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A different school

For Vance Lester and Sue Echlin, getting a non-agricultural education proved a big help when they returned to the farm

Graduate degrees in ecology and international relations don’t seem the kind of education that would be likely to help on a Canadian farm. But that’s where we might be wrong.

For Sue Echlin and Vance Lester, that kind of schooling has been instrumental in their launching a fruit-growing and winery business, and in keeping it sailing.

Any advanced education is a benefit, whether or not it’s in ag, Lester now says. The hard and soft skills that a person learns in one field often transfer to other industries.

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And there can be an advantage: “If you are educated in a field other than agriculture you will learn to learn in a different way than if you were immersed in only the agricultural world,” he says, based on their experience. “This can encourage unique problem-solving and out-of-the-box thinking.”

Plus, Lester adds, even on a traditional grain or livestock farm these days, it doesn’t hurt to have the flexibility that an alternate education and an alternate set of networks can give you, or even to have a Plan B, given the ebbs and flows of agriculture.

Echlin grew up on a ranch in Alberta’s foothills. Her family ingrained a passion for politics in her, which is why, after earning a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Calgary, she moved to Saskatoon to complete a graduate degree in international relations at the University of Saskatchewan.

Her plan, at the time, was to become a professor. But that changed once she started her graduate degree.

“It was just too much sitting in an office and not being connected enough to the day-to-day realities of the world,” she says.

That’s how, after finishing her degree, Echlin found herself setting off to work. For a while, she worked as a temp, and it was while filling in as a receptionist at an environmental consulting agency that she met Vance Lester.

Lester originally hailed from Allan, Sask., a town southeast of Saskatoon. He completed a bachelor’s degree in biology, and a master’s in ecology, at the University of Saskatchewan. For several years, he worked in his field, as a duck biologist.

As time went on, Echlin landed a job in marketing and communications with the University of Saskatchewan. It wasn’t exactly in the field she’d studied, but her education proved useful. “It taught me how to write well and communicate effectively and research.”

Meanwhile, Lester moved into a human resources position at the University of Saskatchewan — the ecology of humans, as Echlin says.

“And then,” says Echlin, “we decided we wanted to figure out what we could do to stay on the farm.”

Starting from scratch

When people think of agriculture in Saskatchewan, what usually comes to mind are the province’s brilliant yellow canola fields under wide blue skies. But Echlin and Lester wanted to do something value-added instead of strictly commodity based.

“Being a ranch kid, I’d gone through BSE,” says Echlin. “And I’d done enough training on futures and options to realize that you only have so much control over your income as a farmer. Even with the best weather and everything else, you’re sometimes at the mercy of traders.”

A trip to B.C. provided inspiration. During a wine tour, they visited a fruit winery, and thought there was no reason they couldn’t do the same type of thing in the middle of the biggest grain-producing province in the country.

So they bought a farm near Perdue, a couple hours west of Saskatoon. The previous owners had raised goats, and those goats left a lot of amazing fertilizer, Echlin says, and the young couple dug into their work, converting a former triticale field into the orchard and planting about 45,000 trees for fruit and hedge rows.

In 2010, they opened Living Sky Winery, growing everything from rhubarb and cherries to currants for fruit wines. It was the second winery to open in the province, following only Marty and Marie Bohnet’s Cypress Hills Vineyard and Winery.

And, once again, their educations came in handy, Echlin says, as they set about researching everything from the chemistry involved in winemaking to government policy.

“The backgrounds we had in the sciences and social sciences were so important to have the ability to find the knowledge we needed to do this.”

Science on the farm

Sustainability is a big part of Living Sky’s brand — Echlin and Lester talk about it on social media and during interviews and presentations. The winery’s logo is a single duck in flight, which is appropriate given Lester’s background.

Echlin also thinks their focus on sustainability was a big part of the reason they were named national Outstanding Young Farmers in 2012.

Every decision they make on the farm is rooted in an ecological standpoint, she says. And Lester’s training as an ecologist grounds those decisions in science, leading them to protect riparian areas, plant willows to catch snow, and protect ducks and bees.

Lester sees how each farming practice fits into the bigger picture. For example, they seeded alfalfa around the orchard to fix nitrogen and provide bumblebee habitat, she says. “He thinks of all the systematic parts of the environment and how they fit together.”

Echlin says there is a honeybee producer nearby, and those bees are attracted to the orchard. But they also have “a pretty spectacular” wild honeybee and pollinator cluster. In the spring, the cherry trees are full of the honeybees as well as the wild pollinators that often go unnoticed.

“They’re teeny, teeny, and some of them will have a little yellow stripe,” says Echlin. They’re as important as the big bees, she adds, and she credits Lester with the healthy population on their farm.

Lester’s science background also comes in handy when it’s time to make wine. There’s no shortage of chemistry involved in winemaking, and Lester has a good handle on that aspect. They also have a wine consultant, Dominic Rivard, who co-owns a winery in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

That focus on winemaking craft has paid off for Living Sky. Echlin and Lester’s wines have racked up 16 national and international medals.

Navigating policy changes

Echlin’s marketing and public relations experience has been an obvious asset for the business. So have the networks she built during her work experience.

Her political science background has also come into play with the business. A large part of Echlin’s job in the last few years has been working with provincial legislators to change policies around craft alcohol production.

Some of those policies were not exactly conducive to starting a small winery or distillery. For example, when Living Sky first opened, they could only sell wine from their on-farm store or in government liquor stores. Farmers’ markets and private liquor stores were off-limits.

Living Sky joined forces with other early adopters, including Lucky Bastard, Last Mountain Distillery and Cypress Hills Vineyard and Winery. Together, they formed the Saskatchewan Artisan Wine and Spirits Association, which advocates for small-batch wineries, distilleries, and meaderies.

Echlin’s education gave her an understanding of how governments work and the process that policy changes must go through. She knew the different ways to apply pressure to different sectors of government.

“It’s a different world and the processes can’t be rushed. But you need to know when to push, too.”

Today, craft wine and spirit makers can sell their products at farmer’s markets, in private liquor stores, in each other’s stores, and online, delivering it directly to customers. The Sask Liquor and Gaming Authority now gives them a better markup.

“I can’t speak on the beer side because that’s a whole different world, but as far as wine and spirits go, it was the work of just a few of us that opened it up for the — frankly huge — industry it is now.”

Echlin is still involved with the Saskatchewan Artisan Wine and Spirits Association, currently serving as chair.

Big believers in education

Both Echlin and Lester are big believers in education, whatever the focus is.

“All subjects and disciplines teach you how to think and develop the ability to problem solve,” says Lester.

Lester points out that while university teaches students how to research, apply the scientific method, and process information, even the ag specialty doesn’t do a great job of teaching all the practical aspects you’d need to run any farm.

That means the ability to acquire hands-on learning will inevitably be vital too, he says, and it will be at least as important as a university education. But there’s this difference, he says.

“You can always learn the technical aspects in the field, but if you never develop the skills to solve problems and approach things from different angles you won’t succeed in agriculture or any other field.”

Echlin adds that it’s important to meet other people from outside your own experience or community, and post-secondary education can facilitate that. Their own educations and work experience continue to yield benefits.

Many of those benefits are related to long-term friendships. Lester still talks regularly with the friends he made during his days as a duck biologist, Echlin says. Others are career-related, such as Lester’s continuing work as a human resources consultant.

Echlin still phones up people she used to work with when she needs advice. She remains in contact with some of her classmates and professors. She’s also kept in touch with grad students from other programs, such as psychology and economics, as they all mixed in the geology building basement.

“Even though we weren’t necessarily studying the same speciality, I think just that experience of going through grad school was as important as what the specialty was.”

Echlin’s focus on international relations also gave her a larger world view. She traveled extensively and studied in Moscow for a semester. Experiencing different cultures made her think differently, she says.

“I would never change any of it.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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