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Meet your farming neighbours: Bernie and Cara McClean

Bernie and Cara McClean farm in northwest Saskatchewan

Every farm has its own story. No two farms (or farmers) are exactly alike. Everyone got started in a different way, and every farm has a different combination of family and hired staff who make the decisions and keep things running. But, in general, even after you consider all of the details, farmers are more alike than different.

This is the story of Bernie and Cara McClean and their kids, Keagan, Ayden and Rylan.

Where do you farm?

Cara: We farm around my in-laws’ homestead, in the northwest part of Saskatchewan near the small community of Medstead.

Bernie: Really, we’re from Robinhood, Saskatchewan. Most people know where Glaslyn is, so if people know that I say, “How about Medstead?” When they know where Medstead is, I ask if they know where Robinhood is. That’s the closest hamlet still on the map.

Bernie and Cara McClean and their sons, Ayden and Rylan.
photo: Courtesy of Bernie and Cara McLean

What do you grow?

Bernie: We grow wheat, barley, oats, peas and canola, and we’ve grown hay since 2010 due to wet quarters of land and wet weather. This past summer, we started working with a neighbour who has bison, so starting this May we’ll have bison on our land as well. I seeded the acres and he fenced the land. We have a 10-year agreement.

How long have you been farming?

Cara: We started buying out our in-laws’ land in 1998 and we’ve acquired more land since then.

Bernie: I worked in crop input retail after college and we custom combined with Cara’s parents. I also custom-hauled grain until 2011. By then we felt we had enough debt paid down and so we then began to farm full-time. I don’t custom-haul grain anymore but Cara works as an agricultural commercial lender for Innovation Credit Union. She’ll take time off at harvest and run the combine for us too. We’re now harvesting 1,600 acres of crops.

Who do you farm with?

Cara: Bernie and I farm along with our kids — Ayden is 19 and Rylan is 12. Our daughter, Keagan, has her own family with little kids. During harvest everyone’s hands on deck and helping and we all do lots of parts running.

Bernie: My parents have always helped a ton. They are the reason we are still farming. Without them we would have had a really difficult time. That goes for both our families.

I’m the youngest of six kids. Things are evolving a little bit and this year my oldest brother will be semi-retired and he’s going to start helping out on the farm.

Why did you choose farming?

Cara: When I was growing up I didn’t want to go into farming and I always said I would never marry a farmer. I had a pact with Bernie and we said if he couldn’t farm by the age of 30 he’d become an accountant. Look how that turned out! But I really love farming.

Bernie: Farming is all I ever wanted to do. At times I wonder why. I really can’t complain, but it’s been a journey. We didn’t start with much — three quarters of land and a really old line of machinery. But we’re still here and still getting by. It’s challenging and it’s fun.

What farming season do you enjoy most, and why?

Bernie: for myself, it’s all about spring. We’re coming out of winter, the sun is warm, the spring smells are starting with everything melting, and the air is fresh. I’m invigorated by the warmer temperatures.

Cara: I really enjoy the growing season when you finally see the plants coming up and the fields are green, healthy and strong. It’s absolutely stunning.

During harvest, Cara takes time off from her job as an agricultural commercial lender to run the combine.
photo: Courtesy of Bernie and Cara McLean

What’s the farm implement you can’t live without?

Cara: For me, it’s the zero-turn mower. I love this thing, and the freedom it gives me to get the job done quickly. The boys fight over it, it’s so awesome. But I remember when we bought our seeding tools, we said, if you can’t get it in the ground what’s the point of farming? And we said the same thing for the combine, and then for the sprayer. I think a farmer can justify anything.

Bernie: She’s not wrong. We’re pretty critical before we buy stuff. But for me, I have to say it’s the sprayer. When I was custom-hauling grain I told someone, I’m never going to own my own sprayer unless I can own a newer sprayer with the best technology. And the technology has made this operation one of the more relaxing ones.

What good decision have you made that turned out well?

Bernie: For me, it’s this idea of partnership. I used to own the sprayer with a neighbour and that turned out well. I think we’re better together, and where there are opportunities to team up, for example, with equipment sharing, I think those decisions have worked out well for us. It depends on your equipment and the neighbours you’re working with, as well as how time-sensitive the equipment is. But for us these partnerships have worked pretty well.

Cara: I would say the best decision was attending post-secondary school. It’s given us insight and lifelong careers, and enabled us to build the farm we have.

Have you made a decision on the farm that you regret?

Cara: Nothing really. We’ve come to every decision with a lot of research and number crunching. Nothing we’ve done has been on a whim. Sometimes we’ve tried to acquire things at auction or from a neighbour and it hasn’t worked out, but it hasn’t hurt to try.

Bernie: At times I wonder whether I spent too much time away from the farm and whether I could have been more aggressive. It might have been easier now to get our kids into the fold. It’s not a terrible thing if the kids have to work off the farm for a time. I think if they are truly interested in farming, opportunities will present themselves to the kids as well.

During harvest, the entire McClean family is on deck to work together.
photo: Courtesy of Bernie and Cara McLean

What do you anticipate your biggest challenge will be over the next five to 10 years?

Cara: Market uncertainty, the cost of everything, interest rate increases, and even whether our kids want to stay home and farm.

Bernie: No. 1 is profitability. Whether it’s land, equipment, repairs or crop inputs — everything seems to go up in cost and nothing really comes down. The cost increases are absolutely staggering. We have little control over what we receive for our commodities or what we pay for crop production needs. When you consider all of this and that these costs are associated with debt. Interest rate increases is a big one. If interest rates move even two to three per cent now, that’s going to make it pretty tough.

What do you think your biggest opportunity will be over the next five to 10 years?

Bernie: My mind goes to technology, but I say that with caution, because whether it’s with equipment or plants, these advancements are only an opportunity if the technology is somewhat affordable. It seems like every dollar that could be extracted in advancements is extracted. I know the research side of it is expensive, but the new technologies don’t always equate to more profit for us.

Cara: I think the biggest opportunity for us is in reducing debt and being able to enjoy what we have. And when our kids go to school, it’s exciting if they can bring what they learn back to the farm.

What do you like to do for fun or to relax?

Cara: The busy season is the busy season, and we all appreciate that. If we get away for a day of fishing or a couple of days at the lake in the summer, or can manage get-togethers with friends and family, we appreciate that. We do spur-of-the-moment potlucks. We like to go to a football game (we bleed green!) every year, and the kids also go to the lake with their grandparents.

Bernie: We try to get away on a hot holiday in the winter. Cara likes it more than me but I definitely find some enjoyment in it too. We had this discussion five or six years ago — we’ll have to enjoy the winter time away, because the summer is our season to make a profit.

About the author

Contributor

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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