Lessons Learned From Starting A Farm From Scratch

Our family moved to Narcisse to start farming in 1994. We have been asked many, many times if we are ready to move back to the city yet and the answer has always been “No!” Our main motivation to start farming was to have a safe environment to raise our family and to raise the vast majority of our own food. Those goals cannot be attained in the city.

When we were first discussing moving out of Winnipeg, my husband just wanted to be able to hunt at home and maybe raise our own poultry. We had both spent summers on relatives’ farms growing up and knew what work was involved in farming and understood the capital demands. The first property we looked at was 40 acres and that was way too small. Then, as we drove around and looked at more properties, we realized that we needed to start planning for the future instead of just worrying about our present needs.

If we ever wanted to own a cow, for example, we needed more land. That led us into the quarter section listings. At that point our budget started getting in the way and we extended our search further away from the city, thus increasing my husband’s commute to his off-farm job.

For many young families taking over an established farm, it is difficult to look beyond their busy day-to-day life and envision the road five, 10 or 20 years ahead. For us this was compounded by the fact that we were starting from scratch, but it had to be done.

We knew that the life expectancy of the company he worked for was not long term, so we decided at that point to commute as long as possible, build up here as fast as possible, and take work wherever we could to make ends meet. Which is what we have been doing.

FIND MARKETS FIRST

What we should have done differently was research our markets better from the start. When we first started raising cattle all we knew was that you calved your cows, sent them to pasture, brought them home and shipped your calves. Then you sat nervously in the stands praying that someone liked them enough to pay a good price. This worked really well actually until 2003, when we went from getting $1.70 a pound for a decent Black Angus steer at weaning to $0.80 a pound.

In order to stay in the beef business we had to change our genetics and our marketing, which takes time. We now have dependable grass finishing genetics, but are still a few years away from a large enough clientele to market our entire product, so we still depend on the auction mart.

Our advice would be to establish the market, then build up the supply, and never depend on the auction mart unless you are ready to accept whatever you get per animal. And we just aren’t. Too many heifers have left here the last few years for $0.65 a pound just because the supply is high.

Establishing your market as you grow your product supply keeps debt levels lower, too. When we first started out, the banks refused to lend us money for two cows. It had to be 20 or they wouldn’t look at the papers. But we had never owned beef cattle of our own, we had no mentor and it was a lot of money for 20 or more cows. We were able to buy two on payments to our neighbour and have never regretted the gentle learning curve it provided.

I am not sure about the bank’s logic because back then we didn’t even own our own tractor. To feed 20 cows we would have had to pay a neighbour, which would have been another expense. On weekends my husband would fill a stall in the barn with the hay from a round bale for the children and I to feed to the cows during the week. If we ran out the children and I would either fork or peel by hand hay off the round bale into a wheelbarrow and bring it into the barn for the cows. On windy days I used to put our little girl, then four years old, on top to keep the hay from all blowing away. She loved it!

DON’T SKIMP ON LAND

The one thing that my husband would change if we had it to do over would be to buy more land when we first moved. We have managed to buy three more quarters over the years but he feels that putting 25 per cent down on our home quarter was a mistake. It could be advisable to put the lowest down payment possible on land purchases as long as the payments are affordable. When we started out there were so many expenses that cropped up once we got going that we didn’t foresee that buying more land has been difficult. Every time land changes hands the prices go up and buying more now is going to be significantly more expensive. But hindsight is a grand thing.

LOCATION TO MARKET

The mistakes we made with our cattle we have learned from and not repeated with our sheep and goats. As we have grown our flocks we have also made sure to keep our marketing efforts strong. I prefer waiting lists for product over scrambling to sell animals that are ready to leave.

Another point to consider is location to your market. We have been lucky that we live in a relatively central location to a beef/pig abattoir and have a lucrative live market for our small ruminants. We would love to live off in the bush on a quiet gravel road, but I don’t think people would be as open to travelling to our farm.

A farmer told me a few years ago that the first 20 years of farming were the hardest, so that means four more years till it gets easy. Well, I am not so sure owning your own business is ever really easy, but it is far more rewarding than not. Unlike many young people, our children are not going too far from the farm. They recognize that it supplies their food, which they cannot easily purchase anywhere else, and it is a safe place to raise a family.

DebbieChikouskyfarmswithherfamilyat Narcisse,Man.Visitorsarealwayswelcome. ContactDebbieat [email protected]

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