BY ROGER BIRD
This article was originally published in the October 2014 print edition of Ottawa Magazine as part of a series of three colourful workspaces in Ottawa.
On the eastern approaches to Ottawa stands a 20-metre-high monument to the city’s agriculture: four giant grey concrete silos facing Highway 417, with a sign on the side that reads Ritchie Feed & Seed Inc. Each of these silos on Windmill Lane can hold about 1,000 tonnes of corn, with comparable amounts for lightweight grains such as barley or wheat. Beside them, a larger white structure looks like a cluster of giant cylinders crammed together. For decades, if you were a dairy cow, horse, chicken, pig, or sheep, this larger cluster was where lunch was made. Cereal crops, along with vitamins, gluten, salt, and antibiotics, were ground, mixed, soaked, and forced through a device called an extruder to form feed pellets for livestock across the city of Ottawa, the province, and northeastern U.S. states.
Lessons of the land
The “city” in the city of Ottawa consists of about 500 square kilometres of streets, houses, pavement, office buildings, shopping malls, and parking lots. Then there’s 200 square kilometres that make up the greenbelt. But inside city limits, almost 950 square kilometres of Ottawa land is in use for agriculture — that’s more than a third of the city. This paradox is audible on Windmill Lane in early spring. Neill Ritchie of Ritchie Feed & Seed is on the phone handling a call about some soon-to-be-shipped baby chickens, turkeys, and Peking ducks. “Do you want them at the same time? We won’t know until they show up whether they’ve been sexed.” He tells the poultry producer that you get a four-pound bird in six to eight weeks. After that, it’s less meat for a dollar’s worth of feed. Ritchie should know: he’s walking agricultural heritage, a member of the family that founded the company in the 1920s, co-manager with his brother Doug, and the company’s all-round expert on growing things, both plant and animal.
Feed production — and the necessary silos — started on Boteler Street, south of Sussex Drive, in the 1920s. That operation shut down when the National Capital Commission needed the land for what became the Pearson Building, home to the then Department of External Affairs. Ritchie’s moved to Windmill Lane and built new silos in 1963. A couple of years ago, the company moved again and set up a mill in rented silos on Experimental Farm land near Hunt Club and Woodroffe. It used parts from the Windmill Lane site and continued grinding grains and squeezing out feed pellets for livestock in Ottawa and beyond, driven by a need for efficiencies and bigger volume. Inside the old silos, on a tour with Craig Harrison — the company’s fleet supervisor — it looks as if the crew has just left after a day’s work. Spilled grain on the floor, cobwebs in out-of-reach places, light filtering down from windows high above, and the rich smells of last year’s harvest.
Past and future
Aside from community gardens, the Experimental Farm, and small weekend markets across the city, there’s little evidence of Ottawa’s almost 1,000 square kilometres of farmland in the areas where people live and shop. Among the few reminders, the “Vinette silo” on the east side of Centrum Boulevard in Orleans made it onto the city’s heritage register three years ago. But there’s no talk of seeking that official status on Windmill Lane. Harrison, the man who knows the Ritchie silos best, seems a touch wistful when he says they are lying fallow. “But they’re great for signage,” he adds.