Buying the farm: Part one of a series

by Alicia McCutcheon

EDITOR’s NOTE: This week, The Expositor begins exploring changes in farming practices on Manitoulin in a series called Buying the Farm. Many Island farms are being sold to buyers, largely from southern Ontario who wish to either relocate here or farm them from a distance. The Expositor series will examine a variety of these new agricultural practices.

BILLINGS—The big dark barn with its contrasting green roof, proudly proclaiming it as part of the Bennett Farms, is located on Highway 540 at the beginning of the ‘Billings Stretch.’ It’s known as the Burnford farm and is eye-catching, to be sure, and the work done to fix up the old barn and its property has not gone unnoticed by Island farmers and passersby alike.

The man responsible for this property, and nine or so others in the area, is Charlie Bennett, a successful contractor-turned beef farmer from Hamilton.

Mr. Bennett noted that he had been to Manitoulin 40 years ago, but hadn’t returned until contracts to build water treatment plants in Mindemoya and the Sheguiandah First Nation brought him back. While he was here, he “asked a realtor about a place that was a real dumpsite,” a fixer-upper, in other terms.

“I was just going to flip it, but fell in love with the place,” he said. Mr. Bennett now has 2,200 acres altogether, which includes 900 acres of farmland. “I love the Island and I love the people. It’s almost like a working holiday here.”

About four years ago, Mr. Bennett explained a friend get him into Black Angus cattle—he now has about 100 cows and calves plus 150 acres of hay and 30 acres of grain. “I was raised on a dairy farm near Brantford and when I left I swore I’d never go back to that again,” he laughed. “Look at me now. I chose Black Angus because the market price is a bit higher.”

He guesses it will take him two to three years before he can sell 100 head.

“I like to clean up properties,” he said of his acquisitions, noting it took him a year-and-a-half to clean up the Billings Stretch farm. “I bet the former owners are smiling down and thinking, ‘it’s about time someone did something about that place.’ These beautiful big barns are just going to hell.”

The contractor-farmer, besides cleaning up abandoned farmland on Manitoulin, also manages eight companies under the Bennett name. Newly-turned 65, he said that over the years he has gained some excellent staff that enables him to run most things over the phone, except when there’s an extremely large contract about to be awarded, and then he heads to Hamilton.

“I plan to keep on buying,” Mr. Bennett said. “I’m actually waiting for a couple of farms to go on sale.”

He noted that the price of real estate, in comparison with other parts of Ontario, is “really cheap. I have 85 acres in the Hamilton area worth over $1 million.”

This reporter joined Mr. Bennett at his home nestled into the Jerusalem Hill, off Billings Concession 8. He was getting ready for his 65th birthday party on Labour Day weekend, complete with good eats, cold beverages and great music. We hopped on his Yamaha Rhino and headed up a steep stone course to the top of the hill, the bumps barely noticed thanks to Mr. Bennett’s special toy, until we reached a magnificent vantage point.

“Well here it is,” he said, looking proudly over his many acres, the North Channel stretching out before us in the distance, his cattle little specks on the Tenth Concession. “What do you think? The land is very fertile, except for the rocks. It grows more rocks here than anything else,” laughing his deep, gravelly laugh.

“Glen Corbiere has helped us out a lot—we call him the cow whisperer,” Mr. Bennett added. “I love playing farmer. I’m going to work until I die. No one plans on going anywhere.”

Mr. Bennett’s neighbour and fellow farmer, George Foster, said he has noticed farmland being purchased in the area, “but the people coming here are not full-time farmers. There’s a lot of good farmland being bought up, too, that’s not farmed.”

When asked about Mr. Bennett’s foray into agriculture, Mr. Foster responded, “more power to him. We’ve been watching him for some time.”

“He has the machinery to do it and he knows how to operate it,” he continued. “He also has a hired hand to look after the cattle in the winter. The farm was 300 acres and he’s turned it into a more productive farm with his machinery, and he’s burned brush and excavated the soil to raise hay and crops.”

“He’s showing what can be done,” Mr. Foster continued. “A lot of this land would soon be taken up with bush.”