Mark and Alicia Huston, Huston Farms
By Lisa McLean
Thamesville – With nearly two centuries of farming under its belt, you might say Huston Farms is as finely aged as a premium spirit. The farm – established in 1830 – has recently begun to supply high quality corn to makers of one of our nation’s star beverages: Canadian whisky.
Mark Huston and his wife Alicia are the seventh generation on his family’s farm. Mark works with his father Larry and his uncle Terry to produce pigs, corn and other crops in Thamesville Ontario. And, like any successful business enterprise, the Hustons are always on the lookout for new and premium markets for their products.
“High quality corn has been a mainstay in our family farming operation for decades because we have an on-farm feed mill to make pig feed,” Huston says. “Several of the qualities that are important in feed production – including low mycotoxin (mold) levels and highly fermentable starches – are also a natural fit for whisky.”
Farmers in the area counties have had a close relationship with whisky production – Huston says in the early 1900s, much of the liquor supplied to the United States during prohibition was manufactured just North of the US border, in Ontario’s Kent and Essex counties, and its distilleries were supplied by area farmers.
Today, Canadian whisky is big business. As the fourth largest spirit category in the United States and the second largest spirit category in Canada, whisky contributes more than $1 billion to Canada’s economy, and is sourced from locally grown ingredients. Huston now contracts approximately 30 per cent of his farm’s 1,200 acres to Windsor-based Hiram Walker, where corn that is low in moisture, free of cracks, clean of debris and has high-fermenting properties – is bought at a premium.
Huston credits new technologies such as GPS, yield sensors and spray monitors with helping to increase success on the farm. They have allowed the Hustons to build an information bank for their land that goes a long way in selecting higher-yielding varieties that are ideal for specific growing conditions and soil types and meet key customer requirements.
“Higher fermentable starches are key for whisky production because the starch converts to sugar, which converts to alcohol,” Huston says. “Canadian whisky can only be called Canadian whisky if it’s made entirely in Canada. With corn as its main ingredient, it’s an important market for Canadian farmers.”
Huston is also the Vice Chair of Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO), a commodity association representing 28,00 corn, soybean and wheat farmers across the province. GFO recently participated in a summit involving stakeholders from across the Canadian whisky value chain to discuss market opportunities for the sector.
Canadian whisky is made by blending corn distillate with distillates from other grains such as rye, rye malt, and barley malt. The blended product is stored in barrels and aged, usually from two years to several decades. Huston says it’s likely the corn that he began selling to Hiram Walker more than six years ago has been bottled and sold around the world.
“As the industry matures, distillers are starting to bring out newer, specialized products and blends” Huston says. “It’s an interesting market, and good relationships across the value chain are important to seeing it thrive and expand in the years to come.”