Today’s young farmers: redefining ‘biodynamic’

By Lori Bamber

California’s current record-breaking drought is a keen reminder of just how much Canada’s future food security depends on the efforts of Canadian farmers – so it is heartening to see the passion, commitment and ingenuity that the newest generation of farm families brings to the table.

Google Vancouver-area farmer Lydia Ryall, for example, and you’ll find she’s something of an Internet celebrity, the subject of articles in the National Post, on the website of Oxfam Canada as well as many local and farm publications. Recently named the 2014 B.C./Yukon Outstanding Young Farmer at the BC Agriculture Council’s annual gala, Ryall owns and operates Cropthorne Farm, a 10-acre certified organic operation on Westham Island.

Although she grew up in farming, Ryall’s management practices are sourced in a completely modern worldview. “We direct-market the majority of our crops, so we have a website (www.cropthornefarm.com) and a Facebook page.  We’re on Twitter. Our customers are looking for a direct connection to us,” she explains.

In addition to pasture-raised poultry, Cropthorne grows a wide diversity of organic produce, from rainbow carrots to kale and salad greens, eggplants and tomatoes.

Belying the common myth that farming is a relatively low-skilled occupation, Ryall has a Bachelor of Science in agriculture from the University of Lethbridge and a diploma in agriculture production from Olds College. She is a director of the Delta Farmers Institute and the Lower Mainland Horticulture Improvement Association.

“Some knowledge may be passed on between generations, but there is always innovation, new technology we can use to become more efficient,” she says.

In addition to mastering the skills of marketing, growing, mechanics and husbandry, “we have a strong focus on our employees,” says Ryall. “We want the farm to be an enjoyable place to work. When you think of farming, you don’t necessarily think of the HR side of things, but it’s extremely important to our business.

Although her parents are now retired from farming, they continue to be mentors, and Ryall enjoys farming alongside her sister and family. “Farming can be stressful at times, but when you have little kids running around, it lightens up any situation. I’m proud we’re providing healthy food choices to our local community and beyond. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“Agriculture is such a fascinating, vibrant industry,” says Jake Leguee, who farms about 10,000 acres in southeastern Saskatchewan with his wife, older sister and parents. The Leguee family grows grain, oilseeds and special crops, including durum, canola, spring and winter wheat, soybeans, peas, lentils and flax.

“It’s also an entrepreneurial industry,” adds Leguee. “Maybe I’m a little biased, but I believe there’s no better way to live your life.”

Farming is the only business in the world that ties together the complex-ities of biology, chemistry, marketing, finance, engineering, math and mechanics, he notes. “It may sound daunting, and it is, but it is also incredibly rewarding.

“Mother Nature isn’t always kind, but there’s no experience quite like planting that seed, giving it everything you can and watching it grow and flourish, until you’re finally able to harvest and see what your whole year’s work has produced.”

Leguee joined the farm full time after graduating with a degree in agronomy (crop science) and agricultural business from the University of Saskatchewan in 2010. While he puts his education to good use identifying the best crops to grow, he laughs when he says that the “single most important thing I learned in university was how to use Microsoft Excel. We need to know where our profitability line is and figure out our cash flow a year or more in advance, especially with margins getting tighter.

“Because ultimately, as much as we love to farm, we can’t do it if we can’t make some money at it, right?”

Both young farmers credit their university years – as well as social media – with helping them develop a strong support network. “Everybody wants to see everybody else succeed,” says Leguee. 

Leguee blogs at www.southsaskfarmer.com, and says that sharing knowledge “allows us to try things we never would have imagined before and alerts us to potential issues. If there’s a disease coming across Saskatchewan, I’m alerted to it on Twitter, in real time, so that I can actually do something about it in advance.”

Leguee and Ryall are part of a new generation of Canadians who are passionate about agriculture. “We’re seeing a resurgence of interest in farming, partly because of the local food movement,” says Lenore Newman, the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley.

But the cost of land stands in the way of many young would-be farmers, she says. “It’s crushing. In this region, farmland runs as much as $100,000 an acre. There’s nothing you can grow that can possibly return that.”

It’s essential that land-use policies protect farmland, she says. “We’ve been importing food since the country began, but basing a food system largely on imports means being at the mercy of the global market. We may not go hungry without these local farms, but our food will be a lot less interesting and a lot more expensive.”

Local farming contributes to our culture as well as to our dinner tables, says Newman. “Here in Vancouver, we enjoy all this fresh produce – it makes our food culture rich and also supports tourism, a giant industry. That starts to fray if people can’t get into farming.”

Newman sits on the board of Vancouver Farmers Markets, and reports that the markets bring in a lot of money to the city each year and are a popular tourist draw. “But we sometimes struggle to find enough farmers.”

The large-scale commodity farming practiced by grain and beef farmers in the interior of the country is very healthy, she reports. “Large-scale farming is very efficient. But with the smaller farms in and around cities, you want variety. We’re seeing a lot of innovation: value-added products such as distillation of fruit wines, agro-tourism and the establishment of overseas markets.”

While policy leadership is needed to protect farmland around cities, post-secondary institutions also have an important role to play in equipping the next generation of farmers for their very important roles, says Newman. “Society has an image of farming as a laid-back lifestyle, but these young farmers are CEOs in a very dynamic industry.” 

Lydia Ryall of Cropthorne Farm. Photo: Debra Stringfellow

Lydia Ryall of Cropthorne Farm.
Photo: Debra Stringfellow

Cropthorne Farm.  Photo by Debra Stringfellow

Cropthorne Farm. 
Photo by Debra Stringfellow

According to the last census, Canada has

205,730

farms.


98%

are family farms.


Almost

25,000

farm operators are under the age of 35.


An average farmer produces

300%

more food today than in 1950.


Sources: Food & Consumer Products of Canada and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture


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