By Lilian Schaer
Farming’s the second career for Six Nations innovator
Barry Hill calls farming his second life. After all, it was only meant to be a stress reliever from his work as an engineer.
What started with a small garden beside a cabin on the Six Nations Reserve near Ohsweken, Ontario and the region’s first soybean crop in the late 1970s eventually evolved into a 2,600 acre farming business growing corn, wheat and soybeans.
“I was told never to be a farmer, so I went off to be an engineer, but you can’t get farming out of the boy,” he chuckles. “I bought the cabin here instead of a cottage in Muskoka and started gardening. I won a vegetable prize that year, but also realized I can grow 40 acres of wheat in the time it takes me to garden.”
And so began, on the home farm where his dad farmed after World War II, Barry Hill’s second career as a farmer and innovator, farm leader and community champion, and advocate for Ontario’s native farmers.
In addition to his three main crops, Hill is always keen to try something new – he successfully no-tilled alfalfa into bean stubble and sold hay for a few years, planted organic soybeans and spelt.
He’s also experimented with white beans, industrial hemp and switchgrass over the years but with mixed success; the heavy Haldimand clay soils impose limitations on many crop options, he learned.
“We tried industrial hemp for a couple of years but quickly realized there was no infrastructure for it, so the only thing that came out of that were some good stories,” he says of that particular crop’s requirement for farmers to get a Health Canada licence and undergo an RCMP check in order to be allowed to grow it.
He’s also tried a foray into processing, but found it difficult to get the needed financial support to get the venture off the ground.
“Processing is a tough business. Commercial banks won’t touch you on Reserve land since it is not mortgage-able,” he adds, crediting ACC Farmer’s Financial with helping his farming business grow. “I was farming on a credit card for a long time.”
First Nations farmers must overcome their own unique hurdles when it comes to farming, in addition to the common challenges of weather, prices and markets faced by everyone in the business of agriculture.
Much of their land is scattered in small parcels and because most of their land is either rented or can’t be used as collateral to secure credit because it is on the reserve, it makes both long-term planning and ongoing farm business management more difficult.
This led Hill to organize his fellow farmers into the First Nations Agri Group co-op, whose members get rebates on their seed purchases and do bulk tendering for fertilizer. The co-op now has 25 members who farm more than 20,000 acres of cropland.
One year, the co-op applied to the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) for some funding to run a soybean rotation demo in their area.
Hill attended the OSCIA’s annual meeting to present a report on the project – and eventually ended up on the organization’s executive as a Vice President.
“My wife Cheryle never forgave me. She let me go to a conference by myself and I come home as third vice,” he chuckles.
Eventually, Hill became OSCIA’s provincial president, and one of his fondest memories of this time with the group was when he and Cheryle hosted the organization’s annual summer meeting the year he was the First Vice President.
They raised more money that year than ever before for the meeting and accompanying tours so Hill helped set up at post-graduate scholarship at the University of Guelph with the residual funds.
His kids aren’t interested in farming, with his son back at school and his daughter teaching in Hamilton, and he knows he should start scaling back his business a bit, so Hill has started letting a young farmer in the area have some of his land.
He hasn’t totally let go of the processing idea, but he’s starting to think he might be getting a bit old for starting into too many new ventures, he says.
“I don’t do Junior Farmers or 4-H and my wife doesn’t bake pies, but we do a whole bunch of other things,” he says of the traditional farmer stereotypes.
So in addition to farming, he keeps busy with the odd consulting project, community volunteering, and helping with the preservation and sustainability of the Royal Chapel of the Mohawks, Ontario’s oldest Protestant church where he is also the organist.
The fact that he’s well respected and his work appreciated is evident in his farm office, where the walls are covered with certificates, plaques and awards he’s won.
Hill is particularly proud of having been named Brant County Farmer of the Year in 2011, and he was a finalist in the 2014 BMO Farm Family Awards.