Today’s farmers are change makers. Re-inventing our farms has become normal.
So Country Guide asked top ag journalists from across the country to interview farmers who excel at change, taking their farms in very different directions with an eye to finding their best opportunities.
Their stories start with our January 2017 issue and will continue through the winter. As you’ll see, our Change Makers are inspiring and insightful, and they are also gritty and determined. They’re young and old, from small and large operations, managing crops and livestock.
These farmers push the boundaries, find solutions, and change negatives into positives, and they fill us with optimism for the future of agriculture.
Elgin Craig’s farming career began with change. His parents, William and Dorothy Craig, had started Craigcrest Holsteins in 1950 near Brampton, within sight of Toronto. Then, 26 years later, when Elgin and his brother David joined the business, the family picked up and moved an hour west near the town of Arthur.
The move made the Craigs one of the first families to leave the Brampton area, with his parents seeing the move as an opportunity to slow down and escape the city on their own terms.
Now, Elgin and wife Joan have been wrestling with similar questions about their own career paths. But, in keeping with growing numbers of farmers across the country, their decisions are proving radically different.
For Elgin and Joan, this isn’t a time for stepping aside as much as it’s a time to find new farming ventures into which they can invest their passion and all the knowledge they have accumulated through their decades of experience.
But for a moment, let’s get back to that original move to Arthur, because it was also a chance to upgrade. “The buildings were terrible, the fencerows were wide and thick, and land in Arthur was cheap,” Elgin recalls. “Our parents helped us start, but they didn’t give it to us. David and I started out with an income-sharing agreement, then after four years we developed a partnership, and within 10 years we started a company.”
At the new location the farm thrived, emerging as a leader in production, earning Gold Seal Awards from the Dairy Farmers of Ontario for an entire decade, along with major wins at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and World Dairy Expo.
Their cattle received multiple All-Canadian and All-American nominations, and the “Craigcrest” prefix earned international recognition through Craigcrest Rubies Gold Rejoice, a heifer that won both Junior Champion at the World Dairy Expo and Reserve Junior Champion at the Royal in 2010, later placing first again as a Senior two-year-old at both the World Dairy Expo and the Royal.
Perhaps most telling are the farm’s three Master Breeder Shields. The first was shared by William and both sons in 1987, then by David and Elgin in 1997, and finally by Elgin and Joan in 2013.
For a farm to earn three Master Breeder Shields is rare in Canada, but it’s even more unusual for this award to be presented to different owners each time.
It suggests this family knows how to excel through changes that it undertakes deliberately and strategically.
Elgin says he and his brother always talked about the changes they could see having an impact on their business, and since David was five years older, it wasn’t a surprise when he felt ready to retire from farming first.
“We always thought about it, we knew where we were going,” Elgin says. “We actually booked one year before we had the sale. The market was good and it’s all about timing; in 2001, we had the second-highest herd dispersal in Canada.”
Herd dispersals for the purpose of dissolving a business partnership aren’t always so amicable, but to the Craigs, the decision to sell the business made good sense to everyone.
The only thing the brothers didn’t sell was the land, and Elgin and Joan continued to farm. “When BSE came along, I’d had a nice business selling animals to the U.S.,” Elgin says. “We got caught with 120 heifers.”
Having survived 24 per cent interest rates in the ’80s with his brother, Elgin had learned long before the BSE crisis that breeding good cattle in a well-managed business pays a lot of mortgage. “I’d gone to college, taken economics and all that, but those realities certainly molded my mind around the economics of farming,” he says, “A lot of people got doom and gloom, but I knew the only way to get out was to buy quota and milk our way out.”
It was a decision Joan could get behind wholeheartedly.
“When you talk about being proactive for change, I think you have to look at what makes sense ahead of you,” she says. “Life is full of so many changes, some you’re ready for, and some are unexpected.”
Joan talks of how she grew up on a beef and cash crop farm, but her heart was in teaching. She took a few years away from her career when their kids, Stephanie and James, were little, and helped on the farm throughout all the years that Elgin and David farmed together.
“I would help host international guests, fill in on weekends, help with advertising… I often say I was like a cheerleader,” she says. “When I look back now, I realize how important those roles were. They are part of farm success.”
The couple decided together to get back into dairy. “Although Joan had her own career in which she kept advancing, some of those attributes that she had really helped us in farming,” he says. “Sometimes when you’re always doing something, you can’t see the trees for the forest. She looks at it with a different set of eyes, and that positivity, even on the worst days, was one of the great things.”
BSE was devastating. Elgin says and it was a terrible time for a lot of farmers when fresh cows were selling for $175. However, he says it had also been difficult to manage the challenges of high interest rates back in the ’80s. Instead, they’ve always chosen to find the positives in even the negative things that happen in life. “You can decide to conquer that challenge, and embrace the changes that are necessary,” Elgin says he has learned, “and when you start looking at some of those challenges, there is always an opportunity, though it may not be immediate.”
After one year off, Elgin and Joan were back in the dairy business. “I think what’s important is that we set goals,” Joan says.
As a couple, they sat down together in 2003 and settled on five sets of goals for their new venture together. “One of them was to be able to show at the World Dairy Expo — and we did,” Joan says. “And then, another was to work on a Master Breeder shield — and we did that too.”
Then they saw another opportunity. For the first time since BSE, October 2014 brought good cattle prices. “There were Americans in Canada looking to buy cattle,” Elgin says, “and our dollar had started to come down.” In June of that year Joan had retired from teaching and Elgin was starting to feel the demands of managing the herd more keenly as he got older.
At what may have seemed like the peak of all their successes, Joan and Elgin had another herd dispersal sale in October 2014.
“We took about six months to rest, we did a little bit of traveling, had a nice chance to be able to talk about things, and what we wanted to do,” Joan says. “Neither of us really liked the word retiring. We feel like we’re pretty young and we were always changing within our careers, and kind of prepared ourselves for change.”
Elgin still loved dairy cows and Joan knew her husband had incredible knowledge in cattle. He had always been very good at explaining the various aspects of the dairy business and encouraged her questions. In 2015 they sat down to write out a list of what they wanted to do next, plus a very long list of the things they didn’t want to do, which eliminated a lot of options.
“I don’t care what career you’re in, it’s not easy to leave that career,” Elgin says, “and all I ever wanted to do was to farm. But, there comes a point in your career where you need something new, something different that keeps you young and your thinking vital.”
Today, Elgin credits his brother with introducing them to the breed of beef cattle they now have on their farm. “The idea came over a family dinner,” he recalls. “I really did miss cattle. We threw the breed names out and my brother said, ‘There is a breed called Speckle Park; I don’t know much about them, but they win all these carcass competitions.’ I’ve been in the animal industry all my life and I’d never heard of it. Neither had Joan, so, the two of us got on Google.”
Joan says she found it fascinating that Speckle Park was only the second breed of beef cattle in Canada to be granted distinct breed status, and that women had played a major role in the beginning of the breed.
“There are so many impressive qualities, including the animal’s temperament, meat quality, maternal abilities, the fact that they finish well on grass, and that they are quite beautiful to look at,” she says.
They watched a sale online. They posted a message to Facebook that they wanted to see some herds and, to their surprise, they received some invitations. They flew to Alberta and visited ranches there and in Saskatchewan. They also attended the Canadian Speckle Park 2015 annual meeting. They took the Environmental Farm Plan course and a traceability course together, and followed that with a biosecurity course.
“Even though we’ve been married for awhile and farming for quite awhile, this really is the first time we’ve been figuring things out together on a daily basis,” Joan admits.
Elgin and Joan made the decision to develop a purebred and commercial Speckle Park herd. So far they’ve grown their herd to include 80 cattle. They’ve also decided to renovate their 40-year-old dairy barn to handle cattle in entirely new ways. “We have learned so much and we find it exciting,” Elgin says. “There is not a lot of data, no genomic evaluations and it is in herd records that management decisions are made.”
They find themselves embracing the changes required for new technology, a different breeding program, and different cattle management systems for housing and rotational pasture management. They know that mastering it all will be important to their future success, and they remain undeterred.
Explains Joan, “I think you build confidence that you can adapt to change when you practice it.”
This article originally appeared as ‘The next big step’ in the January 2017 issue of Country Guide.