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Far-away farming

Do your research, get good help, and maybe farming overseas will work as well for you as it does for these two Canadian families

When Canadian farmers set up farms in distant places around the world, one of the consequences is exactly what you’d think. They learn about those countries. In fact, there’s nothing like farming overseas to learn about a region inside and out.

The surprise, though, is how much they also learn about farming back in Canada.

And, oh yes, there’s another surprise too. It’s how farming overseas can help them achieve some of their most cherished objectives, like adding zest to their lives or helping them find a way to semi-retire, not to mention making some pretty sound investments.

So, for Ken Wallis, a farmer from D’Arcy, Sask., his foreign property started as an investment, but also as a semi-retirement project and an escape from Canadian winters.

Wallis now spends our coldest months in Belize, the Central American country on the Gulf of Mexico.

Ken and Denise Wallis farm in Saskatchewan, but have also planted orange and guava orchards at their farm in Belize. photo: Supplied

But escaping the cold wasn’t his only objective. Or, to put it more accurately, escaping the cold had to fit in with his overall plan, because while Wallis could envision warmer winters, he recognized he didn’t want to spend them on a beach or golf course.

That’s how, instead of buying a time-share, Wallis and his wife Denise, a retired registered nurse, came to purchase 25 acres four years ago a few miles outside Belmopan, the capital of Belize, and it’s why they are in the process of developing orange and guava groves there.

“Our 25 acres was cleared out of the jungle. We have native jungle on three sides,” Wallis said during an interview while back in Canada for Christmas.

Home on the prairies, the Wallis’s grain farm is about as different from a small orchard farm in Central America as you can get. The Wallises, their daughter Carla and her husband Nate Burlando seed about 4,200 acres each year in Saskatchewan, growing wheat, lentils and canola. They tried soybeans last year, which Wallis called their “most poorly performing crop.”

The Wallis family and their helpers take a break for a meal during a Canadian harvest. photo: Supplied

Having Carla and Nate on hand makes travelling to another country for part of the year much easier, says Wallis.

Conversely, he has an employee in Belize who looks after the property and crop there while he is away, and Wallis concludes that the arrangement wouldn’t be possible without reliable help in both places.

Wallis was 61 when he and Denise decided to purchase the Belize property. They had done some work in Haiti and had travelled in the area before. They chose Belize because it is an old British colony so the English language is regularly used there. It’s also stable, and a place where it’s possible to get reliable land title.

“You can be confident when you buy land you actually own it,” Wallis says.

His oranges and guava trees will take five years to achieve full production, so they only produced about half a full crop in 2017. Wallis says he isn’t sure yet if the groves will produce enough for a commercial crop, but he says the local method of distribution is through farmers markets.

“You can become a partner with someone who has a street booth and you supply the product to them and they sell it in their marketing stalls,” he says.

The crops and the scale of farming might be completely different in Canada versus Belize, but Wallis says the skills are similar.

Whether it’s guava or canola, Wallis says, farming is built on a respect for the soil. photo: Supplied

“It’s the same,” Wallis says. “My job as I’m getting older is accessing tools and supplies so guys working for me have access to what they need.”

There are several traits that Wallis sees as integral to making farming in a different part of the world work.

“Humility is foremost, with a willingness to learn,” he says. “You cannot think you are an expert at farming in completely different circumstances. You are there to learn.”

He also says being adventurous is a positive trait, as is a demonstrated willingness to give something new a try. And a strong will is certain to help as well, “so you don’t chicken out or give up before it gets going.”

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But there are other skills too, and among them, Wallis gives high value to the ability to read people, which can be especially important in a poorer country. Then, you can evaluate true friends as opposed to those who just want to watch you fail.

“Maintain integrity, and stay honest,” Wallis says.

Labour, however, is fairly easy to find, but some of the technologies and services he’s used to in Canada are admittedly more difficult to source. For example, there’s no access to a soils analysis lab, so he’s experimenting and learning about the soils in Belize.

He’s also learning about insect issues in fruit production, especially managing the midges that carry citrus greening disease that requires starting with plants from greenhouse growers that are certified free of the disease, followed by regular spraying.

And what lessons has he brought back from Belize?

“It’s the physicality of working. Everyone here (Canada) wants to work from a tractor or a truck seat. You learn from those countries that you can get a lot done with physical labour. If you need a hole dug, you get a bunch of guys around and you go at it.”

Ann Sperling could be the poster child for farming over multiple regions of the world. She lives in the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, where she works for Southbrook Winery, and she co-owns with her sister Susan and their husbands Sperling Vineyards on long-time family property in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. There, she’s responsible for the running of the vineyard and winemaking.

But if running from B.C. to Ontario isn’t enough travel, she and her husband Peter Gamble own a vineyard in Argentina.

All of their operations are certified organic, plus the Southbrook winery is certified Demeter.

“Respecting the land gives you the expression of place. Respecting the land and people and heritage has worked for us in all of the regions,” she says.

Sperling’s years in the winery business mean that she understands marketing and the value of creating an exceptional story.

She’s done that with her family winery in Kelowna, as well as the winery in Argentina.

Her family were among earliest European farmers in the Kelowna area, arriving in the 1860s, helping missionaries, ranching and planting vegetables, orchards and grapes on the hillsides.

By the 1920s her family was planting grapes and by 1931, her grandfather was operating a commercial vineyard.

The family operation evolved over decades and by the time her parents retired in their 80s, they were running a 45-acre commercial vineyard. It was at that point, in 2008, that Ann, Susan and their husbands took over the vineyard, quickly transitioning it into the Sperling Vineyards winery. They also brought Susan’s daughter, Jill, and her husband Rickard Branby into the business.

Left to right: Rickard Branby, Jill Branby, Velma Sperling and Ann Sperling are some of the team that runs Sperling Vineyards. photo: Supplied

Sperling Vineyards has an on-site retail store and on-line presence, something that they expect will grow in Canada in the near future. British Columbia has several options for selling VQA wines, including grocery stores, VQA-only stores, and over 600 retail outlets in addition to B.C. Liquor Stores.

Even though Sperling has spent most of her time as a winemaker, she has been involved in winery startups so she has experience with running most aspects from grape production to accounting.

That knowledge has helped start up the family winery and develop the operation in Argentina.

Technology and good help have also contributed.

“When I started making wine, nothing was done on computers,” says Sperling. “Now with the internet, it’s easy to be connected.”

Samples can also be easily sent across the country and around the world. Samples for her checking are sent from Argentina, which means less travel for people.

She says she relies on good people working in each location.

Sperling’s long history in the wine business has also given her an understanding of the intricate rules of selling wine across the country. That’s helped her in marketing the Versado wines from Argentina in Canada as well.

There’s a story in the Argentina winery as well. Ann and her husband looked at more than 200 vineyard sites before settling on their Argentinian property with Malbec vines planted in the 1920s. It took a lot of research and gathering an understanding of the long history of Argentinian winemaking.

“International players were scooping up the properties with the greatest potential for expansion. It was the really old vineyards, which are high quality, that we wanted to dabble in.”

From a management perspective, the Argentinian vineyard spreads their work over 12 months, with opposite growing season to Canada.

“I guess Peter and I got interested in Argentina not only because it is a beautiful place and has a long history of wine, but the vineyards were of extremely high quality.

“It had the pedigree, but it needed TLC to bring it back to its former glory,” says Sperling.

The best vineyards, built with quality, were created in the 1920s, and they continue to work the small, old vineyard in traditional ways, with traditional methods, including using horses.

They work with a nearby winery to turn their grapes into wine, spending time there each year.

“We go there for four to five weeks in April and do the winemaking ourselves,” she says.

They market the Versado brand wine in Canada.

The tiny property can’t compete on economies of scale, so Sperling says they aim to create high-end products.

Having good help is the key to running operations across continents, and Sperling is able to manage that with local help in Argentina, including a viticulturalist and bookkeepers, and family overseeing things in Canada.

In the early years Gamble and Sperling were in Argentina more often for more oversight, but now they have good people in place they communicate with regularly.

“I think we demonstrated some dedication in the early part of the process too,” she says.

Business management lessons include the importance of tracking everything, having good records and traceability.

“Every step of the way it’s good to document what you’re doing,” she says.

Sperling says she would recreate her Argentina experience again.

“It’s a rejuvenating experience,” she says. “It’s valuable that way. And the wine we make is great, so it’s a source of pride as well.”

"Humility is foremost,” Wallis says. “You cannot think you are an expert at farming in completely different circumstances.” photo: Supplied

About the author

Field editor

John Greig

John Greig is a field editor for Glacier FarmMedia.

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