Unconventional stories are becoming conventional in today’s agriculture. In fact, they’re becoming surprisingly conventional. Yes, agriculture across the decades has always found unexpected ways to replenish itself. Still, the barriers to entry have never been as astronomic as they are today for anyone who isn’t among the fortunate few to have been born into long-established, progressive farming families.
In the stories below, we bring you three unconventional farms that are making it. We wanted to know, how are they beating the odds? Is it luck? Is it brains, or foolhardiness? You decide, but we’re also asking another question. Is it ever been wise to bet against a farmer who’s absolutely determined to farm?
Katie and Phillip Keddy
Keddy Nursery, Lakeville, Nova Scotia
Those luscious strawberries you bite into every summer may well have got their start on a family farm in Nova Scotia. Keddy Nursery, located in the Annapolis Valley, is one of Canada’s largest bareroot nursery farms, producing top quality certified strawberry plants and blackberry and raspberry canes sold to fruit farmers all across Canada and the U.S.
This farm is also where Charles and Doris Keddy first took root as first-generation farmers.
The couple began farming together, starting from scratch on a tiny tract of land at Grafton, N.S. They outgrew that site in three years and moved five miles east to Lakeville, N.S., where, over the next 40-plus years, they would grow Keddy Nursery into the thriving farm business it is today, and raise three children, too.
Two daughters, Treasure and Amber, have since chosen to till other soil as a teacher and paralegal, respectively. It was son Phillip and his wife Katie who became the farm’s next generation, now living and working with the senior Keddys on what today encompasses over 600 acres producing about 19 million plants annually.
The Keddys also grow a crop unknown in the Maritimes until recently; they harvest 1.5 million pounds of sweet potatoes annually, which makes them the largest sweet potato producer east of Ontario.
This is a story that has a lot in common with a lot of Canadian farm stories. It began from the most modest of beginnings. Thousands of farms started as general or market garden farms, scraping to earn a living whatever way they could. But there’s a difference with how the Keddys did it. And especially a difference in the “when.”
Charles and Doris started that first farm in 1977 in a part of the country that has a very established agriculture. Just down the road from them is Cornwallis Farm, started in the mid-1700s. It has been in the Newcombe family for nine generations. (Its approach to succession planning was profiled in the March 3, 2020 edition of Country Guide.)
From the beginning, the Keddy farm was driven by that first generation’s hard work, vision and ambition. And now it is moving forward with the second generation wholly sharing that ethic.
“My father never grew up on a farm himself. He worked for a neighbouring farm that grew root bareroot strawberry plants,” son Phillip says. “When they started, it was on about one acre with strawberry plants. It took them a couple of weeks to dig it with pitch forks.”
His earliest memories are of tagging along with his parents while they worked their fields.
From the beginning, he felt his future could be here, so it was no surprise when he returned home after graduating from Nova Scotia Agricultural College in 2006.
Today he and Katie, who grew up in New Brunswick, work beside the senior couple in all aspects of the field operation management, including overseeing a farm team of 70, and the production and marketing of the farm’s extensive plant stocks, plus the acres producing the sweet potatoes and other rotating crops.
The first and second generation have made numerous changes but have embraced the same strategy, using innovation to maximize productivity, to enhance environmental stewardship, and to achieve financial stability.
The approach is still integral today. One most recent innovation is a partnership with researchers across North America to create the first technology in Canada that uses UV sterilization as an alternative disease and pest management strategy on their strawberry plants. At a symposium in Florida last winter, they learned of research results using UV light to sterilize mildew and to potentially eradicate some insects in strawberries, says Phillip. His father, known for his keen interest in the next big idea, offered their farm as a pilot to try it out.
The Keddys were sent blueprints and materials to build the light apparatus, and the first trials took place last summer. There are plans to test it again on more acres this year, and if successful, they’ll have another tool in their kit for ensuring they produce and deliver healthy and robust plants to their North American customers.
“A lot of the nurseries in the U.S. are heavily reliant on chemical soil sterilants to keep their plants healthy and clean,” says Phillip. “We’re trying to go in a different direction with this technology — longer crop rotation and biodiversity to maintain a healthy soil.”
The Keddys’ introduction of sweet potatoes to their farm started from much the same strategic vein, always being open to a new direction for their farm for long-term sustainability.
They were approached by a research company keen to try sweet potatoes in the Maritime region. Sweet potatoes are a crop typically grown in much warmer southern climates with longer growing seasons, but they wanted to prove it could be done, eventually seeing potential to integrate its planting and harvest window into the rest of their production cycles. It took five years conducting one-acre trials producing a lot of crooked, unsalable potatoes, Phillip says, but then they had a production recipe for success.
“In our industry you learn by doing, and Phil grew up learning at the dinner table from innovative parents,” says Katie.
“The first generation, Charlie and Doris, built the business to what it is today,” she says. “Because of their work early on, we really were in a privileged spot that we could take on an experiment like this.”
The younger couple, who have two sons age eight (Charlie) and six (Benjamin), certainly feel the full weight too. They will build on the legacy but in a period when the farm will undoubtedly face new and intense pressures on its operating environment, which makes them keen to use the best of both generations’ combined skills to swiftly adapt.
For instance, they never anticipated the temporary restriction to the entry of their team of Jamaican offshore workers last spring. They were delayed right at planting season, putting both the year and the business at significant risk.
Climate change and sudden weather extremes in heat and seasonal precipitation are challenges they do anticipate, and they know they must plan for this with a longer-term outlook.
“We’ve just had one of the hottest driest summers,” says Katie, adding they are now intensifying their focus on how to manage to ensure they have access to water in years to come. Their crops are shallow rooted and require intensive and properly managed irrigation, which makes water critical to production.
“We’ve run into years with water issues before, but like Charles says, this was the worst it’s been in 20 years,” she says.
As the next generation, they will need to pay exceptionally close attention to environmental stewardship, and especially the health of their soil, adds Phillip. Strawberries and other berry crops are particularly susceptible to soilborne diseases and healthy soil is the key to the long-term productivity and sustainability of their entire farm.
Something is clicking, though. Phil and Katie say they don’t see all that much difference between Phillip’s parents’ approach to running a farm business and their own.
That is a bigger statement than you might think.
Katie’s engagement with the farm work and management mirrors and matches her mother-in-law’s, she says. As a bigger farm today, it absolutely requires all hands on deck and there’s no space for gender role differentiation.
But that was also true at the beginning, she says. “Charles early on, as the male farmer, was certainly the face of the farm, but Doris was 100 per cent the backbone of the farm,” Katie says. “They were first-generation farmers. They grew the business as a team together.”
Where she does see her own role expanding is in human resource management. She spends considerable time consulting with their team, and delivering health and safety programs. Again, that’s their four-heads-are-better-than-two advantage — their combined resources of time and expertise enable them to focus on these areas.
Personal time is important to next-generation farmers and arguably is another benefit of being part of a multi-generation team. The younger Keddys feel fortunate to be able to take more vacations with their kids than the senior couple could when they ran the farm themselves. He remembers family vacations, says Phillip, but “to take five days off in the summer would be unheard of.”
“Definitely now, where my parents are still heavily involved in the business, we can step away from the business for a few days and so can they,” he says.
As next-generation farmers, and able to take those breaks, they hope their young sons will benefit from the mental health conversations those in agriculture are now having, and see the potential for a great future on the farm that could be personally rewarding for them too.
“I want my kids to love the farm but know it’s okay to have other interests,” says Katie. “As parents, we want them to find their passion… You can’t be a farmer without the drive and passion for what you do.”
Mary and Roelof van Benthem
van Benthem Dairy Ltd., Spruce View, Alta.
Roelof van Benthem was just 16 when he emigrated with his family in 2000 from the Netherlands to Alberta in search of a better future in agriculture.
The van Benthems are among the many immigrants from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom who sold farms that had been in their families for generations in order to start fresh here. At one time the two countries were our leading sources of farm operators born outside Canada. (Since 2016 the most frequently reported countries of birth for immigrant farmers have been the U.S. and China, according to Statistics Canada.)
“For myself and my brothers, there was a great future for farming in Canada,” says Roelof. Land had become prohibitively expensive in the Netherlands, making it impossible for his parents, who had three sons all keen to one day farm, to expand the dairy farm they had there.
In Canada, his parents Evert and Jannette van Benthem, purchased a former hog farm at Spruce View, Alberta. The farm, coincidently, turned out to be the same farm Roelof’s future Canadian-born wife’s father at one time rented.
Mary and Roelof were married in 2009 and today operate Van Benthem Dairy Ltd. with Roelof’s parents. The farm encompasses a total of 840 acres with 120 milk cows and 150 young stock.
Roelof says there was a time in his life when he foresaw an entirely different future ahead.
“It (farming) was my dream but my mom and dad always said to study something else, just in case. In Holland I thought I’d become a physical education teacher.”
After high school here, he studied kinesiology for a time and earned a diploma in sport management, but the farm always beckoned. Van Benthems have been dairy farmers for at least four known generations and “probably forever” prior to that, he says. His mother’s parents were tulip growers.
With prospects in agriculture greatly enhanced in Canada, he decided to enrol at Olds College and earn a diploma in agriculture production and management. He’d also brought experience working with a veterinarian back in Holland where he learned how to do his own embryo recovery and transplantation work and pregnancy checking. His interest and knowledge of genetics has helped the farm improve its production and conformation.
The van Benthems have made numerous upgrades to the farm operation for boosting milk quality production, and more recently have added robotic milking to the operation. A number of factors went into that decision, including scarcity of available local labour and the need to ease the workload of Roelof’s father, who, in addition to helping them out, was also working on another of his son’s farms.
Mary and Roelof now have four young sons between the ages of one and nine — so life is very busy indeed.
In an early 2021 interview with Country Guide, they spoke of challenges and prospects ahead that many Canadian next-generation farmers tend to identify. One is public perception of agriculture and the non-farming public’s increasing attention on how farmers farm. That is one area that clearly distinguishes the next generation from the previous, says Mary.
“I feel a lot more in the spotlight than I think they used to feel,” she says. “Our connections to the world have expanded. But we also have a way to communicate that’s a lot further reaching, and we use that connection for knowledge, too.”
The couple foresee fewer farms and farmer neighbours in their immediate vicinity as farms around them expand and nearby acreages are purchased by those who do not farm.
Their own networks extend well beyond their own locality. Chat groups for young farmers and involvement in farm groups is how they connect to others, both in the dairy industry, and other types of agriculture. The van Benthems were named Outstanding Young Farmers for 2020 in Alberta and connecting with the alumni of OYF presents a welcome new opportunity for support and networking, adds Mary.
The installation of robotic milking gives them back personal time they can now devote to family and community life, but as Mary also says, they now need to look for new ways to engage their sons with the farm outside of the milking parlour.
There’s a new dynamic at play as technology has the potential to disengage their kids from farm life.
“I feel like work and life on the farm was a lot more connected before. The family all worked on the farm. The farm was the family,” Mary says. “With the introduction of technology, it does create another barrier almost for you to get your children involved. With the robots we have to find different ways to involve the kids.”
Still, the technologies help them keep life well-rounded, and the couple say they hope this will help their children see that choosing to farm does not mean having to set other personal goals and achievements aside.
“I am coaching my kids in hockey now,” says Roelof, who was a speed skater in his earlier life, as was his own father.
“With the introduction of milk robots on the farm, my work schedule has become way more flexible,” he says. “I can be more involved with the kids and the community.”
Rosy Farms, Morinville, Alta.
Amid all the change on most farms today, one constant is that new farmers do come from existing farm families. But not always.
In amongst them are a surprising cadre of farmers who were never born or bred on the farm (often not even within sight of a farm), but who are using their business savvy to pursue what they see as great farm opportunities.
These are young, sometimes middle-aged, post-career people, wanting to implement new ideas, try new crops, and adapt new models of farm management and ownership.
They are part of the next generation of Canadian farm operators, and they’re altering the perception of the conventional farmer.
City-born and raised, Andrew Rosychuk, 35, is one of them. In the past decade, he has bought 76 acres of land north of Edmonton and planted 27,000 Haskap bushes near Morinville, Alta., to establish Rosy Farms. He has also helped found both the North 49 Fruit Corporation, a producer-owned company to market the Canadian-grown fruit to the world, and Haskap Alberta Association to support new growers.
“A personal evolution,” is how he describes finding an entry point into agriculture.
Rosychuk earned his production horticulture diploma at Olds College after high school, all the while with the idea of someday starting a horticultural business. But he saw from the get-go this would take a lot more than some education and dreams.
He saw the need to take some trades training, so he began taking night classes in welding while still at Olds. He wanted to see if he’d like that line of work and to evaluate the prospects for making a living at it. He earned his tickets in welding and boilermaker, afterward working more than 10 years in the Alberta oil patch to sock away as much cash as possible to finance his next steps.
“I got into the trades to get out of the trades,” he laughs.
In the meantime, he began planting what was the first Alberta-based haskap orchard in 2005 on land some of his relatives made available. By 2013 he had written his business plan and purchased his site at Morinville the following year.
His parents wholly encouraged and supported his plan. His father, who is now a key mentor, had grown up on a small Alberta farm and was pulled out of retirement as a CAO with the City of Edmonton; he is now Rosychuk Farm’s chief financial officer. Rosychuk says his dad helps him out in many other ways too, including serving as the business’s procurement specialist, carpenter, mechanic, occasional bank “mowing” consultant.
Both North 49 Corporation and Haskap Alberta are premised around the adage of “do nothing alone that can be done together.” To successfully advance a new fruit crop like this definitely needs a lot of people working together, Rosychuk says. No one person working independently can expect to grow and harvest these crops, then process, add value, and do all the other research, marketing and branding work they need.
“The average person can only do two of those,” he says. “The reason I created Haskap Alberta was to create a support network for others who want to get into haskap so that they would know the pros and cons and have support and share resources.”
He’s now part of Young Agrarians, an organization of first-generation farmers like himself who want to start farm businesses of all types and sizes. (Check the upcoming March 17, 2021 issue of Country Guide for more on the group.)
Another important network he’s become part of is Nuffield Canada. Rosychuk has just become a scholar with the prestigious rural leadership program and is pursuing his studies investigating medium-scale processing.
Rosychuk can scarcely contain his enthusiasm as he talks about what lies ahead.
He says new farmers like himself, also tend to surround themselves with people in the know, and build networks such as these. They’re essential, when you aren’t linked in to the agricultural community to begin with.
“I don’t have the farming background so I think I see things in a different way,” he says. The next generation of newcomers who are finding entry points into farming are inclined to take these collaborative approaches, organizing groups together to learn from and support each other.
“When you start off as a new entrepreneur, you build your team and you create this group and then you kind of move together.” he says.
“I think we have a lot more openness and a vulnerability to reach out and learn… and to say ‘I don’t know this… who does?’”