They’re bucking the trend

Trend Setters: Robyn McCallum and Ryan Taylor are making their own future

In their mid-20s, Ryan Taylor and his partner, Robyn McCallum, are about half the age of the average farmer in Canada. Not only that, they also started from scratch a few years ago, near Miramichi, N.B. The 2011 census found that in the Atlantic provinces, only 7.1 per cent of farmers were under 40 years old.

distributions of farms by age

(click image for larger view)

They started out small and slow — with some help from family — with a quarter acre of sweet corn sold at a farm market run by Robyn’s parents. After three years, they’re growing 550 acres of soybeans, oats, wheat and corn, mostly on rented land, and they recently bought their own 50 acres with a house. They also do about 200 acres of custom work.

Taylor is a certified heavy-duty mechanic. These skills have allowed them to reduce their costs by doing their own repairs, and the extra work has increased cash flow at important times of the year. They’ve also been able to buy used equipment that he can fix up, and borrow equipment from neighbours in exchange for mechanical work.

McCallum is working on her PhD in biology, researching ways to boost native pollinator and beneficial insect populations in crops at Dalhousie University’s agricultural campus in Truro, N.S. She’s also president of the students’ association and last year her paper won Farm Management Council’s award of excellence on how the agricultural industry can best support young farmers looking to succeed in the global marketplace.

Mentors have played a critical role in their startup. They pointed out land for rent, they provided access to equipment, they opened up new marketing opportunities, and above all else they provided guidance and know-how.

Neighbour John Schenkels trusted them enough to be their first high moisture corn contract, and has been a good friend and a trusted adviser ever since. Although this enterprise is entirely their own, some of the couple’s farming relatives, such as uncles Dale and Ian Archibald who are dairy farmers in Nova Scotia, have encouraged and guided them.

However, not everyone has been supportive of the farming dream. “I still remember a high school science teacher pulling me aside to seriously question why I wanted to study agriculture, but comments like that have made me stubborn and determined,” says McCallum.

Also, when they first asked for a farm loan, the bank loan manager looked at them as if they had three heads, says McCallum. “They could not fathom why two young, educated people would want to start their own business, let alone an agricultural business.”

"We know we aren't going to be like other young couples but we are OK with that." – Robyn McCallum.

“We know we aren’t going to be like other young couples but we are OK with that.” – Robyn McCallum.
photo: Victoria Coy Photography

Starting from nothing really forced them to have top business skills. It was imperative for them to learn how to write a business plan and a budget, and to do cash flows. The process helped them set goals based on a clear vision. Taking these steps, backed up with paperwork, allowed them to access operating lines and it made it easier to apply for grants.

Going forward, they’re working with farm adviser, Len Davies, to really understand their business and build strategy to reach their goals.

The biggest challenge in getting started in farming is access to enough capital and land to operate at a size capable of earning a sufficient profit. A few years ago it was estimated that the average farm asset base for farms producing with $25,000 to $30,000 in gross value was over $800,000.

The couple’s vision is to have a financially viable, commercial farm, so expansion and opportunities are at the forefront of their minds and plans. Right now the farm is a sole proprietorship under Ryan’s name and eventually they plan to incorporate. “We’ve doubled our acres every year since we started three years ago,” says McCallum. “We want our farm to grow to support us both full time and be a good place to raise a family.”

Last year they did custom work on 200 acres that helped make the tractor payments. They also have some land suitable for growing wild blueberries.

Their energy and enthusiasm come from working as a team on a common goal, with each bringing skills, teach- ing each other and learning continually. This is a classic case of “one plus one equals three,” and a partnership based on mutual respect, hope and love. “Ryan is so supportive to work with, especially with mechanics and equipment.

He empowers me to learn and is very patient,” says McCallum.

But it takes flexibility too, she says. “Young farmers must be at the ready to change crops and business practices to meet markets and customer demands. This is at the heart of any profitable business.”

Last year McCallum attended the Canadian Young Farmer Forum in Ottawa and learned about risk management, financial reporting and business plans. It was the first time she heard other young people talking about how much they wanted to build something. She also heard about how to deal with the relationships and emotions around the farm.

Their greatest challenge in farming so far is stress. It’s a big responsibility at 20 years old, with big numbers. Taylor remembers it was a bit unnerving the first time he saw a cheque with four zeroes. “It changes your way of thinking when it’s your own money out of your pocket going into the ground,” he says. “You have to really want it.”

Many people told them they couldn’t grow corn so far north, but in the last couple of years they’ve successfully grown 2300 heat unit varieties. They’ve improved their field management skills to ensure the corn is healthy and that it develops fast enough to mature before frost. However, weather risk is always there and, with experience, they’ve had to learn how to deal with that worry. “I can still remember going outside in early fall and getting that gut sinking feeling think- ing we had early frost on our corn… But it was just dew,” laughs Taylor.

They’ve also felt great reward and satisfaction. Originally they grew the sweet corn because they wanted to buy a hitch wagon for Taylor’s Belgian draft horses, a passion he acquired from his grandfather. Although in the first few years their earnings went directly back into starting their farm, four years later they were finally able to buy a show cart and show hitch wagon.

Farming can be all consuming, and they even tried banning the word “corn” on certain days to make sure they take a break. To relax, they also show draft horses.

“We know we aren’t going to be like other young couples but we are OK with that,” McCallum says. “Farming brings us joy and allows us to pursue our pas- sion for agriculture, together.”

For a list of provincial measures specifically targeting young and beginning farmers and farm transfers go to FarmStart.

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