If you thought your career had a rocky start, imagine returning home to a cow-calf farm in 2003 and being greeted with the industry-changing BSE crisis. As it turns out, Craig and Jinel Ference, the Alberta winners of the Outstanding Young Farmer (OYF) award, don’t have to imagine it; they lived it.
When they met in university, Craig was a fourth generation farmer taking agricultural business management and Jinel was studying education. In 2004, they joined Craig’s parents’ cow-calf operation and feedlot just as BSE (mad cow disease) was wreaking havoc on the Canadian beef industry. At a time when many might have cashed in their chips, the Ferences doubled down.
“Our response to BSE was to diversify,” said Craig. “We branched out into some grain farming and a custom farming operation, and just kept growing from there.”
Today, the farm at Kirriemuir in east-central Alberta (not far from the Saskatchewan border) has grown to include 4,000 mother cows, an 8,000 head feedlot and 15,000 crop acres, in addition to their custom farming business. Last but certainly not least, it includes their two daughters aged three and nine and their seven-year-old son.
No doubt the ability to thrive under adversity contributed to their OYF nomination, and winning the award has brought unforeseen benefits.
“Apart from feeling honoured to even be considered, we’re pleased at the chance to meet people from so many areas of agriculture and learn about their niche,” said Jinel.
In keeping with their commitment to growth, the Ferences integrated corn into their operation four years ago; something Craig considers a “game changer.” The multi-use crop (for both grazing and silage) has impacted every area of their business, but the changes don’t stop there. They recently bought 62 quarters of land and will be altering how their farm is managed over the next few years, as the larger land base allows them to bring a lot of their cattle back home on a permanent basis.
They work to improve organic matter with vertical tillage, perennial forages and utilizing manure — all measures to improve the land they will pass on to the next generation. Double F Farms wants to be a responsible caretaker of the land, say the Ferences. Cattle genetics are closely monitored and cattle are culled heavily. No animal older than seven years is kept as they feel this helps to reduce their workload. Incorporating corn into their operation has been one of their greatest successes because of its many uses when feeding cattle.
With the size of their operation, employees are key, so the Ferences have secured employees through the foreign worker program. This is rewarding but not without a large learning curve when it comes to paperwork and language barriers. Communication with financial institutions and partners is also key to their success while forward contracting and hedging help minimize financial risk.
Not surprisingly, passion drives much of what they do.
“I’m very pleased that we are a multi-faceted enterprise,” said Craig. “I enjoy the cows and corn, but I love the other areas too. I also enjoy the business side of things in dealing with the futures market and forward contracts. There are down days and down markets, but there are also plenty of sunny days and upswings. It’s exciting to see the kids getting more involved as well. I worked side-by-side with my dad on the farm growing up and I look forward to the same relationship with my son.”
“What drives me is raising our kids with strong rural values and showing them the full spectrum of farming from producer to consumer,” said Jinel. “I also love giving back to our school and community and helping our foreign workers start a new life in Canada.”
Life for recent immigrants can be a challenge, but if they take a page from the Ferences’ book, they won’t let that stop them.