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Farm travel

It’s a world full of farms, and more and more Canadian farmers are signing up for travel opportunities to experience them

Words like “holiday” and “vacation” just weren’t in her parents’ vocabulary when Lu Inkster grew up on her family’s Ontario cattle farm in the 1950s.

Her parents had immigrated to Canada from Belgium after the Second World War, and to them the concept of taking time off was both foreign and unattainable.

“People like my mom — who came from a large family — they were peasants, they really were, they didn’t expect to have a holiday,” says Inkster. “For her, a holiday was when you didn’t have to go to work on Saturday and Sunday, and instead you got to clean your house and get groceries. That was her idea of a holiday.”

If they were lucky, the family used the three-day-turnaround between selling their finished cattle and receiving more by train to visit relatives living a few hours away in Detroit, Michigan. Even then, one parent usually stayed behind to watch over the farm, says Inkster.

Nor was Inkster alone.

Growing up on a dairy farm near St. Claude, Man., Alain Philippot didn’t hear the word “vacation” around the house much either, so he knew his decision to take over the family dairy operation would mean sacrificing travel until the farm transition was finished — a process that would take years.

“I cried, really, when I decided I was going to take the farm,” says the third-generation dairy farmer, who returned to the family farm in the early 1980s. “I knew everything I was going to give up for the next 10-plus years, because my parents weren’t going to change while I was going to farm with them… and the generation before us, they did not take time off, they didn’t take weekends off.”

Today, attitudes have changed and most producers see value in taking time off from work, but leaving agriculture behind still proves difficult for some. Even when producers leave their own operation, farming can remain top of mind.

Lawrence Rowley knows this better than most. The owner of Calgary-based Leader Tours specializes in providing farmers with winter vacations — to other farms.

For several years now, Rowley says, the market for overseas farm tours has been steadily growing, with producers seeking to combine warmer weather and new cultural experiences with an invigorating dose of farming and agronomy.

“Demand seems to be getting a bit stronger every year,” says Rowley, who grew up on a farm in New Zealand. “I think people enjoy the fact that they can go and visit a farm, someone else’s farm, and see how things are done.”

His group tours also include cultural experiences, historic sites and local food, but he says the farmers he caters to have a specific mindset when they hit the road.

“They don’t want to go and sit on a beach in Mexico,” Rowley says. “They are looking for something that is a little different, and people love travelling with people with a similar background and a similar mindset. The group actually gels very well, because they are very much in the same industry and so a lot of people come back as very good friends.”

“Though we have busy schedules,” Lu Inkster says, “it’s important to make time for work-life balance… this contributes to increased happiness and greater emotions of productivity and positivity.” photo: Thinkstock

Tours to Australia, New Zealand and Argentina have been consistently popular, but Spain and Portugal have drawn a lot of interest in recent years, so much so that Leader Tours has partnered with forage associations in Alberta and Manitoba to provide tailored group tours examining forage production in those countries.

What’s the farm reaction?

Already, the Spain and Portugal forage excursion has proved so popular that three tours have been filled this winter alone. Originally, only one had been planned.

“I think what you’re seeing is probably a reflection of our smaller world,” says Duncan Morrison, executive director of the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association, which has partnered with Leader Tours. “People are connected by technology, I mean we can access what the markets are in Europe online… and certainly with social media people can keep up to speed with what’s going on in Ireland, England, Spain, Portugal, Australia, but I still believe that farmers like to hear from farmers directly, and I think they like to get their boots on the ground to see it for themselves.”

Select Holidays was one of the first tour companies to see the potential demand for farm-centred tours. Founded in Innisfail, Alta., by farmers Lawrence and Loretta Layden in 1981, it’s now operated by David and Brenda Layden and offers tours to destinations like Romania, China, Japan, India, Peru, Costa Rica, Hungary, Sweden, Denmark and France.

“The big thing that we do on our tours is we go to actual farms. You stand in the farmer’s field, the farmer is there, you ask all the questions you want. It’s fascinating,” says Brenda Layden. “We get our best feedback from our trip to India… people go with an open mind, but are absolutely just blown away with all the agriculture that there is in India and how much they really, truly do enjoy that tour.”

Relaxing, per se, isn’t on her clients’ agendas either. They certainly don’t want the stress of booking accommodations and transportation, she says, but they don’t want to lounge around either. They want new experiences and fresh perspectives on farming — and questions about fertilizer application, market prices, insect predation and soil type are all commonplace during farm visits.

“It’s the neatest thing after we’ve visited a farm and people get back on the bus,” she says. “There is just a buzz of conversation… it’s so interesting to see.”

While still considered a niche in the travel market, there are enough agricultural tour providers to support an international industry association — Agricultural Tour Operators International. And interest is only expected to grow in coming years.

“You need to see other things,” says Tim Oleksyn, who operates a cow-calf ranch between Shellbrook and Prince Albert, Sask. “When you come back you have that vigour and you can say, ‘yes, let’s get back at it’. Every time we have a rest, we come back and it just improve things vastly.”

While not one for organized tours, Oleksyn says he too finds himself visiting farms and talking to farmers when he travels. In Quebec, this could mean stopping to watch a silage operation. In the Caribbean it might be a macadamia nut or banana plantation, or even a poinsettia nursery.

But there’s yet another benefit to getting off the farm, he says, and it’s one that he feels shouldn’t be overlooked.

“People want to hear our story too, and that’s amazing,” says the rancher. “It gives you an opportunity to tell that story and you don’t have to embellish it, you get to be honest and share your passion and how you do what you do.”

While the perception may remain, farming is no longer a provincial or isolated undertaking. It’s a worldwide pursuit, Oleksyn says, and producers should expand their world view whenever they have the opportunity.

“Never stop learning, never. It’s so important,” he says.

But even as the value that producers put on vacation time and travel has increased, finding a way to make it all work with livestock, crops, family and even off-farm commitments remains a challenge, especially for younger producers.

Philippot says he books vacations a year in advance and only after confirming extra help is available.

“We kept our farm fairly small and it kept things simple so that I can leave, so it’s not a really big operation,” says Philippot, noting they only have one employee, but bring in a second person if they are going to be away. “And when we take a winter vacation, we don’t go during the coldest months, we go towards the end of winter, the last week of February or the first weeks of March, so that we’re not leaving employees in the worst time.”

Every summer, the Philippot family spends one week in Clear Lake, Man., while Alain and his wife Michelle try to go somewhere warm for a couple of weeks every other winter. But he emphasizes that it takes a lot of planning and determination to make it all work.

“If you make it a priority and you make a concerted effort, it can become that way, but you really have to decide to make it a priority and decide to make it work. You also have to find someone you trust to replace you,” Philippot says.

Even then, it’s hard to let go.

“It’s always there in the back of your mind all the time,” he says. “The thoughts never leave you. I can never just shut it off… you can be anywhere in the world and when it is time for milking, you’re still on higher alert and you’ve got your phone right close to you, just in case.”

Strong networks of friends, neighbours, family and employees, along with regular communication, are key to making time away from the farm possible, Oleksyn says. So is accepting that things might be done differently while you’re away.

“You have to allow that not everything is going to get done exactly like you would want it to get done,” he says. “But then again, it might get done better than you would have done it.”

And if you do plan to visit other farms while you’re travelling, Rowley also suggests checking in with your accountant before hitting the road.

“It can be a tax writeoff, or part of it can be, if you’re doing something for your operation. So if you can count it as a business trip, it’s worthing checking on,” he says.

The age factor

Although the market is changing, older farmers, retired farmers and soon-to-be retired farmers still travel the most, and are most likely to tour other farms while travelling.

“The majority of our clients are retired farmers,” agrees Brenda Layden of Select Travel.

Lawrence Rowley of Leader Tours finds that many of his clients fit the same profile. “They’re probably sort of semi-retired; kids are sort of taking over the operation of the farm. They have some time and a bit of money to travel. So it’s really more 50-plus that we’re getting,” says the tour operator. “But then if we do a trip to Germany for Agritechnica… we do get a mix of ages on that one, because it’s something that even the younger farmers or anyone who’s in agribusiness would like to attend. So it really depends on the destination, but in general I would say 50-plus.”

In Rowley’s experience, younger farmers tend to aim for a quick, warm getaway, where they’ll think less about their farm business and more about their family.

Duncan Morrison of Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association notes that unlike many professions, farming is a lifelong pursuit. And while reminiscing in the local coffee shop used to mark the end of a busy harvest or even a career, older farmers now want more out of retirement and a way to stay involved in agriculture, mentorship and exploration. Often that means combining their interests and touring farms abroad.

More farmers are travelling

Farmers are more interested in travel than ever before, according to the travel industry. Whether it’s independent travel, adventure excursions, a family cottage, a resort visit, traditional bus tour or a cruise, more farmers are seeing a benefit from getting off the farm now and again.

Greater financial stability and changing attitudes towards farming could be part of the generational shift that’s seeing more producers take vacations. While farming know-how was once gleaned by working on the family operation, post-secondary education is now a given for most young producers.

“The people who really farm, farm for a living, those people have now gone to university or college,” Lu Inkster says. They’ve lived a different life and have different expectations, she says, “so I think the farmers now see more of a value in that, in seeing the world and having time off.”

Even if a producer never sets foot on another farm while travelling, investing in vacation time and travel can have real benefits for their farm business in the long run.

“Taking a vacation is one of the best forms of relaxation,” says Beverly Beuermann-King, a work-life balance expert. “Though we have busy schedules, it’s important to make time for work-life balance… this contributes to increased happiness and greater emotions of productivity and positivity at work.”

According to the 2017 Expedia Vacation Deprivation Report,
94 per cent of respondents felt less stressed and 95 per cent felt happier after returning from a vacation. A further 89 per cent said they were more focused on their work post-vacation.

According to the Expedia report, 62 per cent of those employed in agriculture feel they are “vacation deprived,” second only to those employed in the food and beverage industry. Comparatively, only 47 per cent of people employed in financial or legal work felt deprived of vacation time.

The study also found that age was a significant factor, with younger respondents taking less vacation time than older respondents, even if the time was technically available to them.

About the author

Field editor

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist for Country Guide.

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