The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Cattle, Corn and Soybeans

Cattle, Corn and Soybeans

From the Farmer's Tractor

March 28, 2010

John Gillespie raises beef cattle on his farm in Ontario, Canada. He also grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa and wheat. Gillespie’s family came over from Scotland in the 1830s, and they have been farming ever since. He has been a director to the Ontario Cattleman’s Association since 1995. Gillespie is also the Chairman of the Beef Information Center.

How did you get into cattle, corn and soybean farming?

You could say that my family has been farming since the beginning of time. And I am about the fifth generation of farmers on our farm. 

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

First of all, crop husbandry has changed. We are using more biotechnology. As far as our crops are concerned we are using fewer chemicals. We are using less fuel to produce the crop. We are reducing our tillage of the land. We plant many of the crops as a no till. That is, we just plant the seed directly into the ground as it was left from the previous year. Those are all new technologies that have come in the last ten years. And of course seed biotechnology has added a great deal of productivity to us.

Also, now the computer is an integral part of the farm. With computers come a lot of technologies like feeding cattle, keeping track of records, monitoring the corn planters and such, and keeping track of seeds. We are now able to be much more definitive on the seeds that we put on each acre. The computer technology has just taken over considerably. In my father’s day, he would’ve pointed to hydraulics as a significant, farm-changing technology. Today, I would have to say this game changer is computers.

How will cattle, corn and soybean farming evolve in the next five years?

We will be adopting satellite technology on most of the machinery here in the next five years to make our operation more sustainable.

What is your greatest challenge as a cattle, corn and soybean farmer?

As far as our farm is concerned, the changing of the guard is a huge challenge. My father died this past year at the age of 88, and he farmed everyday with me and was fully active right up to the last day. I have a son who is quite capable of farming but he has a solid managerial job in the city. Bringing him back into the business will be our next big challenge.

What are the challenges of the retail market?

These days you have to be much more conscious on the flow of the market to look for pricing opportunities.

What steps are you taking toward sustainability on the farm?

We are always looking for efficiencies and looking to make each year a little more productive than the last. Sustainability is important so that we can keep the farm going and make enough food for all of us, and keep producing an income. The consumer can help here by buying domestic products that have traceability and that were produced with the best management possible. And they can do a lot by buying something local. We’re not necessarily talking about within a mile or two of your residence. That may not be practical. A purchase made within a few hundred miles, however, could be considered sustainable.

Where do your products go?

They go all over, but it is pretty interesting if you want to talk the extreme. Our soybeans go to China. I live in eastern Canada. The product gets loaded into containers, and the containers get loaded on train cars. The train goes right across Canada and over the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver where it is loaded onto a ship that heads to China. And China is a big country like Canada, so it gets loaded several more times on to trains before it reaches its final destination. Because the containers we use have actually come from Chinese imports, reusing them creates some efficiency in the back haul process.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person? 

I think all the farm groups that I have met here in Canada and the United States are taking on a greater public profile than they have in the past. So farmers are becoming a little more visible amongst the consumers or the media to tell their story. We have become more practical as well to the public. We talk about things like an environmental plan on the farm, the water supply and the use of water, the way that you spread manure on the land and being quite conscious about any runoff into waterways, putting filter strips between arable land and waterways, and so on. Those are just some of the many things we can do to interact with the public consumer, all of which might in turn help encourage sustainability. I think we need to be there telling our side of the story.