What do the 2022 Food Production Indicators Tell Us?

The Thunder Bay Area encompasses the City of Thunder Bay and its surrounding municipalities. Its landscape includes the shore of Lake Superior, swaths of Boreal Forest and rocky Canadian Shield as well as deposits of rich soils in the lower-lying river valleys which feed the lake. The northerly latitude and the moderating effect of the lake contribute to a temperate climate with approximately 90 frost-free days a year and sufficient snow- and rainfall to support a variety of crops and livestock husbandry. Despite the relatively short growing season the days in this region are long, supporting good crops of grasses and grains for livestock feed and pasture. Farmland in the area is also relatively inexpensive compared to the rest of the province.

Farm Characteristics, Revenue and Land Use

Although there is a diverse variety of farms operating in the Thunder Bay District, of the $30.35 million in farm cash receipts generated in the region in 2021, $17.5 million (57.6%) came from dairy production, a supply-managed industry which accounts for 23 (15%) of the 150 farms in the area. Thunder Bay is also home to potato farms, market vegetable operations, beef and other livestock farms and mixed production farms as well as greenhouses, beekeepers and a few farms growing field grains and oilseeds for human consumption. 16

By acre, the single largest use of farmland is crop production, with 22,708 acres or 57% of area farmland being put to this use in 2021. 70 farms were involved in the production of hay/fodder crops. This too reflects the major role of the dairy sector; the three top crops produced are hay, barley and corn silage, which are all used by dairy farmers to feed their herds. Some dairy farms have also diversified into grains and oilseeds that they sell to a local grain terminal. 17

There are a few farms growing grains for human consumption or for seed. There is one local flour mill that produces partially-sifted, whole wheat and rye flour and has the capacity to clean grains as well. 18

Although the dairy industry leads in farm cash receipts, beef cattle operations are the most numerous. The number of beef farmers has more than doubled in the past ten years, from 19 to 39 farms, however the total number of cattle and calves reported has decreased by 1% and farm receipts for cattle and calves have decreased from $1.36 million to $0.8 million. 19

A significant portion of Thunder Bay’s local livestock production is seasonal, particularly among people producing hogs or chicken, which can be purchased as piglets or chicks and raised to market weight over the course of a summer.

Although there is no local infrastructure for slaughtering chicken, two local producers reported income in 2021 from a combined 3,031 birds, 20 raising their birds during the summer months and transporting them to be slaughtered at the nearest poultry processing facility in Oxdrift, 350 km west of Thunder Bay.

lthough Census data indicates that 2 farms in the district made the majority of their revenue from pork production, a total of 15 farms reported income from hogs. 21 However, according to the local abattoir, there are approximately 150 people processing hogs locally with many of them processing 20 – 30 animals a year. 22 These producers include year-round operators raising hogs in permanent buildings and an increasing number of seasonal operators raising them outdoors in fenced areas over the warmer months.

The increasing number of seasonal operators has had implications for the availability of meat processing services in the community, creating high demand in the fall months for the services of Thunder Bay’s only abattoir and the small number of further processors offering butchery, smoking and sausage-making, all of which are locally-owned small businesses facing limitations of infrastructure and labour force. 23

There has not been a large producer of eggs in the area since 2014, although some farms produce eggs for sale at the farm gate and at small businesses in the region. Of the 32 farms reporting laying hens, one mixed farming operation is permitted a flock of 500 hens under a grandfather clause of the industry’s supply management regulations. 24 The others are limited to the 99 birds permitted to farms without egg quota. A total of 1,959 laying hens were reported by farms in the area in 2021. 25

In order to be retailed or sold beyond the farm gate (e.g., at a farmers’ market), eggs must be graded at a provincially- or federally-inspected facility. In 2022, two local producers have eggs graded at Thunder Bay’s egg grading station throughout the year, while an additional three producers use the service on a seasonal basis. 26

In addition to dairy, beef, hogs and chicken, ten farms reported keeping sheep and lambs, down from the 24 reporting in 2011. 27 There are also operations engaged in other farm animal husbandry, including horses, llamas and a new venture which is raising bison for meat.

Thunder Bay’s relatively short growing season makes vegetable farming challenging. In 2021, 16 farms reported engaging in vegetable production, growing a total of 26 acres in vegetables. The top reported vegetables – excluding potatoes, which are considered a field crop and counted separately – included carrots, beets, tomatoes, shallots & green onions, and garlic. The numbers indicate that market vegetable production tends to take place on a very small scale in the area, with the average farm growing 1.625 acres of vegetables. 28

The greenhouse sector in this area has changed significantly in the past ten years. Although there are a number of producers using greenhouses for both season extension and season enhancement, there was over 75% less greenhouse space reported in use in 2021 compared to 2011. 29 The decline in greenhouse acreage is mainly due to the reduced numbers of operations growing tree seedlings. 30

Much of the variety in Thunder Bay’s farm industry is supplied by farms reporting less than $24,999 in farm receipts. These operations account for 48% of area farms. They tend to include mixes of fruit, vegetable and livestock production, and tend to be typified by part-time farmers with off-farm income. These are frequently either hobbyists or newer farmers. This group has seen a significant reduction in numbers since 2011, decreasing from 157 to 69 in 2021. 31 Farms earning this level of income typically operate seasonally, with minimal on-farm infrastructure on smaller parcels of land, do not achieve economies of scale or significant mechanization and are vulnerable to rising input costs and lagging food prices.

Farms in this area which generate enough income to support full-time farmers tend to be characterized by a higher degree of mechanization as well as on-farm infrastructure which supports year-round operations. This can include buildings for sheltering livestock, greenhouses, hoop-houses and tunnels for vegetable season extension, climate-controlled spaces for crop or meat storage, equipment for value-added processing and housing for seasonal staff.

The local potato-farming numbers illustrate this point. In Thunder Bay potatoes are grown on both a market-garden scale by a number of mixed farming operations and a significant scale by two potato farms. These larger operations have mechanized much of their field-work and have developed on-farm infrastructure that includes climate-controlled storage, washing and packing and some further processing equipment. They have a variety of relationships, dealing directly with many local restaurants as well as wholesale retail channels, and their products may be found in various local and chain retail grocery stores throughout the region.

Changes Over Time

The number of farms operating and the amount of farmland in use continue to decrease in this area. This aligns with a greater trend; Ontario overall has seen decreases of 7% in the past ten years for both these indicators, while Northern Ontario has lost 21% of its farms and 23% of its farmland. The Thunder Bay Area had 37% fewer farms operating in 2021 than 2011 and had 32% less farmland in production. 32

Dairy farming, the top-grossing farm sector, has remained relatively stable in the area over the past 10 years. Although Census data shows the number of dairy farms decreasing from 29 in 2011 to 23 in 2021, the average farm size has increased and farm cash receipts for the sector have grown by nearly $4 million in the same period, 33 which means that the remaining dairy farmers are continuing to grow their operations.

Despite the losses in farm numbers and farmland in use, total farm cash receipts for the area have remained about the same, in large part due to the relative stability of the dairy industry. The lack of growth in overall farm cash receipts in the district differs from the trends in Northern Ontario and Ontario overall, as well as our neighbouring districts. With the exception of Greater Sudbury, other Northern Ontario districts have seen growth ranging from 29% (Algoma) to 373% (Sudbury), while Thunder Bay has seen a growth of 1.95% in total farm cash receipts. 34

Farmland in the Thunder Bay District remains relatively affordable. In 2021, average prices for farmland in Ontario increased by 22.2%, the highest average increase reported among the provinces. 35 The lowest average farmland value increase was in the Northern Ontario region at 5.8%. Prices remained lower in this region, often a small fraction of the price of land in other parts of the province. 36

Value Chain Participation

With the exception of the supply-managed dairy industry, there is limited producer participation in longer value chains in this area. As mentioned above, the two major producers of potatoes participate both in direct local relationships with distributors and retailers as well as in a value chain that places their products in national grocery retailers, but few other farms are operating at wholesale scale.

As a result, most local food is sold directly to customers. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, local restaurants and farmers’ markets were key marketing channels; however, disruptions to businesses and changes to consumer spending and consumption habits have resulted in some loss of momentum. Some farm operators have pursued new relationships with local grocery and food retailers to maintain their sales, and this has in some cases resulted in them withdrawing from the use of shared marketing infrastructure like farmer’s markets.

There has been growth in the number of farms earning revenue through Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), a subscription model under which patrons pay farmers a set fee for a regular delivery of vegetables through the subscription period. Thunder Bay’s first CSA farm reported in 2011; in 2021, four farms reported income from the CSA model. 37

There are currently no measures of assessing growth in demand or supply, although some attempts have been made to list suppliers and buyers. The Get Fresh! Guide was a voluntary-participation directory of local food business last published in 2017, which was replaced in 2021 by tbayInSeason.ca, an online directory developed by the Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy. Although it provides a sense of the number of retailers and restaurants sourcing local food, the directory is not comprehensive.

According to tbayInSeason.ca, 15 restaurants and caterers and 20 retail locations are purchasing food from the Thunder Bay Area. The amount of food bought varies considerably by business and by season.