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By Ralph Pearce, CG Production Editor

No one has ever said agriculture is easy. It doesn’t matter where a farmer calls home. Whether the land is flat or sloped, or clay or sand, or whether the farm is livestock, grains or fruit, every farm has to contend with its share of hurdles and challenges.

The key is to combine diligence, expertise and technology in the right doses to overcome the effects of weather and the unknowns that a growing season can throw at us.

It’s a delicate and daunting balancing act to perform, year after year, which may be why those who persevere often share a similar approach.

Ivan Dyck understands that agriculture has its ups and downs. He works the family operation south of Tillsonburg, Ont., about a kilometre north of the Lake Erie shoreline.

He’s been farming for 10 years and is part of the third-generation, 2,000-acre farm which includes his father John, his brother Jonathan, and their mother Tina, who co-ordinates the hiring of workers during the busy season. They grow a diverse mix of corn, soybeans, seed corn and vegetable crops —processing cucumbers and peppers, fresh-market peppers and grape tomatoes and asparagus. They have five or six different varieties of peppers with some occupying one acre and others as many as four.

For the vegetable crops and their seed corn acres, they rely on a combination of overhead and drip irrigation. But they’re not at the point where they’ll irrigate their corn or soybeans. If they were working on larger fields, that might be an option, as it is for other growers in the area. Instead, Dyck accepts the advantages and disadvantages of farming on such sandy soil.

“We innovate in some ways, but in others, we can still be hard-headed about staying with the old-fashioned way,” says Ivan, below with father John and brother Jonathan.

“It doesn’t take a lot for a crop to be drought-stressed,” says Dyck. Of course, as so often happens, there are good sides too. “It can rain in the morning and by lunchtime we can go plant and get our crops in earlier. This year, the rest of Ontario was struggling to get their corn in and we were able to put in extra acres because our ground is that well-drained.”

The size of fields is another challenge: most are too small for some of the larger equipment, with elevation changes complicating things a little more. As a result, drainage in some of the lower parts of a field can be an issue.

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In spite of the soil type, field size and topography, Dyck and his family have made the most of diversifying their operation, focusing on quality and not just quantity.

“If you focus on quality, success is going to follow you and you’re going to be in business for a long time,” he says. “If you focus on quantity, you’re going to burn through customers and eventually, you’ll run out. And we never stop networking because you never know when the next person you’re talking to will be your next customer — you might have something that somebody can use.”

The road to diversifying their operation has created an environment where they’re open to innovation, as well. Five years ago, Dyck and his family began using mushroom compost on their vegetable fields, with a corresponding boost in yields. Now, many of his neighbours have adopted the practice.

“I think every farmer is an innovator to a certain extent,” he adds. “We’re innovators — maybe not as much as others — but we’re always doing new things, trying new things. We innovate in some ways, but in others, we can still be hard-headed about staying with the old-fashioned way.

If we do try something new, we don’t do it on every acre. And if it works, great. If not, stick to what’s been working for you. I see nothing wrong with trying new things or experimenting or innovating.”

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“If you focus on quality, success is going to follow you and you’re going to be in business for a long time.” — Ivan Dyck, Tillsonburg-area grower


One area where he believes innovating and diversifying can work is in changing the message surrounding agriculture’s viability. The basic messaging on the industry’s importance has been diluted, if not hijacked by some who have their own agenda. The financial viability of the agrifood sector, increases in minimum wage and the cost of land are all issues facing farmers on different levels. New traits and technologies — and finding efficiencies in both while maintaining sustainability and profitability — are all challenges for growers across the industry.

“I read an article the other day about climate change and one of the biggest culprits they blamed was agriculture,” says Dyck, adding that it was more in reference to the past year’s wildfires in Brazil. “But we get put into the same bucket here in North America, so that’s going to be a challenge moving forward: Where do we fit into this whole climate change agenda that we keep hearing about?”

Another agri-food pillar that’s top-ofmind for Dyck is soil health and its environmental impacts. The public may not know it, but farmers are doing more to limit damage to the environment, applying fertilizer at the right time and in line with crop needs while minimizing runoff and reducing tillage. Yet agriculture overall is still regarded as part of the problem instead of being part of the solution.

“We all get put into that same category that we hate the environment and we’re just using it for financial gain,” says Dyck. “But that’s definitely not true of the majority of farmers in North America.” Is there a role for growers in this process of “changing the message”?

Absolutely, replies Dyck. The volume of accurate information available to the general public has grown substantially, thanks to many farm-centric resources such as the “Field to Forks” segments airing on radio and television. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of misinformation available online and through other media sources.

“The information is out there for anyone who cares to look,” says Dyck. “But we are in the information age when anyone can put anything out on the internet, and that’s where people can get into trouble. These days on social media, it seems as though everybody has an opinion and doesn’t want to change their mind or even be open to the correct information.”

There’s also a place for the scientific community in agriculture to become involved, he says, noting that researchers, scientists and extension personnel have information worth sharing, even though they can be seen by consumers as extensions of corporate agriculture.

Still, there are many good scientists, says Dyck, who care deeply about the industry and in moving it forward, and there’s definitely a place for them to lend a hand in providing accurate information.

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When it comes to garnering information for his own purposes, Dyck knows exactly where to turn to: his Dad. He relies on his father’s experience and expertise, and values his role as a mentor.

“He still has a lot of experience that I can look to, even though he sometimes lets us make our own mistakes,” says Dyck. “Patience is huge and trust is also vital. Everyone on the farm has a different set of responsibilities and I have to trust other family members are carrying their weight and that I’m carrying my weight.”

heritage grown farms and greenhouses