If, as the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation and opportunity meet,” Lydia Carpenter and Wian Prinsloo are the living embodiment of it. They have always had an interest in food production, yet neither had grown up on a farm, and when they set out to follow their passion in their 20s, they had no real idea how they might transform their dream of farm ownership into a reality.
Fast forward a decade, and now you will find the couple are accomplished farmers with their own farm near Belmont, Man. You’ll find, too, that the story of how they got there is one of being prepared, hard work and seizing opportunities.
In a farming context, their tale gets off to an unconventional beginning. Prinsloo, who grew up in South Africa, emigrated to Canada with his mother when he was 15, bringing with him a determination to farm. After graduating high school he began working on different types of farms, including sheep and cow-calf operations, to gain some skills and experience. He also began to raise pastured poultry on small patches of rented land, selling the birds to people in the city and eventually expanding the enterprise to include pastured pigs as well.
Carpenter meanwhile, studied environmental and soil science at the University of Winnipeg and had just started her masters in natural resource management when she met Prinsloo, and the two found they shared a desire to farm and run a direct marketing business.They managed to find 80 acres to rent near Brandon and then began building up their livestock and customer base together.
Six years ago, their journey took another leap forward when they connected with holistic management practitioner David McNish of Wawanesa, Man., who offered to rent them land on a three-year rolling lease.
At the time, they couldn’t contemplate buying land, and the arrangement, which included a home yard and house to live in, met their needs and Dave’s, who had no children interested in farming but really didn’t want to sell his land.
Around the same time, the couple had struck up a relationship with Alberta cattle breeder Iain Aitken who was into just the kind of genetics they wanted in their grass-fed herd. Aitken, who had moved to Alberta from Scotland, was raising Luing cattle, a breed that is popular in the U.K. but whose numbers had dwindled in Canada, which is partly why he decided to emigrate in 2000. After marrying a Canadian two years later, the couple established a direct marketing business to sell their farm-raised pork and beef, similar to what Carpenter and Prinsloo were doing in Manitoba.
When the couple approached Aitken to buy some of his Luing cattle, he was immediately impressed with them and their outlook, which mirrored a lot of his own ideas.
“Straightaway I was very impressed with the questions they were asking and their viewpoint on land ownership and retail and all kinds of things,” says Aitken. “They stood out to me at that point as people that had a clear idea of where they were going and what they wanted… There’s a lot of people who dream of (farming), but there’s very few people that actually have the commitment and skills to carry it off.”
Aitken even considered that they might be the potential partners he had been seeking to help out with the direct marketing side of his operations, but the couple weren’t interested in moving to Alberta.
As luck would have it, Aitken, his wife Rowena and daughter Helen were the ones who decided to make a move — to Manitoba with Carpenter and Prinsloo as their eyes and ears on the ground, providing some welcome local knowledge.
Aitken became persuaded that the Pelican Lake region where Carpenter and Prinsloo lived offered the best opportunities for what he wanted too, so he purchased nine quarters of land at Belmont, about 20 minutes from the couple’s farm.
The partnership develops
As Aitken moved his ranch to Manitoba, they began to work together. Aitken sent his animals from Alberta and Prinsloo unloaded them and cared for them until Aitken arrived. That quickly got Aitken thinking about a closer collaboration.
“They had expressed an interest in buying land rather than continuing to be on a rented land base, and I felt there was an opportunity,” he explains. “They had a lot to offer and I thought we could build a fairly good team between us, and I didn’t want to miss out on that chance and perhaps have them move elsewhere.”
Aitken had a second yard site on his property, which he offered to sell to the couple along with a quarter section of land. Carpenter and Prinsloo jumped at the offer and moved into the small, 500-sq.-ft. house in December 2017.
They took possession of the land in August 2017, but they had agreed to give one year’s notice to their landlord, so for a season they were running back and forth between the two properties. Although they began grazing their cattle herd on the new farm pastures almost immediately, they had a lot of work to do to fix up the house before they could move in, and needed to add some infrastructure. Aitken installed fencing and watering systems for them, knowing that he would be selling the property to the couple, who also built a small barn and shop at the new yard site, and moved in a trailer to serve as an office and storage space for their direct marketing business.
Both parties also rent additional pasture, and because the land is mostly adjoining, it makes sense to run their herds together. They also share some equipment and have made some unique financing arrangements that are helping the young couple to steadily grow their farm.
“As first-generation farmers we don’t have a lot of multi-generational equity in terms of infrastructure built into the farm,” says Carpenter. “Dave was helping to provide that in a rental situation, and Iain is providing that in a purchase situation.”
As an example, Aitken is the mortgage holder on the land they are purchasing from him. There’s no bank involved. “It’s the same as with a bank, the terms are set over so many years, we pay a certain amount per year, but we’re paying it to Iain,” says Carpenter. “It’s sort of like a non-family succession strategy in terms of them trying to help us with the land purchase and that sort of thing.”
Meanwhile, the couple have a sense of permanence that is allowing them to plan and move forward with growing the farm as they have always wanted to. “The arrangement that we have with Iain and Rowena takes some of the stress out of trying to make this work because we feel more confident,” says Carpenter. “We have a real sense of place, and that was always a challenge for us because we rented for years knowing that that was going to be the only way we could get into farming. But it’s not easy when you’re trying to plan long-term in terms of how you manage the land. There are certain things within our management that we want to perfect, and some of those have to do with infrastructure investment. We can do that now we own a piece of land.”
A different succession template
Aitken sees history repeating itself in his relationship with Carpenter and Prinsloo. Coming from a multi-generational farm in Scotland, his grandfather substantially built up the enterprise during the tough years of the 1930s in a similar way, using multiple species and selling direct to customers, and Aitken realized that the couple were doing more or less the same thing.
“There was a familiarity there, what they are doing is something that every farmer had done in the past, so that, plus the fact that we have the same goals in mind in the way we manage the land and cattle made for a good fit,” says Aitken.
A lot of young people with ambitions to farm — whether or not they come from a family farm tradition — would love to be in Carpenter and Prinsloo’s position, which comes full circle to Seneca’s point — that it’s important to get out and create opportunities and be prepared to take them when they come along, which is exactly what they did.
“In some ways, being first generation and not having family members that were farming made some things more difficult, but in other ways it was an asset to us because we had to put ourselves out there and explore things in a different way,” says Carpenter. “We took all kinds of soil health courses, and we joined the Manitoba Grazing Club and attended their events. We put ourselves out there. We would tell people what our intentions were. In some ways, naively, because we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do, but we would tell all kinds of people that we were looking to rent more land, and were interested in a longer-term lease.”
They sought out as much information and knowledge as they could and tapped into the holistic management network, being particularly interested in planned grazing and the business management aspects of that decision-making process.
It could be that some among the next generation of farmers and those looking to soon retire will need to think outside of the box for succession strategies, and Carpenter, Prinsloo and Aitken may provide something of a template for that.
“If your kids don’t want to farm or aren’t in the position to, you can create succession strategies around other people,” says Carpenter. “Iain has a philosophy about what he sees for the succession of his farm and that fits with what we’re interested in as well, and so finding those matches may not be easy, but by putting ourselves out there, people knew who we were and what we were trying to do and it created opportunity for them as well to propose something to us. We were always feeling that we were searching for something and making proposals to farmers, and then we realized later on that others, like Iain and Rowena, were interested in what we were doing in terms of their own succession plans.”
Aitken says it’s never been easier for people like himself and Carpenter and Prinsloo to find each other, thanks to the internet.
“I’m connected with a lot of people from different countries, and I know many of the people in the regenerative agriculture field and direct marketing field,” he says. “You still have to find the right people and be able to get on with them, but in terms of actually looking for people compared to what it would have been 50 years ago when you were probably limited to the people in your local community or putting an ad in your local paper, I think it never has been easier to connect with people than it is at the moment.”
That said, he sees the biggest hurdle to more creative arrangements is that not enough existing farmers are willing to relinquish land ownership.
“There’s a lot of talk about the need to transition land but there’s a real shortage of guys that are actually prepared to sell to the younger generation,” he says. “I don’t really know why because it makes sense to me, when a lot of established landowners have multiple quarters of land to have some kind of mortgage arrangement on a quarter or two to provide the income rather than actually farming it themselves. In the process this creates opportunities for this younger generation that we’re going to have to facilitate getting on the land.”
Now in their mid-thirties, Prinsloo and Carpenter can concentrate on building their farm’s future, and are lucky that Aitken shares their holistic approach so they can make improvements together. “We now have a functioning business and we need to hone in on our management,” says Prinsloo. “When Iain bought this farm a couple of years before we moved here, it had been continuously cropped and overgrazed, so we talk a lot about grazing management, multi-species grazing systems, soil testing and benchmarking.”
Just as important to them both is paying it forward by providing learning opportunities for future farmers. “We talk a lot about transferring knowledge and how do we make the farm a place where people feel they can participate,” says Carpenter. “This is a journey for us, and to come to a place where we can purchase some land wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Iain and Rowena. But how do we create those opportunities for other people? How do we elevate our experience so other people see that it’s possible?”
For the immediate future the couple will have their hands full building up the soil health on the farm, slowly increasing their herd as their custom sales demand grows and taking time out for parenting their new son, Alastair, who was born a year ago.
Still in his early fifties, Aitken is a young farmer himself and his daughter is only 12. She still has a long way to go to decide if she has any interest in farming in the future. So, will there be opportunities for Carpenter and Prinsloo to take over more of the farm when he does decide to retire? Who knows?
“It’s one of the potential ways the transition could go,” says Aitken. “It is dependent on what my daughter decides to do to an extent, but the ownership doesn’t matter so much to me as carrying on the work with the land and the purebred Luing cattle. I’ve spent a lot of time getting the genetics where I want them and Wian has a strong understanding of genetics that a lot of people don’t have, so that definitely was an attraction from the outset. It definitely makes sense to me if we can head the two businesses in the same general direction and we might finish up at the same place eventually.”
Not coming from an agricultural background is something that both Carpenter and Prinsloo have always seen as an advantage, and they believe that future generations of farmers may have to accept change and a new paradigm if they want their farms to survive into the future.
“I think it’s very difficult in family succession,” Prinsloo says. “I think the interpersonal challenges sometimes with traditional family succession can be great, especially if the older generation is very heavily invested in their paradigm, and they define themselves by what they have been doing rather than looking at the opportunities that succession could bring for them, their time and other interests that they want to pursue. I think that can be really challenging because then you’re up against this entrenched paradigm that is not going to work for you just because the nature of the farming as a business has changed so much.”
Prinsloo has noticed that as much as it’s exciting for the younger generation to have opportunities like theirs, he’s found it personally rewarding to see the older generation grow into more of the things that they maybe didn’t know they wanted to do but now have the opportunity to pursue.
“I’m looking forward to that for myself already, so when you see people do that, those successions seem to do well,” he says. “There’s not the interpersonal day-to-day conflict that you have when you’re trying to work in a succession where the older generation is too invested in the day-to-day operation.”