Ag edition: Investing in the future

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Brian Cook has farming in his blood. His father and his grandfather before him farmed in the Caledon area as far back as 1925. As a younger man, Cook planned to continue that tradition but urban sprawl forced him north. It became impossible to expand the family holding as the cost of land escalated, and there were many restrictions on the types of crops that could be grown. Those pressures led Cook and wife Julie to explore the countryside on the way to the family cottage in Wasaga Beach.

Cook purchased his first 150 acres on the 9th Concession of Sunnidale in 2016. He was attracted by the amount of arable, mostly flat land at a price that was relatively affordable. Within a year they started expanding.

“Every piece we bought was through word of mouth,” said Cook. “There were no real estate signs. It was all on the down-low; neighbours coming to us and saying they might be interested in selling.”

Eight years later Cook’s Sunnidale farm has expanded to 800 acres. He recently backed his son Jeff’s purchase of a neighbouring farm and helped his daughter Steph and her husband construct a poultry barn on their property. Without some help from mom and dad, Cook says he doesn’t know how a young person could get into farming. Start up costs could easily run between $2 million to $3 million.

“And if you had that kind of money, why would you want to be a farmer?” he quips.

Farming is, of necessity, a labour of love. The days are long, the work is hard, and farmers are totally at the mercy of the weather. Cook says when people ask how this winter’s light snow cover will affect next year’s crops he responds, “ask me again in October.”

A farmer’s day may begin with plans to plant or harvest a field, but caring for livestock always takes priority so if Cook is needed in the calving barn, the field has to wait.

Modern equipment has changed the game. When his father expanded his Caledon area farm to 250 acres in the 1950s, managing that much acreage was a full time job. These days, Cook says he can pull up to a 100-acre field in the morning and have it planted by nightfall. But that modern equipment is not cheap and the trade off is that a farmer must now work more acres to survive. Asked whether small farms are still viable, Cook says, “If you have a bare 100 acres growing wheat, good luck to you.” Between his farm and his children, they are farming about 1,600 acres, sharing equipment and labour and moving resources as needed.

In addition to his crop operation, Cook manages 350 head of dairy cattle. Between his daughter and son- in-law’s poultry barn and one managed by an uncle, they have 60,000 broiler chickens. Each part of the operation is part of a delicate balance, contributing to the success of the whole – with manure from the livestock providing necessary fertilizer for the crops, and the crops providing feed for the livestock.

The dairy operation is highly automated. Each cow wears a medallion that controls access to feed and robotic milking machines, and tracks output. A good dairy cow can produce 40 litres of milk per day and constant monitoring ensures efficient production.

Cook says heavy weekend traffic takes him back to his days in the Caledon area. GPS systems often route Highway 26 traffic past his farm which creates safety concerns for farm, workers using local roads to move equipment. On the topic of non-farmers buying up farm land, Cook has no issue with people wanting to get out of the city and enjoy the countryside but says it does create certain challenges. People buying up farm land who do not intend to farm have driven up prices, and even when they rent the land back to farmers there are impacts. For example, tile drainage can greatly improve the output from a tract of land but at $1,500 per acre for tiling, no one wants to invest in improving land that they don’t own.

Cook has a Grade 10 education, and claims he learned most of what he knows at the school of hard knocks. He can’t imagine a life that does not include farming, saying he just doesn’t know any different.

“The satisfaction of being able to make the farm successful enough to fund the next investment keeps me going,” he said.

Looking ahead, Cook expects that his children will take over the farm operation at some point when he is ready to retire. Asked when that might be, Cook refers to his 85 year old father who still loves to spend time helping out at the farm.

“He is very glad to be able to still do it, but grateful he doesn’t have to do it every day,” said Cook.

Photo: Three generations of Cooks – Brian Cook (from right), his son Jeff and father Lloyd – at Cook Dairy Farm near Stayner.

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