Ron Toonders, Switchgrass for Grassroots Resilience

Farmers like Ron Toonders are building resilient practices that benefit nature and the agricultural landscape in Ontario  

Carl Atkinson on his farm with a wetland in the background.
This photo depicts the root system of switchgrass, Panicum virgatum. (Grown at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas)

In the hot summer months, Ron Toonders wades through towering blades of switchgrass. Growing to the height of about 6 feet, Ron is entering his own hidden world. Switchgrass is a native perennial grass with complex root systems that form dense habitats for many creatures, both above ground and within the soil. Grassland ecosystems would have once been found all over the landscape near Williamsburg, Ontario, where Ron’s farm is located.   

The Toonders family immigrated to Canada from Holland in the mid-20th century. Ron’s father worked on the St. Lawrence Seaway, the large system of canals, locks and channels that transformed commerce and transportation from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. Ron’s father purchased his first agricultural parcel in Williamsburg in 1952, and in 1983, Ron began working with his father, purchasing the farm in 1992. Ron now manages 1200 acres of land for dairy and cash crop production and participates in ALUS Ontario East.

Carl Atkinson on his farm with a wetland in the background.
Ron drummed up a ton of interest in switchgrass among his community members during the AgriAction tour with ALUS Ontario East. 
Oftentimes, farmers recognize the need for innovation as they struggle to produce consistent yields and returns year after year. But trying something different can be daunting, especially when farmers are already navigating volatile markets, erratic and extreme weather, soil degradation and water insecurity. ALUS compensates farmers annually for producing ecosystem services and eases the burden of exploring options to build new, sustainable practices.  
Carl Atkinson on his farm with a wetland in the background.
Native grasslands are sometimes colloquially referred to as upside down forests, due to their massive, complex, interwoven root systems!
The rocky soil on Ron’s farm is good for pasture, but not always great for cash crops. Before partnering with ALUS, he grappled each year with waterlogged acres. Paired with an ongoing loss of local forests, Ron was also experiencing difficulties with encroaching wildlife, and together, these factors created a notable loss of yields. With ALUS, Ron implemented switchgrass in these non-productive areas, a non-traditional option that diversifies the natural function of the farm, creating a buffer for wildlife and helping improve the quality of his soil for the future. 

“The fact that ALUS exists is a bonus to the way I farm. The fact that there’s an organization willing to say to me: ‘We appreciate this.’ I think is most important,” says Ron. 

The switchgrass complements Ron’s operations by improving the soil, creating a habitat for wildlife and allowing Ron to vary the function of his land throughout the year.  

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This scorpion fly (Mecoptera) is benefitting from the ecosystem created by Ron’s switchgrass project. Adults of this species are predators or consumers of dead organismsPhoto by Emma Gignac 
Ron manages switchgrass almost like another crop. The switchgrass seeds are harvested in the fall, then the switchgrass is cut, and left outside throughout the winter, then baled in the spring when it’s dry. Ron recognizes that by diversifying what he does with his land, he can create a more manageable schedule throughout the year, one that supports natural functions on the land, and cuts out some of the challenges of cash crop volatility.

Because of the establishment cost of other crops, you only have one shot at it, whereas switchgrass stays multiple yearsThen on the other side, the straw side, we need straw for livestock. We bed with it and we feed some in the ration every day and it’s a steady supply of high-quality straw for our operation,” says Ron.  

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Ron (grey hat), describes how he manages his switchgrass project during the Agri-Action tour. 
For Ron, ALUS has given him the freedom to pursue innovative projects for himself and his community without having to jump through hoops or push through red tape. 

“One of the things I like about ALUS is that it’s non-governmental, in the sense that that they appreciate what agriculture does, says Ron. “I’d say most of the government grants are too complicated and too much work for the amount of money that is paid.”

With ALUS, Ron has been able to transform the poorly drained acres of his land into something more beneficial to his operation. Ron maintains the more productive acres of his farm for soy and corn but is also producing a full suite of ecosystem services in the previously unproductive areas. 

For more information, contact your local ALUS Coordinator! 


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