OTTAWA - Six of the province’s most innovative and successful young farming couples were recognized for doing something unique at the 27th annual Ontario’s Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) Banquet March 13.
At the banquet, pig farmers Harry and Leony Koelen of Paisley were chosen as the 2007 Ontario Outstanding Young Farmers, who will represent the province at the OYF national event in Quebec in December.
The Koelens own and operate H & L Koelen Farms Ltd. Their 5,200-sow farrowing operation consists of their home barn south of Paisley and the North Bruce barn west of Paisley. They have 16 full-time and a few part-time employees.
They have five children who enjoy helping on the farm.
In 1991, Harry and Leony immigrated to Canada with only a backpack and $2,000 when Harry answered an advertisement in a Dutch farm newspaper.
The Koelens bought their own farm in Brussels in 1995. They rented other barns, and pregnant sows were housed a few miles away.
In 1999, they moved to Paisley.
The Koelens have overcome many obstacles that would have stopped most people and have succeeded and prospered.
On January 2, 2001, the roof collapsed on the barn because of heavy snowfall, and 500 sows had to be moved to a rented barn.
The Koelens’ home farm south of Paisley has two barns beside each other, which are connected in the middle. On July 10, 2003, they lost one full barn, over 1,250 sows and almost 1,800 piglets in a fire. At this time, they were in the process of building their North Bruce barn.
After the fire, they had the barn rebuilt enough to put the sows back in by December, and they were back to full production in July 2004.
The Koelens sell their pigs when they are 17 days old and weigh five kilograms.
They breed sows by artificial insemination, and they breed most sows once. They need to get approximately 270 sows bred per week.
"The single most important thing on our farm is to get enough sows bred every week," Leony said.
Last year, the Koelens’ employees at their home farm won awards for the second highest production and most live pigs born per year.
"We’re very proud of these people," Harry said. "Right now, it is the employees who are the backbone of our operation."
Harry has wanted to be a pig farmer for a long time.
Growing up in Holland, Harry helped his father on the farm, and he went to agriculture school when he was 12. He did his first co-op on a pig farm when he was 13.
"I fell in love with the pigs," he said. "At that time, I decided that was what I was going to do with the rest of my life."
Five other couples were nominated for the OYF award: Gerald and Sheri Dijkstra of Thunder Bay, Dave and Christine Johnston of Listowel, Jim and Birgit Martin of Gore Bay, Jim and Heather Robinson of Listowel, and Len and Tracey Vis of Jerseyville.
Gerald and Sheri Dijkstra operate Circle D Farms Inc., a dairy feedlot in Thunder Bay, with their four children.
Gerald grew up on a dairy farm. After he and Sheri married and bought his parents out, they really wanted to expand.
"I had this crazy idea that I wanted 1,000 cows," Gerald said. "I really wanted to feedlot, but everyone said you don’t make money."
They decided to switch from milking to feedlotting, and in spring 2006, construction began on their 500-acre feedlot specializing in Holstein steers.
They currently have about 250 steers and should be up to 800 or 900 by the summer.
"We would like to start our own local market," Gerald said. "We have a bit of a veal market, and there is local interest in this kind of meat."
Dave and Christine Johnston, along with their four children, operate Maplevue Farms near Listowel in partnership with Dave’s brother.
Maplevue Farms, a dairy and cash crop operation with 857 acres and a milking herd of 65 Holsteins, has been in the Johnston family since 1893.
Dave says they are very proud to be the fifth generation on the farm, and they hope to give their children the opportunity to be the sixth.
"We are very proud of our farm and very proud of our family," Dave said. "We have a lot of fun with the kids, and we’re very proud to be dairy producers in Ontario."
Jim and Birgit Martin operate a beef cow-calf herd of 150 cows near Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island with their two sons.
"Our focus on the farm is diversity and simplicity," Birgit said.
The Martins sell purebred cattle as breeding stock, and they sell replacement females and pre-conditioned calves.
"We farm as a family, and we strive for a mindful environment, but we never forget we’re in the business of providing food, and we’re proud to do it," Jim said.
Heather and Jim Robinson milk 60 cows at Royal Acres Farms, a 200-acre dairy farm near Listowel that is home to 120 purebred Holsteins.
Heather and Jim were both raised on dairy farms.
"We have a great ambition to farm and be in the dairy industry," Heather said.
They are the fourth generation on the farm, which was purchased in 1921 by Jim’s great-grandfather.
"We hope we can pass these benefits of growing up on a dairy farm on to a family of our own," Jim said.
Dairy farmers Len and Tracey Vis, along with their three children, operate Maplewood Farms near Jerseyville.
Elite genetics have become an important part of their business, and they have expanded their heifer facilities to handle the increased number of embryo recipients. They export embryos to countries like Italy, the Netherlands, Russia and China.
"We feel truly honoured to promote Canadian genetics," Len said. "Cow passion is what I’ve got."
Len’s father emigrated from the Netherlands and bought the farm in 1959.
"It is because of his hard work that we have made our dream possible," Len said.
Although they come from different backgrounds, the six OYF nominees have many things in common. They are passionate, dedicated and determined.
"These are people who have gone against the odds and done what other people said couldn’t be done," Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers Ontario regional chair Ken Rounds said. "They persevered to make the business of farming their passion."