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Agri-Food Innovations Recognized at Award Ceremony in London

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Agri-Food Innovations Recognized at Award Ceremony in London

The Premier's Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence recognizes and celebrates the agri-food producers, processors, organizations and rural communities, who through their innovative ideas and projects are helping strengthen our communities, support a sustainable environment, create jobs and boost our economy.

The following are regional award recipients in Brant, Chatham-Kent, Norfolk and Oxford County:

971082 Ontario Inc. - Merlin

For several decades, E. Blake Vince has underseeded red clover into his winter wheat. But why stop at just one cover crop? Inspired by the results he saw touring the world on a 2013 farming scholarship, Vince now plants a mix of up to 15 different species into his harvested wheat field. When those plants grow, they provide many benefits. They regulate nitrogen levels, reducing the need for fertilizer, and they out-compete weeds, reducing the need for herbicides. Their root structure also holds the soil in place and increases its ability to hold water. Finally, the cover crops provide habitat for a host of organisms that promote healthy, fertile soil. As Vince is proving, sometimes more really is better.

Bonnieheath Estate Lavender & Winery - Waterford

In 2008, Steve and Anita Buehner harvested their final crop of tobacco. Today, their Norfolk County farm is nearly unrecognizable. Purple lavender blooms cover 3.5 acres, while another 10 acres have been converted to cold-hardy grapes. Meanwhile, naturalized wetland, wildflowers and native tallgrass attract biodiversity. A steady stream of visitors arrive to wander pathways, inhale the heady scent of lavender and pick up a bottle or two of wine. The Buehners haven't forgotten their heritage, however. One former tobacco kiln houses an essential distiller. In another, lavender dries on old tobacco racks, while the 5,000-square-foot former tobacco barn now houses a winery and a retail store.

Bright Cheese & Butter - Bright

Established in 1874, Bright Cheese & Butter knows a thing or two about aging. So when an importer was looking to replace internationally sourced Asiago products with a local alternative, the Oxford County cheese makers stepped up. To improve quality and shelf life, they tweaked their recipe with different cultures and modified the aging process itself. The results? Better Asiago,faster. The new product is ready for market four months sooner than the previous recipe was. Bright`s Asiago was a top-three finalist at the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix and won the 2014 British Empire Cheese Competition's hard cheese category. In addition to improving the operation's bottom line, their innovation provides a local alternative, conserves energy thanks to faster aging and draws food tourists to the Oxford County Cheese Trail.

Celmar Dairy Ltd. - Norwich, Oxford County

As a dairy farmer, Herman Steen stores a lot of forage for his herd. Shifting from bunker-style silos to tower silos helped automate that storage and cut down on the amount of spoilage. Filling the silos proved slow and cumbersome so Steen installed a custom-built, in-ground concrete pit that allows tandem wagons to discharge their cargo of forage in less than two minutes. From there, the forage is evenly transferred to a blower powered by a 200 horsepower electric motor, eliminating the need for another large tractor. The hydraulically driven two-stage conveyor system lets Steen fill multiple silos from one location and cuts fill time by 50 per cent. And because the silos get sealed sooner, the forage starts fermenting faster, improving the feed quality of the resulting silage for his animals.

Lakeside Game Farm - Lakeside

As Ontario's Asian population grows, so does demand for silkies. And Lakeside Game Farm is happy to supply these black-skinned, dark-fleshed chickens, named for their distinctively poofy plumage. Jim Ebert started out producing 100 chickens a week. Now he's up to 8,000, and he has contracted three more producers to supplement his own production. Customers can't get enough of the birds, which Ebert supplies the traditional way: fresh, rather than frozen, with the head and feet still on. With no sign of market saturation, Ebert has installed a new incubator to boost the hatch rate of his chicks, and he is building a state-of-the-art growing barn. He's also mentoring novice silkie producers under the Chicken Farmers of Ontario's new speciality breed program - growing a sector with plenty of untapped potential.

Streef Produce Limited - Princeton

The traditional way consumers buy green beans is in bulk. But bulk comes with drawbacks like spillage, waste, shrinkage and dehydration, not to mention the challenge of tracing beans back to their farm of origin if a problem occurs. The Streef family figured bagging their beans would solve those problems and create an opportunity to provide nutritional information and recipes on the packaging as well. They commissioned a system that gently separates the beans and fluidly fills the bags, preventing beans from bunching together. And it's highly efficient: while hand-packing can fill 40 cases an hour, the machine can churn out 120 cases per hour. Today, Streef's bagged beans have proved so successful that the company has hired six new full-time employees.

TVF Farms Inc. - Chatham

Cucumbers are a rarer sight in Ontario these days, due to rising labour costs and a shortage of pollinators. But TVF's Jeff Van Roboys has found a way to beat both problems. His secret? Parthenocarpic cucumbers: varieties that don't need honeybees to produce fruit. Although these so-called "parth" varieties are prolific, growers have steered clear of them because the shorter fruit is difficult to sell to pickle producers. Undaunted, Van Roboys began experimenting. He started with handpicking small cukes for gherkins and baby dills and discovered the more workers picked, the longer the remaining cucumbers grew. The final machine picking produced perfect cukes for sliced pickles. By developing a system that enhances efficiency by 30 per cent, Van Roboys has created a brighter future for Ontario cucumbers.

VG Meats - Simcoe

For VG Meats, the best school uniform is a butcher's apron. When they couldn't find the skilled staff  needed for the family's processing and retail operations, they teamed up with an Ontario grocery chain to create their own training program. Within a week, 300 applications poured into "The Chop School." Ultimately, nine students were accepted into the inaugural class for 100 hours of fully paid training. The program includes classroom sessions, plenty of hands-on practice and even time on the Van Groningen beef farm. The school proved so successful that VG Meats is now launching a second class. They have also developed a two-week "Farmer in Training" program to help retail employees understand exactly how the VG Meats' meat they sell is produced.

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