Environment, Our Work, People
Deep Roots in Both Family and Farm
Curated by Barry Marshall
Storyteller: Colin Elgie
September 26, 2021
Appreciating what you have and finding purpose in helping others is a rare quality to have. Yet, this is exactly the lifestyle of Colin Elgie, a sixth-generation family farmer in Dawn Mills, Ontario. Through his part-time family farming coupled with his full-time job working for Sylvite, an agricultural products and services retailer, Colin is devoted to helping his neighbours both near and far and ensuring that the land he and his family tend will be healthy and workable for his children and the future generations of the Elgie family.
Colin’s ancestors bought their Dawn Mills, Ontario farm in 1870 from its original homesteaders when they emigrated from England. Ancestry is important to Colin and his family: "We take pride in knowing that our ancestors have been here for a while now. Because of that we want to continue that legacy and make sure that the farm is something that our family can stay on and enjoy for generations if they want to." The Elgie history has been traced in a family history written by his aunt, Kae Elgie, whose lineage can be traced as far back as the 1600s. The farm itself has passed down from father to son since the Elgies started farming the land there in 1870.
With the goal in mind of preserving the land both as a long-term business investment and as a place with familial significance, Colin and his family endeavour to do the best they can to maintain a sustainable agriculture approach. Their methods are grounded by their surroundings: "A big focus of the farm is keeping it tied to mother nature and making sure that we are putting back more than we are taking out if we can. So, a lot of the focus has been on ways to improve the soil health with things like wind break trees to prevent wind erosion, cover crops to prevent water erosion, keep living roots in the soil for as much of the year as we possibly can, keep the nutrients recycling so that they're readily available so you don't have nutrient tie-up. It's all about keeping the nutrients in place and readily available."
Of course, farming is not just about producing goods each year; it is a business that needs to be profitable. To help strengthen their business model, Colin and his family have strived to maintain diversity in their production. “In a way, it’s getting back to the same way earlier generations here farmed: not risking too much on any one thing as some things like weather or markets are out of our control. Our farm I would say is a bit more diversified than most. We've got a little bit of livestock, about 50-75 head of cattle. Our major crops are wheat, corn, and soybeans. We also grow black beans, sweet corn, peas, and buckwheat, as well as a sugar bush that we produce maple syrup in during the late winter. Diversity keeps you busier the whole year long, but it also spreads out the workload throughout the year. It helps keep the pests down like insects and weeds." And another purpose of that diversity is stability in rough markets: "if the price of corn drops way off, we've got a certain percentage of the farm that can offset that loss."
Colin’s father and uncle run much of the farm, with over 700 acres between the two of them. Colin and his brother are share-cropping with some neighbours on about 200 acres in total, where they are trying to get a foothold and, in the future, they hope to expand their holdings and contribute more to the family operations. The Elgies are always looking for future opportunities in the form of new crops or sustainable management practices. Like many farmers in Ontario, the Elgie farm has faced difficulties and has had to adapt to a lot of changes and being proactive about change just makes sense: "We've been looking into crops like sunflowers for example, whether it makes sense to grow another crop or not… We're always looking out for a potential crop or way to diversify the farm and put something else on the field. If we see something worth taking a risk for, and it makes business sense, we're always open to new ideas for sure.”
At the foundation of it all, and what Colin argues is most important, is making sure the soil is healthy. Alongside doing no-till on two thirds of their fields (which means no ploughing because it disrupts the delicate balance of organic matter and microorganisms necessary for long-term sustainability in the topsoil), Colin’s family is particular about their cover crops: "Having a plan in place right from the get-go is most important. No-tilling wheat is relatively simple. Wheat is essentially its own cover crop, even though it’s a cash crop it keeps growing through the winter. Some cover crops, cereal rye especially, grow so fast you have to have a plan in place to take care of it before it gets out of hand.” And to make sure that the soil is healthy and rich in nutrients, they monitor it: "We soil test every three years. We keep track of any fertilizer we put on our fields, to make sure we're following our long-term nutrient plan. In terms of erosion, we have cover crops to reduce it substantially, but we keep an eye on it after a big storm or a lot of wind to make sure there isn't any erosion starting.”
Colin enjoys the connection to the earth and the ability to help others that farming gives him: "the outdoors is the main thing. You basically start with a bare field… being able to grow a crop, being able to watch it growing, being able to get out in it... just knowing you're producing something that can help people, that's a big part of what I enjoy of it.” And his job at Sylvite mirrors the things he loves about farming: "it’s kind of part and parcel with what I'm doing at Sylvite here, too. Making recommendations to help people and get the best crop they can in the most efficient way. And so, it's all along the same lines."
Colin wants the farm to be there for his kids as they grow up to offer them the same kind of life it gave him: "I enjoyed being raised up on a farm you know… the way my parents raised us to appreciate what we have. It’s a great place to grow up and move around and that's the way my wife and I are trying to raise our kids, being able to have appreciation for what we have and hopefully pass it along to them if they choose to be interested in farming.”