TIMMINS -- As the struggle to rebuild northern Ontario's agriculture industry continues, rural researcher Sara Epp is studying what exactly makes southern Ontario farmers reluctant to operate in the north.

The University of Guelph researcher shared her findings at a virtual northern agriculture conference this week.

She collected data from farmers in the Hearst area about the challenges of operating in the region — and from southern producers about what deters them from operating here.

"It is a very different climate, the soil is different, the growing season is shorter," EPP said of some farmers' concerns. "That sense that what I'm doing in southern Ontario is going to be easily transferred to the north ... may not be accurate."

But Epp suggests that this shouldn't be a deterrent from starting a farm in the north, but an invitation to find what can grow in the region and what is sustainable.

She feels that education is what's missing in encouraging both southern farmers to set up an operation here — and locals to enter the industry.

"There is a future for agriculture and it is a viable career for anyone that's interested," Epp said. "It's really understanding what is suitable to the geography you're in and ... part of that education is teaching folks what grows really well, depending on where you are."

Haasen Farms in Timmins is the only dairy farm in the city and its owner, Eddy Haasen, said it's certainly not easy to run.

Distribution is a challenge, he said, as is dealing with the weather, but he's noticed more farms of all kinds popping up in the region after seeing numbers dwindling over the years.

While it might be intimidating to those in the south, he said a certain mentality kept his family business running for over 60 years — one that he said people determined to succeed can adapt to.

"You have to be prepared to think outside the box and do things a little differently than what you might be used to," Haasen said. "Deal with the climate we have up here, ground conditions and all the challenges we face, but know that it ... can be done successfully."

Seasoned local farmers like Haasen would make valuable mentors that both existing southern producers and local novices would need to get their start in the region, Epp noted.

As well, she said municipalities need to make sure people have access to agriculture professionals that understand northern land and can work with prospective farmers that aren't accustomed to the geography.

"Having somebody on staff who understands that or knowing who you can reach out to to make sure you have that proper (staffing) capacity is critical," Epp said.

The region has the potential to be have booming agriculture sector once again, she said, but what it takes is the first few farmers to make the investment, which will eventually encourage more to set up some and create a more hospitable infrastructure.

Epp is planning to host educational workshops and webinars for aspiring and existing farmers, to talk about what tools and resources they can use to get established and how build sustainable careers in northern Ontario.