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Coopers win top honours

2010 Outstanding Young Farmers for Ontario


May 3, 2010
By Fruit & Vegetable

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Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmer competition is becoming a horticultural producer showcase.

Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmer competition is becoming a horticultural producer showcase.

cooper
Steve and Lisa Cooper of Coopers’ CSA and Maze. The Coopers were recently crowned Ontario’s 2010 Outstanding Young Farmers. Submitted Photo

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Steve and Lisa Cooper of Coopers’ CSA and Maze, located near Zephyr, Ont., received top honours as Ontario’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2010 at the provincial awards ceremony held in Belleville, Ont., in late March.

“We produce a wide variety of the best quality vegetables using sustainable and organic farming practices,” explained Steve and Lisa, summing up the goals of their Durham Region operation.

Steve and Lisa’s story began after meeting at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. Upon graduation, they took over the running of a family cattle and sweet corn business. They quickly realized that weather, low commodity prices and a diminishing cattle market were not going to provide them with financial stability and meet their desire to farm full time. In the late 1990s, they put in a market garden and delved into direct marketing, helping to launch farmers’ markets now available in Newmarket, Aurora, Uxbridge, Gravenhurst and Oshawa. In 2000, the cattle were sold and replaced with meat goats, and the cropping end of the farm was altered into an on-farm store. Later an agri-entertainment area with a corn maze, kid’s play area and fall festival was added and, more recently, an expanded pick-your-own section.

In 2007, the Coopers entered into a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program for the marketing of their fruits and vegetables. Fifty families signed up and paid to receive a weekly basket of vegetables for 20 weeks. In 2008, this was expanded to 235 families from all across the greater Toronto area (GTA).

The Coopers continue to expand the CSA aspect of their farm. The couple built a small greenhouse and plant late spinach and greens in order to extend the growing season. They now deliver food 23 weeks of the year. They have also added pasture beef and pasture raised broiler chickens to the product list. The farm and its products are certified by Local Food Plus and, over the past 10 years, the operation has been able to reduce pesticide use by more than 75 per cent.

Steve attributes part of their success to “being on the right side of a trend. We were really lucky to have had a business that we could quickly expand when the local food movement started to gain momentum,” he added.

As with many successful young farmers, Steve and Lisa understand that education and networking are critical to their success. They are both graduates of the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program and have also completed the George Morris Centre’s C-Team program for farm business managers. They volunteer time to local farm organizations, farmers’ markets, and several minor sports teams. They are also committed to spending as much time as possible with their two children, Cayla and Trenton, who are both starting to take an active role in the operation.

The Coopers were chosen from a group of six farmers, including Matt Fischer (Fischer Family Poultry, Listowel), Hugh and Arlene Hunter (Maple-Ain Dairy Farm, Smith Falls), Amy Strom (Strom’s Sweet Corn and Pumpkins, Guelph), runners-up Anthony and Marg Sjaarda (Sjaarda Caprine Farms, Wyoming) and Katie Normet, (River’s Edge Goat Dairy, Arthur).

“The pride that these finalists had in their operations and the love they had for their communities was very infectious,” said John Steele, co-chair of the Ontario Outstanding Young Farmer event. “Spending time with such imaginative and successful young farmers reminds us all that farming is a rewarding occupation and we need to keep that in mind more as we deal with our daily challenges.”

The judges, Brian Little (retired from RBC), Jack Gilliland (retired from John Deere) and Tom VanDusen (agricultural journalist) chose the Coopers in part for their innovative and customer-oriented ideas.

Winners of the award are chosen based on career progress; environmental and safety practices; crop and livestock production history; financial and management practices; and contributions to society.

Steve and Lisa will go on to represent Ontario at the national Outstanding Young Farmers competition, being held in Victoria, B.C., from Nov. 23 to 28, 2010.

For information about all of the finalists, visit the OOYF website at www.oyfontario.ca .