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‘I’m a Canadian farmer’

In a summer of so much change, with regional differences as big as ever and the differences between farm sectors seeming to multiply, who really knows what “I’m a farmer” means?

Increasingly, educated farmers are bringing a world of new ideas back to the farm, says Sask. rancher Adrienne Ivey.

There’s absolutely no such thing as a “typical” Canadian farm, let alone a typical farmer.

Big statistics describe Canada’s farmers as a whole, though they tell only a small part of the story. For starters, there aren’t many of you around anymore, and fewer with every passing decade: 271,935 at last count. But you take up a lot of space, or rather cover a lot of ground — dedicated cropland was at 93.4 million acres in 2016.

There are other statistics too, like that a quarter of a million people work for you.

Most of you still live where you farm, and despite the tendency to think the “big corporate farm” dominates Canadian agriculture, in fact the vast majority of you — 98 per cent — remain family-owned and operated enterprises of all sizes.

Some farms are multi-generational and some are single operator. Most are inherited in one way or another, but there are always some of you defying the odds and starting from scratch.

But none of that totally tells the tale. At risk of getting sentimental in a magazine dedicated to business, the Canadian farmer has a heart and soul, too. You are parents, grandparents, siblings, with a strong sense of place and kinship, closely and historically tied to localities and regions. You keep the lights on in rural Canada.

It can seem not much has really changed from your grandparents’ era. Yet, the modern Canadian farm — and farmer — long ago whizzed past the quaint notions the non-farming public still foster about who you are and what you do. You are more formally educated and more technologically savvy than ever. And if you’re smart business people managing complicated, multi-million dollar businesses, you’re in that business for the life it offers. Usually, you’re in it for life, too.

It all means that in this great, dynamic country, the Canadian farmer is quite the riddle. You almost want to ask: how could it be otherwise? Well, here are some answers.

It’s one of the typically Canadian things about being a typically Canadian farmer. You almost certainly live much closer to thousands of American farmers than you do to at least half the farms in Canada. And you probably know much more about those American farmers too, and about where they farm and the commodities they produce and the markets they sell into.

And here’s something else about being a typically modern Canadian farmer these days. With the way farming is getting so technical, the odds are that if you got dropped onto a Canadian farm that hasn’t specialized in the commodities you’ve specialized in, you’d be practically stumped. Your grandparents would have set right to work. Could you?

Plus, just because you farm in Canada doesn’t mean you farm under the same rules (think provincial regulations), or that you sell to the same end-users (think export or domestic), market through the same systems (think marketing boards) or belong to the same associations.

So what’s so Canadian about Canada’s farmers?

Tell it like it is

Adrienne Ivey has made it her mission to help the rest of us get to know the Canadian farmer a little better. She can tell it like it is, too.

Saskatchewan-born and raised on a grain farm, educated in agricultural sciences and now a rancher with her husband Aaron and two children near Ituna, Sask.

Ivey is a Canadian farmer down to her DNA. She knows plenty about agriculture, and she talks about it whenever she can, describing real life on a real farm through social media, her blog “View From the Ranch Porch,” and on any podiums she’s invited to.

“What does a rancher look like?” she asked an audience during a recent TED Talk. One answer is, like her.

And then she spills on what she calls the “deep dark secret” about being one.

"Our farm is also a family farm,” rancher Adrienne Ivey says. “Board meetings are at a kitchen table… budgets are prepared after we get the kids to bed.” photo: David Stobbe

“Ours is a corporate farm, a big farm,” she tells that audience. “Some might even call it a factory farm, with a corporate share structure, a profit-sharing formula, detailed budgets and board meetings, payroll and employees.”

Then she continues.

“Our farm is also a family farm, 100 per cent owned by myself, my husband and his parents. Board meetings are at kitchen tables and detailed budgets are prepared after we get the kids to bed. We have employees but they feel like family.”

The Iveys’ business, Evergreen Cattle Company, includes 10,000 acres and 1,000 cow-calf pairs. Most of their land is in perennial forages with only a small part devoted to grain production.

The farm is set in east-central Saskatchewan, in a rolling landscape of poplar bluffs and sloughs. It’s often described as one of the country’s most vulnerable yet resilient ecosystems. Canadian writers, poets and songwriters describe the people who live there that way, too.

Its topography makes it challenging to grain farm here, though more are going that way, adds Ivey. There are fewer cow herds than there used to be. Fewer people too.

“It’s probably 100 km to the nearest stop light,” says Ivey. But Ituna itself — a name bestowed by the Grand Trunk Railway’s early 20th century naming of Prairie towns in alphabetical order — is thriving, with a school where there are more, not fewer kids in the desks every year, lots of recreational activities, and well-supported Main Street businesses.

“There’s a few things contributing to that,” she says. “It’s far enough away from other main centres that our grocery store and hardware store are thriving. If we were closer to a major centre we’d be going to the city for supplies instead of shopping locally.”

Ivey’s decision to take on a public role and talk about farming, and who farmers are, has something to do with all that wide open country, too.

“It was realizing that because we live so rurally, and all of our friends and neighbours are either farming themselves or else directly involved in ag, that it was even more important to me to reach outside of my bubble to people who aren’t touched by agriculture,” she says.

Her description of the farmer is someone working “with and in nature” and her own daily and seasonal routines, from calving to field work, are most certainly outdoor jobs. When she adds “Canadian” to that description she speaks about the deep connection farmers feel to the places they farm.

But there’s another shared passion among Canadian farmers too. It is the desire to pass the collective investment of the family business on to the next generation. That’s as much about building a viable and profitable business as it is a healthy farm environment for it.

“I think what matters a lot to many Canadian farmers is the dream of continuing their farm throughout the generations, ” she says.

“It means we need to be the best caretakers of the land,” she says. “And it means making sure we are profitable enough to have enough equity to pass on to the next generation.”

That may not be a uniquely Canadian attribute, of course, but given no one of us has farmed here all that long, at least relative to other parts of the world, it matters. It matters a lot.

East or West, we’re all North

On Canada’s west coast, in the lush Fraser Valley of B.C., Stan Vander Waal starts his day at his desk, looking over sales reports, accessing shipments, having conversations with his substantial team of employees.

Vander Waal wasn’t born in Canada either but he’s been here his whole adult life, and farming most of it, too. His family were dairy producers in the American Midwest. They moved to B.C. when Vander Waal as a young teenager and his father bought a greenhouse operation here.

"In Canada as a whole,” Vander Waal says, “farmers are very progressive… they’re always looking for opportunities.” photo: Supplied

Vander Waal’s own beginnings in the west coast’s floriculture industry were in 1985 when he and his wife Wilma began Rainbow Greenhouses, first brokering potted plants and cut flowers into Seattle, Washington.

They grew that company into the substantial business — a privately owned wholesale grower and distributor of indoor and outdoor plants serving markets across British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as into Washington state. At last count, they had a team of 564 on their payroll.

Vander Waal is also president of the B.C. Agriculture Council which represents nearly 30 farm associations in an agriculture that’s as robust and varied as you’ll find anywhere. In fact, he can see some it right from his own farm.

“From my window I can see poultry farms. I can see dairy farms. I can see sweet corn,” he says.

Vander Waal’s family connections offer up a broader view of agriculture on both sides of the border, too.

“I have quite a bit of family on the U.S. side and a lot on the Canadian side, so you do hear different perspectives,” he says.

He defines the Canadian farmer the way he might describe the qualities of a hardy perennial. You take a different approach to things when you’ve got a short season to get it done in, he thinks.

“This is dependent on where you’re at in Canada, but, in general, one of the things that’s probably distinctly different for a Canadian farmer is we’re farther north. Our season is shorter.”

That doesn’t make us “chilly of countenance” or “not given to displays of hot emotion,” as Pierre Berton wrote of the Canadian temperament, though.

Vander Waal is talking about the way a northern climate tends to make you hustle, problem solve, innovate, seize the day — while there’s still enough hours of daylight in it.

“I do think that in Canada, as a whole, farmers are very progressive,” he says. “They’re always looking for opportunities.”

We’re all such newbies

“I think we’re unique in that we’ve only been farming and ranching for 150 years. We have a short history, unlike Europe, of farming,” says 73-year-old Margaret Towers near Red Deer, Alta. English-born Towers, who’s farmed more than 50 years alongside husband Thomas, says Canadian farmers are defined by their relatively short collective history, and that’s produced a slightly different perspective, she believes.

"We tend to be, I think, among the most innovative in the world,” says Margaret Towers, “because we can be.” photo: Supplied

Deeply committed to conservation agriculture, Towers was out planting a shelter belt in mid-May, a strong west wind pulsing across her cell phone one day when Country Guide called.

“This was the last frontier of any kind of viable farmland of these proportions in a free western country,” she says. “I feel we’re blessed and fortunate to have that much advantage, but with that advantage I also feel there should be a caution in that just because we have it, and have so much of it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t really be doing our utmost to keep it viable for future generations.”

A new country creates people who rarely look back. They look ahead, she says.

“In Europe there’s very little room for any kind of expansion and things have been in place for a lot longer than here. I believe that we have a lot of forward-thinking young people coming up. And we do tend to be, I think, amongst the most innovative in the world because we have more opportunity to be.”

You sometimes wonder why

Yet, most farmers would also agree with Wayne Simmons’s candid description of the roller coaster ride it all is. Simmons’s farm is 5,000 miles the other direction, at Little Rapids, Nfld., where on top of farming he also heads up the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture.

“You do have days when you wonder why you ever started,” says Simmons, a forage producer. “But every day is something different. Nothing is ever the same. And to be a Canadian farmer you take a lot of pride in what you produce.”

The Simmons’s operation is 500 acres divided among three smaller parcels of land. He’s farmed his whole life with two brothers and they once had quota for both dairy and layers.

But after his brothers retired they got rid of both and rented out the barn. Simmons carries on producing forages for someone else’s dairy herd now, and is eyeing his own retirement, too.

There were 407 farms across Newfoundland and Laborador in the last census, the fewest of any province. Simmons thinks even that count might be high, given the decline of farms here.

Farmers here are chicken and dairy farmers, egg and sheep producers, hog farmers and beekeepers as well as fur breeders and blueberry growers. Visitors sometimes think they’ve left Canada when they come here.

“We’ve had people say we’re a lot like Ireland, actually.” Except that Ireland has good soil. Newfoundland and Labrador not so much.

“I guess we are called the rock for a reason,”’ Simmons quips.

Why you farm

Simmons says he agrees with the assertion of another farmer — that to be a Canadian farmer is to have a deep sense of purpose.

That comes from Marg Rempel in southern Manitoba, who’s been known to say farming isn’t a job, it’s a calling.

Believing that what you do matters is a huge part of the Canadian farmer identity, says Rempel, who carried on alone operating the family’s mixed grain and hog operation after her husband Ron died in 2003. Today she farms with their son Jason, plus three full-time employees managing the 500-sow farrow-to-finish operation, cropping 600 acres of grains and oilseeds and raising meat goats near the small town of Ste. Anne.

Rempel is also a well-known farm leader, serving on various boards including the provincial farm organization Keystone Agricultural Producers and with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Her network across Canada’s agricultural community is extensive.

“(The Canadian farmer) recognizes they’re in a position to make a significant contribution and we take that responsibility seriously,” says Rempel, and she’s not just talking about the food they produce, but the non-food value produced on the Canadian farm, too.

“The number one priority that’s in my mind besides just the daily routines and things that need to be taken care of is health,” she says.

“We want health for our families, our employees and we want healthy rural communities and, especially, we want healthy soils.”

The sheer scope of agriculture and variety of enterprises and geographic locations certainly does complicate matters when advocating for what the Canadian farmer needs, Rempel says. “I think the important word for defining the Canadian farmer is, in fact, diversity.”

There just is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to agricultural policy. “That’s been a challenge for us, to speak out for policy that’s helpful to everyone, and to continue to remind decision-makers and policy-makers that this is the case.”

Steeped in the past, ready for tomorrow

Ontario’s Chris Van Paassen has done his own share of advocacy work.

Like others in his corner of Norfolk County, he was once a tobacco farmer until the transition began to switch farmers over to other commodities. “I still consider myself a tobacco farmer even though I haven’t grown tobacco in 10 years,” says Van Paassen who today grows crops like corn and wheat and does a bit of hay, as well as board horses.

“I think one of the things that every farmer always has is a plan B,” he says.

“And a C and D and E and an F. That’s what you get used to your whole life. You can’t do what the original plan was, but there is always something else on the list. That is plan B. Things always change.”

Chris Van Paassen August 24, 2016, celebrating the Ontario relaunch of ALUS Canada, a Weston Family Initiative. photo: Andrea Husted, Splash Photography

A longtime supporter of the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program, he too believes very strongly that the Canadian farmer is dedicated to keeping soil, water and air in good health, to leave it in good or better shape for whoever comes next.

“I spend a lot of time telling people farmers are the original environmentalists,” he says. “We don’t just talk about saving the planet. We’re actually doing it. We don’t read about it in a book. We’re doing it in real life.”

It’s the same attitude farmers take to the community as well. The Canadian farmer is someone holding the countryside together. In Saskatchewan, Ivey says, “In small communities we understand that nobody else is going to come and do all the jobs that need to be done.” Ituna has local farmers, truckers, agronomists and other business owners growing a crop and getting cash into the bank to build a new hockey rink. She serves on that rink’s board, as well as one for the day care. She’s been a school trustee.

The Canadian farmer has a strong sense of place, and strong commitment to it, she says. “It’s really really important to us to not only play a part in the broader agricultural community, but in our local community,” she says. “And as farms get bigger and farmer numbers get smaller, it just becomes that much more important that we all do our part and continue to contribute to the community.”

Something else stands out in Rempel’s mind that defines the Canadian farmer.

“We are an educated farming population,” she says. “And that is different from some other parts of the world. I think there are very few farmers age 60 and under who don’t have some form of post-secondary education.”

That’s borne out statistically, for sure. The 2016 census shows Canadian farm operators do indeed put a particular emphasis on higher education.

It’s all about equipping themselves with the know-how and technical skills needed to operate modern farms. But it’s got something to do as well with the geographic isolation of farms in Canada.

“I think that we recognize that we live fairly sheltered lives in rural Canada,” says Ivey. “That makes it all the more important to go to school and see parts of the world to really expand our minds.”

Rempel agrees, and adds that the educated farmer is a doer, not merely a talker. “Often others in society are wringing their hands and wailing messages of doomsday to politicians, but farmers get to work.”

Farming’s great vulnerabilty has always been the weather but it’s in farmers’ nature to tackle challenges, Rempel says. “And when we learn that something is not the best, we’re in the front row learning to change to do something that’s better.”

Ivey took up the call to tell whoever’s listening that the Canadian farmers are “people like myself and my husband and my children.”

What’s on the minds of many farmers is their distinct, yet increasingly solitary status within Canadian society.

It’s a worry, too. The urban neighbours don’t visit much anymore, and there’s a whole lot of odd, outdated, outrageous ideas out there about agriculture.

More than ever, it’s important to know a few more Canadian farmers. Now, farmers like Ivey and Van Paassen and so many others are making it easier and more rewarding. It’s a new core value, a key part of what it means to farm in this great country.

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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