years and decades ahead.

As the president of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers, Frank Heerkens told me: “The market is too strong – these trees are getting tapped.  The question is, who is going to do it? Is it going to be people from Ontario or Investment Firms or Quebecers???”  Just one of many examples of what sort of opportunities there are out there in Food World.  The main thing you need is an “in” and that comes from connections and social capital… maybe I’ll see you at the 2023 IPM?

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