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Innovation Award: Haasen Farms Ltd.

“I see this as a demonstration to the rest of the business world in Northern Ontario how innovative agriculture is,” Frank said.

Though it’s been part of the dairy farm for about five years now, the state-of-the-art technology employed at Haasen Farms in Timmins still gets a raised eyebrow now and then when people learn robots are milking the cows.

But for partners Frank, Ivy and Eddy Haasen, innovation is integral to the sustainability of their operation. “Everybody in business will tell you if you’re standing still, you’re really going backwards,” said Frank. “That’s a cliché, but it’s true, especially when you’re in an operation that’s bringing on another generation.”

The farm was first purchased by Frank’s parents, John and Dina Haasen, in 1958, after the couple emigrated from Holland. Frank joined the business as a partner in 1975, and his wife, Ivy, joined soon after. In 2005, their son Eddy came on board, later purchasing his grandfather’s shares to become a partner.

The family has always been on the lookout for new approaches and technologies, experimenting early on with a free stall barn for milk cows and a liquid manure system. Later, they invested in tile drainage, improved milking technology and feed harvesting, as well as more advanced handling methods.

A new barn, built in 1996, featured rubber-filled cow mats for enhanced hygiene and comfort, as well as natural ventilation.

But the most recent innovation, for which the farm has become most known, was born of loss.

In 2011, a fire erupted on the farm, consuming the operation’s calf barn, heifer and dry cow barn, milk parlour and milk house. The Haasens faced a tough decision: do they walk away from dairy farming and pursue something new, or do they buckle down and start again?

The conversation, said Frank, lasted mere minutes, and suddenly, “the fire changed a 10-year plan into a one-year plan.”

At the heart of the plan was the installation of robotic cow-milking technology, the purchase of which was covered with insurance money and private investment from the Haasens. They weren’t the first dairy farm in Northern Ontario to use it, but still consider themselves early adopters of the technology.

The system allows a cow to approach the milking equipment voluntarily, when they feel the need to be milked rather than at prescribed times, making for calmer, less stressed animals and a richer, higher-quality milk product.

A scanner detects the cow’s movement, cleaning her teats before quickly and comfortably attaching the milking equipment to them. Scanners can distinguish between individual cows, and the system gathers and stores detailed activity and production data on each animal. After the milking, the cow is released.

“I’d like to think we’ve always looked for innovative ways to do things, but the milking robots are kind of the highest level of innovation,” Frank said.

There are benefits for the humans, too. It formerly took the Haasens two and a half hours, twice a day, every day, to milk the cows. But with the robotic system in place, it frees up their time for other tasks.

It’s not uncommon for those outside the agriculture industry to be unaware of how innovative farmers and food producers can be, but the industry has moved well beyond the days of pitchforks and hand ploughs. The future of farming has arrived, and it’s as sophisticated and leading-edge as any other industry.

“I see this as a demonstration to the rest of the business world in Northern Ontario how innovative agriculture is,” Frank said. “I think, as an industry, we’re much more innovative than as an individual part of that industry.”