Farming hub Homestead Organics going out of business

Homestead Organics is closing down after 30 years as a major feed, seed and milling company in Ontario — raising questions about the future of organic agriculture.

Closure could lead farmers to scramble to find new suppliers or shed some organic practices

Tom Manley and his company are well-known in the organic agriculture community for providing education about and encouraging adopting organic farming practices. (Lesley Lang/Homestead Organics)

A major organic seed, feed and milling company headquartered in eastern Ontario is going to close its doors after hitting financial trouble in the midst of a more competitive industry.

Tom Manley, president of Homestead Organics, said the 30-year-old company will be closing its doors in a matter of days because of pressure from its creditors and banks.

"We know we are closing, that's for sure. Our last week will be a question of clearing out remaining inventory," Manley said.

The company started in Berwick, Ont., a town halfway between Ottawa and Cornwall, and, over the course of the last four years, expanded to Morrisburg and then Sebringville, near Stratford. 

"Our mission is to serve and develop organic agriculture and after 30 years my head is high and I believe we have achieved that," he said.

Manley said 18 people will lose their jobs because of the closure.

Good news, bad news

At its peak, Manley said the company had 27 employees. In 2016, he said it made $15 million in sales and was on track to continue expanding.

"The organic sector generally speaking was growing 10 to 15 per cent per year. We were growing at that or double that rate year over year. We were booming."

Homestead Organics was a major supplier and vendor for organic farmers in Ontario and it also milled its own flour products. (Homestead Organics)

He said the success of niche companies like Homestead were attracting the attention of larger competitors, who also began offering organic products, making it hard for the company to compete and expand at the same time.

"The good news is organic food and agriculture is mainstream, the bad news is organic food and agriculture is mainstream," Manley said.

Agricorp, the provincial regulator that ensures farmers get paid, reprimanded Homestead in November of last year because it was late on payments to its suppliers.

"Yes, a lot of farmers are out a lot of money, including private investors in the company. It breaks my heart to have to disappoint them all and I'm very sorry about that," Manley said.

Farmers 'scrambling'

George Wright, a grain farmer in Metcalfe, said the closure of Homestead "hurt" and is the loss of a tremendous resource for organic farmers.

"Farmers are going to have to scramble and work a lot harder to meet the demand," Wright said.

Tom Manley, president of Homestead Organics, took over the company from his father in 1997 and expanded its operations to three cities. (Homestead Organics)

Homestead provided all kinds of farmers with education and a one-stop shop to get the seed, feed, soil amendments and pest control they needed to remain organic.

"In Canada, it's really tough to find seeds — really tough. Homestead waded through all the regulations about this province, that province, inter-provincial trade of seeds — it's a real mess — but they got me a seed list every year."

'Less organic'

Colin Lundy, an organic vegetable and fruit farmer at Strathmere Farms in North Gower, said the loss of Homestead could create "a little bit of chaos" in the region as farmers try to find new suppliers.

"It's possible that some of the local products at the farmers market may be a little less organic than before," said Lundy, who has also worked with Manley through the Canadian Organic Growers.

"There's other places to get organic feed now, but it was good to know that when you bought from Homestead you were buying from someone who was also supporting other local farmers."

Moe Garahan, executive director of the sustainable food advocacy group Just Food, said Manley and his family were pioneers in building the organic agriculture industry in eastern Ontario by buying and selling from regional producers.