Lifelong learning keeps this farm humming

Almost 10 years after they borrowed money to buy their first 1,800- sow, farrow-to-wean hog farm, Amy and Mike Cronin found themselves, and their farm, weathering a perfect storm of industry woes.

With production costs up, pork demand in a trough, and prices low, 2007 to 2009 were very tough years for the business, recalls Mike. “We knew we were going to have to do things differently to succeed in this industry, especially if we were going to be able to pass the farm on down to our kids,” adds Amy.

Fast forward to April 2015 and there’s little time to reflect on past challenges. Amy, serving her fourth year-long term as chair of the Ontario Pork Producers’ Marketing Board, was recently on a provincial trade mission to China. Mike took her to the Toronto airport from their home farm in Bluevale, ON, about 168 km west of the city. He held the fort until Amy’s return, then went off himself to make one of his monthly trips to their farms in Iowa and Missouri.

In and around this busy business, the couple is raising six children. Amy is also a school board trustee, vice-chair of a local credit union, on the board of the Catholic Community Foundation of southwestern Ontario and was recently appointed cochair of the Growth Steering Committee of Agriculture in Ontario.

Mike, who is hands-on in every aspect of the family operation, is a local delegate for Ontario Pork, has coached youth soccer for more than 20 years and is active in their local parish. He also completed an Excellence in Pork Production Program (EP3) offered by the University of Iowa.

It’s little wonder the Cronins are the 2015 Outstanding Young Farmers’ program (OY F) winners for the Ontario region and will represent the province at the national OYF event in Edmonton later this year. Open to producers aged 18 to 39, the competition celebrates Canadian farmers who exemplify excellence in their profession. “To be honest, we see our win in Ontario as a win for the pork industry as well,” says Amy. “The industry’s weathered some real challenges and we think our farm is stronger for it.”

Identifying opportunities

While there’s much to be said for its owners’ willingness to roll up their sleeves and get to work, Cronin Farms Ltd. owes at least part of its current strength to Amy and Mike’s decision to take the Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management (CTE AM) program in 2010. CTE AM helped them identify prospects for growth. They used that information to design a strategic plan to capitalize on those opportunities, and as a springboard for more active involvement at the industry level.

Five years after taking the program, Cronin Farms bears little resemblance to its humble beginnings. Its Ontario unit, which the Cronins have expanded over time, now houses 3,600 sows. Boosting in-house market diversity, they finish and process some of the animals at a cooperative pork plant close to their home operation.

The U.S. side of their business started in 2006. Today, they run three farms south of the border. The Iowa farm is a farrowto- finish operation with some weaner sales. Of their two farms in Missouri, one multiplies purebred offspring while the second features North America’s first crate-free farrowing system. That barn also includes electronic sow feeders, video cameras and a thumbprint entry system, for security and tracking data on employee hours. Pork produced there goes to a niche consumer market that pays more if hogs are raised under specific conditions, including group housing.

“It’s not that we believe group housing is a better system — we use farrowing crates at home in Ontario and like how we can take care of our animals there,” says Amy. “But when we look to the future, we hear consumers saying this is what they want. Knowing that gives us an opportunity to meet (a future market) need.”

“It’s really for our customers,” says Mike who helped design the crate-free system they use in Missouri. “The video cameras, for example, let them see what’s happening without having to come out to our farm.”

Family and future

While many Canadian farmers are reluctant to talk about how today’s business may be transferred to the next generation, the Cronins welcome the conversation. Indeed, it’s a topic they’ve been talking about since they married in 1995, fresh out of high school. While they knew they couldn’t afford to buy into dairy operations like the ones where they grew up, they also knew they wanted to farm, says Amy. “There was no debate about where we’d raise our own kids.”

The Cronins bought their first hog operation in 1998, three years after they started managing that farm. Seventeen years and six children later, the idea that another generation of Cronins will run the business has solid roots. Alyssa, 18, Tyler, 16 and Kyle, 14, already have specific roles on the farm.

Alyssa moves away to university this fall, but it’ll be work as usual for Tyler and Kyle. “Tyler and Kyle have managed one of our weaner barns for several years, so they’re used to being the sole people in that barn,” says Amy. “They make sure feed is ordered and vaccinations done. They’re responsible for herd health.” The boys also talk about studying business after high school, an idea both parents support.

The next two, Liam, 11 and Emmy, 9, help out when they can and when a parent is present. “We want to make sure we’re not just sending them to the barn to work with team members,” says Amy. The youngest, Sam, is 7 and his turn is coming.

Mike, who’s in the U.S. at least once a month, often takes at least one child with him. “The kids are very much aware of what the business is doing and they get a really good taste of what’s going on.”

With 65 employees on the team roster and a diversified portfolio of pork production, there’s a lot to learn, and many different opportunities for the next generation’s involvement, says Mike. “Our family is the reason we do everything that we do,” says Amy.