Earl & Bill Elgie
By Andi McKillop
The Elgie Farm is unique in today’s world where there are fewer people farming and it is no longer practical to feed a growing nation using the traditional ideal of Old MacDonald’s farm. Yet Earl and Bill Elgie, two brothers near Dresden, Ontario, manage a diversified farm where they care for both livestock and the land. The brothers have been recognized over the years with a number of local and national awards for outstanding farm practices and conservation activities on their farm.
“Being diversified, you never run out of work even if you do sometimes make less than minimum wage,” says Earl. “We love farming; it’s a good way of life and there’s pride – we’re the fifth generation of Elgies on this farm. There’s not a lot of farm families that can say that.”
“When we stop and think about how many farm families are left on our road, we’re the only ones that have been farming since we were kids,” Bill adds. “Of course, farming has grown so there’s only one per block anymore – there used to be eight or 10.”
While many farms have become larger and more specialized, the Elgies’ modest farm consists of a woodlot and approximately 700 acres of workable farm land. In addition to custom feeding cattle and pigs over the winter months, the Elgies cut firewood for their sugar shack where they make maple syrup each spring. Through the summer and fall they grow and harvest a variety of crops, including grain corn, edible black beans, processing peas, sweet corn, soybeans, tobacco, winter wheat, buckwheat and rye.
Among their many interests and activities, Earl and Bill are most passionate about improving their soil for the next generation of Elgies that will farm the land. Even before it was trendy, the Elgies were very mindful of soil conservation, using soil-saving and no-till techniques, planting trees for wind breaks and cover crops to minimize soil erosion. They even buy straw for their animals so that they can leave their own straw on their fields.
“We try to keep our ground covered as close to 365 days a year as possible,” says Earl. “We are trying to harness that energy from the sun and turn it into organic matter to improve the productivity of the soil and, if it turns dry, it’ll also hold more moisture – kind of like a sponge.”
The Elgies regularly update their Environmental Farm Plan and help organize and attend the Southwest Agricultural Conference each year. While they stay current on organic, biological and sustainable farm practices, they say that conventional farm practices work best on their farm. As part of their fertility program, they test their own soil and apply mushroom compost and cattle or turkey manure to maximize the nutrients in the soil, and minimize the amount of synthetic fertilizer that needs to be applied. Rotating crops also allows nutrients to be put back into the soil.
The opportunity to crop share on land next to a farm they bought in 1982 has shown them just how successful they’ve been growing their soil. The two pieces of land have identical types of soil, yet the productivity is greatly improved on the land owned by the two brothers. And their success has been recognized – with other farmers coming to the Elgies for advice and nominating them for awards. Yet they will humbly tell you that they are just doing their own thing to earn a living.
“I think that is why I farm,” says Bill. “At the end of our lives we will see that we have made a difference around here. I guess we already have.”