New crops in local soils raising high hopes

Ontario lavender bunches

Lavender, hazelnuts and sweet potatoes are not crops we commonly associate with this province.

Yet they’re starting to emerge in Ontario’s south coast area, the fertile sand plains in Norfolk, Brant, Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford counties where tobacco used to reign supreme.

As the decline of the tobacco industry continued over the last decade, agricultural and economic development leaders in the area began grappling with key questions governing the future of their region, which is a key producer of many Ontario foods, including fruits and vegetables.

How can we bring new life and new value to this farmland? How can we keep farmers profitable and sustain the rural and regional economies? At the same time, is there an opportunity to bring new products to Ontario or to grow crops here that we’re currently importing from other places around the world?

Tobacco field

This soul-searching led to the development of the Erie Innovation and Commercialization initiative, a project supported by the provincial and federal governments, various municipalities in the region, and by farmers through the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

Its goal is to foster new opportunities in the sand plains and help the agri-food sector revitalize a local economy that for too long had depended on the strength of a single crop for much of its prosperity.

I had the chance to see some of these new ventures first hand as part of a farm tour organized by the growers association last week, and the innovative spirit and entrepreneurial drive of Ontario’s farmers never ceases to amaze and impress me.

Young vines growing near Waterford, Ontario

More than 100 acres of grapes have already been planted in the area and several new wineries have been established.

The goal, according to Erie Innovation vice-president John Kelly, is the establishment of Ontario’s fourth designated viticulture area — the designation for areas recognized as being able to produce high quality grapes.

Lavender plants

Lavender, another emerging crop, is used in soaps, aromatherapy, creams and kettle corn.

This past summer saw one of the first lavender festivals held in Ontario, which attracted over 400 people to Bonnieheath Lavender Farm near Waterford.

These festivals are popular in some parts of the U.S., where they’re a part of a growing agri-tourism industry and generate considerable economic spin-off for local areas.

Ontario sweet potato fries

Sweet potatoes are a popular alternative to traditional spuds as they’re full of nutrients, low in sodium, and free of fat and cholesterol.

Canada’s largest producer of sweet potatoes farms just outside of Simcoe, where he’s invented his own farm equipment to help plant and harvest his crop.

Most of North America’s sweet potatoes come from North Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana, where much of the labour involved in planting and harvesting is still done by hand.

Our shorter growing season and tight farm labour market meant mechanization was a must in order to grow sweet potatoes successfully here in Ontario.

Ferrero Canada manufactures confectionary products here in Brantford – including the popular Ferrero Rocher – using hazelnuts sourced from Turkey, as well as the U.S. and Italy.

The company is interested in having access to a local nut supply, which will need to be developed over the next decade. It won’t be easy, as we deal with colder temperatures and pests that don’t affect other growing regions — but farmers here in Ontario seem willing to take up the hazelnut-growing challenge.

There are non-food opportunities too. Castor and Russian dandelion, for example, are both crops that could be grown here in Ontario.

Castor is a vegetable oil used in medicinal and some food applications, but its potential as a bioproduct ingredient in biodiesel, foams, lubricants and waxes is what’s generating interest.

Russian dandelion is an excellent source of natural rubber that can be used in products like tires and latex gloves.

Farmers by their very nature are both innovative and entrepreneurial and although it’s never easy to chart a new course, it is exciting to watch their efforts take shape in the form of new products, new businesses and new opportunities — right here at home.

This article was originally published in the Guelph Mercury on August 31, 2011. Photos were taken on the 2011 OFVGA summer tour.

Burning Kiln Winery, one of Ontario's newest wineries
Apple and lavender farmer Harold Schooley explains lavender oil
Sweet potatoes - they'll be ready for harvest in early October


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