Spring wheat farming rising in area

By Carl Clutchey
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Chronicle-Journal

Thunder Bay, Ont. — The next time you bite into your favourite sandwich, you might want to give a nod to a Thunder Bay-area wheat farmer.

Though the complexities of food distribution systems make it difficult to know exactly where bread-flour is being sourced these days, there is no doubt the amount of spring wheat being grown close to the city is rising.

“It’s becoming a major crop,” Tarlok Sahota, director of Lakehead University’s Agriculture Research Station, said Wednesday.

Sahota, fresh off his annual tour showcasing experimental crops, fertilizers and herbicides at the 32-year-old station just west of Thunder Bay, said about 500 acres of spring wheat are being grown on fields a short drive from the city.

Farmers have been getting a good price for spring wheat, while the addition of new crops in the region is good for soil, Sahota said.

“The more crops we have, the better.”

The other major cash crop being grown in Thunder Bay’s main farming areas, including the Slate River valley and Murillo, is canola. The oil-seed plant accounts for more than 1,000 acres in the region.

Area farmers also grow up to 2,000 acres of alfalfa, but that crop is mainly for feeding cattle. There are about 20 dairy farms in Thunder Bay’s vicinity, Sahota noted.

According to Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, cereal crops account for 25 per cent what’s grown on arable land across the province.

“Winter wheat is the most widely grown cereal in Ontario, followed by spring barley, spring wheat and oats,” a ministry backgrounder said.

In the Thunder Bay district, soy beans are less preferred by farmers because, unlike canola, they take a long time to mature and are more susceptible to frost in the fall, Sahota said.

That said, at least one area farmer does grow that crop, which can be roasted and fed to cattle.

The research station, which depends on provincial funding, has a mandate to experiment with new crop varieties in the hope they will produce “high yields” to local farmers and also prove to be resistant to pests and disease.

Thunder Bay’s colder climate continues to be a factor. Winter varieties of canola and camelina — a European crop also known as false flax — did not survive during recent trial runs at the research station, Sahota said.

Better luck has resulted from testing crop additives that can be sprayed on fields while plants are still growing.

One product that proved effective during tests limits wheat and barley growth so that they can be better harvested during combining; another helped plants capture and retain nitrogen from the air.

“We are a third party with no financial interest in (tested) products,” Sahota emphasized.

Testing of herbicides helps Thunder Bay-area farmers avoid using products that don’t work in the North, or become ineffective over time, which has been an issue in southern Ontario.

“We don’t want to have that kind of problem here,” Sahota said.