The Chatham-Kent Chamber of Commerce handed out the hardware Nov. 27 at the 73rd annual Rural Urban Dinner.
Reinout Von Martels earned Agriculturalist of the Year; Jennen Strawberry Farm received accolades for innovating business of the year; Blake Vince took the award for individual innovator; Margaret Nauta was named a Friend of Agriculture; and Matthew Sterling was named 4-H Member of the Year.
Von Martels, owner of Von Martels Seed Farms Inc., said he appreciates the recognition and is in some select company.
“When you look at the people who have received this award before, these are good people in Chatham-Kent who have contributed a lot for the community,” he said. “To be part of that group means a lot.”
Von Martels Seed Farms near Ridgetown is a combination of regular farming and seed processing, he said.
“We get seeds right from the plant breeder. We multiply it and in two or three years we have enough to sell to other farmers,” Von Martels said. “Some of our seeds have ended up in Japan.”
Peter and Ellen Jennen also appreciate the recognition as an innovative business.
“It’s a nice feeling when you are being recognized by people in the community for what we are doing,” Peter said.
The Jennens are taking a different route in terms of growing berries, something that has traditionally taken place on the ground. The Jennens are growing at tabletop height.
“We like to stay diversified on the farm. What we’re doing is unique to the area. The technology is being used in other parts of the world, but not really in Ontario,” Peter said. “It’s basically a system that grows the berries a couple of feet off the ground in a medium. The medium we’re using is a coconut/peat moss base.”
Raising the crop off the ground improves labour efficiency, increasing profit.
“We’re able to grow the crop and make it easier for the pickers,” Peter explained. “They’re more efficient in picking, which saves us money. It also increases our yield.”
Ellen said the berries taste better too.
“The quality of the fruit is much better as well. It takes a lot of the risks of the weather out of the picture too,” she said.
Jennen Strawberry Farm is located in Wabash. Their strawberries are sold in Wal-Marts in Canada.
Vince, the individual innovator winner, is involved in soil management, planting multi-species cover crop.
He said the cover crop goes in without tilling, helping to reduce a landowner’s carbon footprint, while working to increase yield.
“I try to use the energy of the sun, the free solar radiation, to harness photosynthesis and drive carbon into the soil,” he said. “I believe by leaving the soil undisturbed we can do two things: we can sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, which is a big thing, as well as we can really improve water quality.”
The cover crop, which is comprised of about 18 different species planted at the same time, often goes in after harvest in the fall. Vince said some dies off over the winter, some will go dormant and then come back to life in the spring, before the main crop gets planted right on top of it.
This helps keep the fertile soil where it belongs – in the field.
“When the wind blows in the winter, the soil doesn’t move. We don’t see brown snow. We see nice, clean snow,” he said.
As well, the cover crop helps fields hold onto water for use when needed.
“It increases the water holding capacity and water infiltration in the soil. When the rain stops falling in the middle of summer, there’s lots of water in the soil profile to withstand periods of drought,” Vince said.
Nauta has helped shape the people who farm our fields. A retired teacher, she is finishing up her 42nd year running a 4-H club.
She’s also involved on the family farm on A.D. Shadd Road, but admits her passion is with the 4-H.
“I’ve gone through about 400 members and finished off about 500 projects with them,” she said. “I’m very pleased with how it has turned out.”
Nauta first became involved because her children wanted to join 4-H, but there was no club in their area.
Being recognized for her contributions left her elated.
“When I got the call that I had the Friends of Agriculture Award, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep!”
Nauta is also a member of the Kent Agricultural Hall of Fame, named to it in 2010, and was Citizen of the Year in Blenheim in 2004.
Sterling, in the meantime, is just getting started. A 4-H member for the past eight years, the teenager returned home from the 2019 International Plowing Match and Rural Expo with several awards, a scholarship and an invitation to compete at the 2020 Canadian Plowing Championships.
During his time in 4-H, he said he’s participated in more than 40 clubs.
For the future, he wants to attend Conestoga College in Waterloo for robotics or electrical engineering technology, and bring that education right back to plant in Chatham-Kent.
“Precision agriculture is growing. I’m hoping to get involved in that and use robotics,” he said.
The member of the CK Cyberpack Robotics Team said autonomous farming – equipment running itself – is not far off.
“I was at a plowing match at least five years ago and I got a ride on a tractor that actually drove itself. This was a John Deere tractor that was straight from the factory,” he said, as the modification came post-production. “In the very short term, I can see autonomous farming. That’s the future.”