Young farmers optimistic about the future despite high cost of getting started

Getting started in farming these days isn’t easy — but there’s plenty of young people eager to try.

“Now it’s more business focused than in the past,” Simon Ellis said during a lull in the discussions at the recent Young and Beginning Farmers Conference.

The 25-year-old said he’s hoping to take over his parents’ 1,200-acre seed farm near Wawanesa over the next decade — even though the value of land in his area doubled in recent years to $3,000 an acre and rent is $70 an acre or more.

Ellis, who is studying agribusiness at Assiniboine Community College, said he was impressed with the conference’s emphasis on developing a “vision” for the business. When he returns to full-time farming, he said he will need to take a hard look at whether the farm’s custom spraying, trucking, and seed cleaning will fit with his future goals.

With interest rates at record lows and options for locking them in for 20 years available from lenders such as Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation and Farm Credit Canada, it could be argued there has never been a better time to go farming, he added.

Cheap money helps, but it’s not the main factor, said Cedric MacLeod, a business management consultant and rancher from New Brunswick who led the discussions at the conference.

“In today’s ag climate, success is dictated by your ability to manage the business,” he said. “We’re not just sowers of seeds and hewers of lumber. Young farmers need to start thinking like CEOs.”

MacLeod got his start with a no-money-down purchase of a 100-acre piece of land near the family farm for $80,000 and now has a 35-head, direct-marketed, grass-fed beef operation on 240 acres of leased land.

It was a “ridiculous impulse” move, and MacLeod said he couldn’t have done that with lenders today demanding a 20 to 25 per cent down payment.

In most cases, parents who want to see the farm continue will help with the initial equity. But for some, the road to getting a start involves a detour through the oilpatch.

Cody Kent and Atlee Abey, two friends from the Virden area, say earning a stake to buy that first quarter section is “easy” in the booming industry where a wage of $10,000 per month no longer raises eyebrows.

Kent, a burly rig worker, is planning to buy a half section from his father within a year.

“You’ve got to have a long-term goal in mind. I’m doing this because eventually I will farm,” said Abey, a fifth-generation farmer who has bought his own tractor, air seeder, and haying equipment so he can generate cash flow with custom work.

Instead of sinking money into a major land purchase, Abey said he’s content to wait for the right opportunity to either buy the family farm or a parcel that makes sense for him.

“My father is 70 and I’m 24 — that’s a big age difference, and we have a hard time meeting in the middle,” said Abey, with a smile. “If he’s not ready to let me have it, then I’ll just go do my own thing knowing that the land is still there.”

For others, it’s still tough to make a go of it.

Mark Knight, a 34-year-old grain farmer with a wife and three children, got his start by working with his father until the family farm was sold in 2002.

By then, he’d accumulated enough of his own equipment to do custom work so that he could earn the down payment for his first quarter.

He formerly cropped 1,600 acres, half rented and half owned, but is now down to just 800 acres after the rented land was sold. High crop prices mean that finding land to rent, much less buy, is getting harder, and pencilling out a profit is tough.

“I still do custom work and anything I have to do to support my farming habit,” said Knight, adding that he’s grateful for his wife’s support for his efforts via an off-farm job three days a week.

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