Behind the scenes on a large Ontario farm

The Burnett Family
Alex Burnett, and son Darryl with wife Anita and their four young children – all of Burnett Farms – hosted Toronto area food media on their grain farm recently.

I suppose some might consider what I visited several weeks ago a “factory farm”.

I’ve yet to actually meet someone who could give me a clear definition of what that term means when I’ve asked, but at first glance, the farm fits many of the notions people often tend to associate with that expression: a large, modern farm that uses science and technology – like pesticides and genetically modified crops – to produce food.

When you begin peeling back the layers, however, you start to learn the real story of Burnett Farms, of the passion of the multi-generational family that runs it – and how that negative misnomer couldn’t be further from the truth.

Here’s what I saw, heard and learned on my visit to Burnett Farms near Orangeville, Ontario as part of the annual Farm & Food Care food media tour last month.

Grain storage bin system
Grain storage bin system

First, a bit of history

There are four generations of Burnetts on their family farm, which has been in the family since 1888. Patriarch John Burnett, age 93, started farming in 1946 and only just recently moved off the farm and into town.

He was joined in the farm business by his son Alex in 1972, and 25 years later, by Alex’s son Darryl, who also came home to farm after graduating from the University of Guelph with a degree in crop science.

Today, the Burnetts own 800 acres, where they grow soybeans, corn and wheat, as well as food grade barley and canola.

They also grow seeds for other farmers and have what in agriculture is called a “crop supply business”: they spray crops for other farmers as well as sell seed and fertilizer.

Bags of soybean seed waiting to be planted
Bags of soybean seed waiting to be planted

Caring for the soil and doing the right thing

“We’re trying to take care of the soil and do the right thing,” says Darryl, whose four young children are all showing an interest in the family business.

Alex and Darryl, as well as one of their long-time employees, are all Certified Crop Advisors (CCAs), which means they are trained and certified to offer advice to farmers on how to manage their soil and any pests and diseases in order to grow crops successfully.

If those pests and diseases aren’t managed, they can easily get out of control and do a lot of damage to the crop – and damage means less grain for food, feed or seed, and ultimately, less income for the Burnetts.

In order to buy and use pesticide products, Ontario farmers have to first take a special course that trains them in responsible use, and then pass a test to become certified.

Technology plays a huge role on the Burnett farm, where there are large tractors and combines (big harvesting machines for grain crops) equipped with GPS systems, for example.

Large combine harvester
Large combine harvester

They plant a portion of their crop using genetically modified (GM) seeds, which have been altered to make them withstand certain herbicides that will get rid of weeds but not harm the crop.

It’s a tool that Darryl says not only makes it easier to manage a lot of crops, but also benefits the environment.

“We use GM crops because it is simple. Disease issues are difficult to manage in so many different fields, this makes it easy and we end up using the sprayer less often and with fewer chemicals,” he explains, adding that they also grow conventional crops for which they receive a slightly higher price because of the extra work involved in growing them.

“We end up spraying less overall on that crop than with non-GM and I don’t think we’d be growing those (non-GM) if there wasn’t a premium from the market for them,” he says.

Alex Burnett answering questions from tour participants
Alex Burnett answering questions from tour participants

The bee issue

The Burnetts are sensitive to current hot issues, such as ongoing bee deaths in Ontario that some are blaming on common seed treatment products used by grain farmers.

The jury is still out on the root cause or causes, but Darryl says on their farm, they’re doing what they can to reduce potential exposure for bees.

This includes putting a dust deflector on their corn planter and using a liquid on their corn seeds to keep the dust down so that it won’t affect the bees.

Young corn plants
Young corn plants

The Burnetts are also doing some small crop trials this year to look at the yield impact of not using the neonicotinoid seed treatments; Darryl estimates they’ll see a six to 10 bushel an acre decrease in their harvest where they’re not being used.

“Our neighbor is a beekeeper so we didn’t plant any of the neonic treated seeds near his property this year. It may be a yield ding, but is it the right thing to do? Yes,” explains Darryl. “Everybody has to work together on bees, we all need them.”

But it was Darryl’s city-born wife Anita’s passionate response about why her family grows GM crops that struck the biggest chord with tour participants that day.

“I grew up in Mississauga and when we used to go to Scarborough, we’d drive past acres of farmland. Now that’s all paved over, with fewer farmers and less land,” she said.

“We don’t go to the hospital and say we want to go back to the treatments we had in the 1950s. We need science and technology in order to feed more people and be able to grow food with the crazy weather patterns we’re having.”

The crowd of mostly urban food writers, chefs, bloggers, recipe developers and culinary professionals broke into a spontaneous round of applause.

An interesting footnote to the “factory farm” label: a week after I was on this tour, I heard a Brazilian farmer speak as part of a panel of experts discussing the future of food. In his country, he noted, that term is a very positive one that means a farm is highly efficient, has high standards and uses the best available technology to produce food.

Sitting in one of the farm's large tractors
Sitting in one of the farm’s large tractors



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