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Making the choice to farm

Getting into farming today is different, Kerry Froese believes. It demands whole new sets of skills

On the one hand, farming is what it’s always been, a profession with generous portions of independence, autonomy, and pride. It’s a lifestyle most farmers can’t imagine giving up, (even farmers who say they aren’t in it for the lifestyle). There’s space, freedom, physical exertion, honest value, and let’s not underrate the sense of authenticity. It’s real life, with dirt, sweat, manure and rain.

But there’s also the sobering reality of the other hand. Risks of failure in the farming game are as high as they’ve ever been. Maybe, because of the financial stakes in today’s agriculture, they’re actually higher than ever, if the land and equipment costs don’t snuff out the dreams of would-be farmers before they even start.

But even if you have the dedication and the dollars to jump in, there’s still market volatility, interest rate uncertainty, stiff global production competition, high stakes anti-ag lobbying, and the reality of unrelentingly hard work all conspiring to push you back out.

What does it really take to get started and — much more importantly — to make it as a young farmer today?

Since it often takes one to know one, we went to an expert source.

Kerry Froese has run Triple F Enterprises in Abbotsford, B.C., for over two decades, which is no small thing considering he’s only 37 years old. The fact that Froese took over the family farm’s management at 16 is a fairly good indicator of his go-getter work ethic.

Today, he has expanded the business into a 150,000-head broiler chicken operation. On the side (said ironically, since chicken barns on their own take as much effort as many town jobs), Froese sits on the board of a half-dozen or more agricultural organizations and associations.

“You can’t get stuff done sitting on the sidelines,” Froese says over the hum of the chicken barn fans. “A lot of people like to complain, but you don’t have any right to complain if you’re not involved.”

Particularly near and dear to his heart are the B.C. Young Farmers Association — which he helped found in 2008 — and the Canadian Young Farmers Association — which he has chaired since 2012. These associations are designed to allow farmers and want-to-be farmers, aged 18 through 40, to learn and network in order to become, as Froese says, “smarter farmers.”

From learning how to develop a farm business plan to outlining a succession plan, and from understanding how to read a set of books to connecting with others who have walked a similar path before, the Young Farmers associations offer a wide variety of opportunities for people entering agriculture to gain the skills they need for success.

Above all, says Froese, the associations foster peer-to-peer learning, teaching young farmers that they can’t go it alone.

“If you put your nose down and think you can farm on your own, all by yourself, you’re not going to survive long,” Froese says. “Collaborating with others is pretty vital, especially for farmers just starting out. You’re going to make some mistakes, go backwards sometimes, and learn from it. But networking lets you learn from others’ mistakes, which is always easier and cheaper than learning from your own.”

The push for networking and learning from others is something of a new concept in an industry that has long been full of independent, self-sufficient types. Yes, the agriculture industry is more competitive than ever. But it is also more technical, more expensive, and bigger than in past generations. For reasons both old and new, collaboration is the only way to survive.

“If you’re always thinking of your neighbour as competition, who is going to come pull you out when your plow gets stuck? It’s better to be friends with others in the industry; definitely better to take advantage of each other’s strengths and learn from them,” Froese says.

Today, of course, that doesn’t just mean on the other side of the farm fence, or even across the room at your association’s networking event. The power of technology lets us connect around the globe. Froese, for example, is delighted to be new friends with and somewhat of a mentor for a young farmer who is in the process of setting up a new poultry operation… in New Brunswick. Via social media and email, the two can swap information and suggestions even more easily than across the back fence.

But not everything comes from outside support. To be successful as a young farmer, a whole lot needs to come from within, including tons of willpower and a dedication to buckle down and work harder when the going gets rough.

“I had this conversation with my seven- and nine-year-old sons at the dinner table last night, actually. The older son, he wants to be a farmer, but the little one, he’s still at the stage of thinking he wants to be an astronaut. I told both of them that if they actually want to get where they say they want to go, it takes the will. Sure, you can be a farmer or an astronaut. It’s the same thing for either: you’ve got to be willing to work.”

If one or more of Froese’s four children decide to follow their dad and grandfather into agriculture, they’ll have a major advantage over kids from non-farming families, and it isn’t just financial, because the first-hand experience with the inevitable pitfalls of agriculture can be equally valuable.

“It’s not all rainbows and puppy dog tails, but until you get your hands dirty, you don’t really know,” Froese says.

There are, of course, ways for non-farm kids to get real farm experience prior to making a move into agriculture. Post-secondary agriculture programs and formal or informal internships are an excellent start for any would-be farmer.

Advanced education is now an increasing priority for anyone entering agriculture, Froese’s children included. Whereas academic professions — medicine, law, education — used to skim the cream of the crop off any group of students as they left high-school, today’s agricultural reality demands top notch, well-educated thinkers.

“You better bring something to the table,” Froese says. “I told my older son, if you really want to come back to the farm, you’ll need to get an education that will help the farm — an ag degree or an accounting degree, something that will make the farm better.

“We are being told by consumers that they want inexpensive, high-quality food. We can’t do that without the most educated people being the producers. You can have idealistic ideas about how to feed the world, but if you’re not realistic and you don’t have the education to back up your ideas, it’s not going to happen.”

That realism extends to a producer’s business planning, the most important but often hardest area for new farmers to maintain a firm grasp on. Step one on the new farm to-do list? Create a business plan including an inventory of current assets and liabilities, a business strategy, a financial plan for short and long term, a production and marketing plan and an HR plan. These, by the way, are plans that are written down — that’s non-negotiable. They are also plans that are discussed with relevant partners, and they are updated regularly, which is a responsibility that must not be shirked.

Second is to develop and maintain a detailed and very realistic understanding of your costs of production.

“If you’re growing something that costs more to produce than you can sell it for, you’re not going to be around for very long,” says Froese.

Third is that a brand new farmer better be willing to share his or her business with the world. As the urbanization of the western world continues, a majority of consumers is now without any real understanding of where their food comes from. Unless farmers educate consumers on the realities — the pride, the care, the effort — of agriculture, consumers are likely to be “informed” by the loudest voices, which often belong to anti-agriculture lobbyists who, Froese believes, may have a vested interest in damaging our strong, healthy and vital industry.

“We are farmers because we love it. We really do want to feed the world. But, it’s sickening to see negative campaigns about agriculture,” Froese says. “I’m tired of being told what to do on my farm by someone who’s never been on a farm. The only way to counter that is to get the real information out. I take pictures. I show them exactly what I do on my farm. I’m on Twitter — I’ve got 2,400 followers — saying the real story of what we do here.

“I see social media as a responsibility that agriculture needs to be doing more of.”

Froese has three years left of fitting the “under-40, young farmer” demographic. By then, his oldest son will be 12, just a few years shy of the age Froese was when he took over management of his dad’s farm. Does Froese hope this son or one of the three younger children follow him into agriculture?

“Our farm name is Triple F Enterprises, which stands for Froese Family Farm. My dad started it in 1978 and I carried it on so, of course, my sense of pride says I’d want them to. But I don’t want to force my kids into something they don’t want,” Froese says. “And I’d want them to come into this profession with their eyes open. You’re going to have good years, you’re going to have bad years. It’s the pitfalls of owning the business.

“But for me, I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

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