A pioneer in organic agriculture in eastern Ontario, Homestead Organics has now become a leader in organic food processing and marketing, with an impressive, diverse and ever-expanding customer base that reaches throughout eastern Canada, the United States and overseas.
What began in 1988 as an offshoot of a large organic family farm and originally integrated into an old dairy barn in Berwick has evolved into a sophisticated and technologically-advanced operations spread across three sites, employing more than two dozen people – all under the direction of president Tom Manley and his team.
Towards the end of 2013, Homestead purchased an industrial building in Morrisburg which has been transformed into the company’s food-grade processing facility that also incorporates a seed-cleaning system.
In January of 2016 Homestead bought the Sebringville Feed Mill, which offers organic feed, seeds, livestock supplements and fertilizer products.
“One major thing we do is mashing and mixing of mixed animal feeds. So we will supply various livestock operators – poultry, pork, beef and so on. Some are small scale and others are large scale commercial clients. We have mixed animal feed in bags or in bulk, using all organic grains grown in the region and beyond. We also sell appropriate vitamin and mineral supplements,” Manley explained.
“The second thing we do is the primary cleaning and marketing of organic food grains, especially soybeans, going to food processors. A tofu maker or soy beverage maker can’t take the beans right off the farm so they get them from a processor like us. We do all the quality assurance, from selecting the crops, cleaning them to get an even size, round, and free of all the problems. Then we sell that bag or bulk soybean to a processor.”
Manley’s parents began the transition to organic agriculture in the mid-1980s more out of necessity than because of any clairvoyant foresight into the future.
“He was driven by a number of factors. One was the quality of the soil. The family farms along the shore of the South Nation River were basically on a flood plain, meaning it was fairly heavy clay. If you didn’t keep your organic matter up and your soil life healthy, your clay goes to gravel very quickly, which was the case. So he was plowing big chunks of clay that wouldn’t break up. The corn was having difficulty finding root space. And his input costs, especially herbicides and pesticides, were going up and the revenues were stagnating,” he explained.
“A lot of the animals, the birds and field mice especially, were gone and all of that told him that the fields were dying. So he started searching and came across the notion of organic and went to a couple of conferences in the U.S. He tried going chemical free in 1984 and was able to cut them by 1985 and was certified in 1988. And here we are almost 30 years later.”
One of the biggest challenges, especially for the first few years, was educating fellow farmers about the benefits, veracity and even the necessity of organic agriculture.
“We have had to talk to lots of farmers to convey the message that organic agriculture is viable and successful and is not a joke. And once they make that decision they go through a training process to help them succeed in their rotations, their weed control and pest control and so on. Luckily since my wife and I took over the organic feed processing from my dad in 1997 and separated it from the family farm, we have had a lot of help in educating people through general word of mouth about the environmental benefits and also from the media,” he said.
Manley said another significant challenge was the acquisition of enough capital to fund the fairly aggressive expansion that Homestead has embarked upon in recent years to keep up with demand.
“The cost of technology is a challenge so our major obstacle was recruiting capital. To go from myself taking over from my dad to having three facilities and 25 people, the money does not come from me. I had to rely on a number of sources: commercial banks, the Business Development Bank of Canada, but most particularly private investors. They brought in the capital to develop this business to serve farmers and to develop agriculture organically,” he explained.
Manley acknowledges the support of various business development organizations in the region for helping Homestead achieve its goals including the the Eastern Ontario Development program, the local Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC) and various government job creation programs.
He also talked about the wonderful lifestyle that he and his family, as well as their employees, enjoy living and doing business in their part of eastern Ontario.
“The business environment has been very good. We have no lack of local contractors, transportation companies, tradespeople, service providers, professional services. They are all supportive and see us as a growing concern and they’re reaching out to get some of our business and we appreciate it,” Manley said.
“I used to live in Montreal, and now I appreciate being back in my hometown. I appreciate the people I knew already and the ones I have got to know over the years. I appreciate the local support and the small town lifestyle but at the same time being able to do business on a global scale. And we have such a good transportation infrastructure to help make that possible. It’s been great.”
For more information on Homestead Organics Ltd., visit www.homesteadorganics.ca