Creativity and efficiency have served Craig and Jinel Ference well on their family farm. These qualities also distinguished the couple when they were named one of two national winners of the 2018 Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) program.
“Being nominated to be part of the program was a real honour, and then as we went through the different processes you begin to realize what an inspiring group of people make up the alumni of the program,” said Jinel. “When we were selected nationally it was a very overwhelming experience because there’s such a high calibre of people there, and people in the industry are doing amazing things.”
The couple runs Double F Farms near Kirriemuir, Alta., with Craig’s parents, Harvey and Joyce Ference. After being named one of seven regional OYF winners in 2018, representing Alberta and the Northwest Territories, the Ferences travelled to Winnipeg for the program’s National Recognition Event, where regional representatives gave presentations about their operation and were interviewed by a panel of judges.
The program recognizes young farmers, between the ages of 18 and 39, who exemplify excellence in their profession, according to the OYF website. Farm operators must derive a minimum of two-thirds of their income from their farm operations to be eligible.
The path to this national recognition began when the previous generation built the family farm’s foundation. The elder Ferences started a grain farm in 1985, working with one of Harvey’s brothers. They also ran a fertilizer distribution business. Harvey and Joyce went on their own in 1995, selling the fertilizer business and bringing cattle into the equation.
When Craig returned home from his post-secondary studies in 2005, the family expanded the farm.
“For myself, it was always kind of in my blood,” Craig said of his interest in making a career in agriculture. Still, he wasn’t sure he’d return to the family farm after university. “I worked a year in Australia, and it kind of all came into place then.”
Jinel, a teacher by trade, taught at schools in nearby towns when the couple returned to the farm. When they started their family, she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. She also became more involved in the farm. She now runs their feedlot and cropping programs and is the human resource manager, an important role with 20 workers. The couple has three children.
They farm 13,500 acres, and their cow-calf herd is comprised of 4,000 head of Angus-Simmental cross females. They breed their heifers to Angus bulls and their mature cows to Simmental bulls. Calving begins in mid-April, and calves are weaned at the end of August.
They also run a feedlot with an 8,000-head capacity. In addition to feeding home-grown calves, they source calves from local producers and auction markets in Provost, Veteran and Vermilion. The feedlot was part of their operation from the beginning, but a major crisis in the Canadian beef industry prompted them to reconsider its scope.
“We really started growing the feedlot in the last 10 years. We were predominantly cow-calf from ’95 to ’05, and then we needed to value-add,” Craig explained. “When BSE hit, I guess, is when we really started the feedlot and started to finish cattle. We initially started backgrounding cattle to add value to the mother cows, and then we just kept growing that and converted to a feedlot.”
To increase efficiency, the Ferences shifted a significant portion of their cropped land to corn production for feed, grazing and silage.
“In the last five years corn has been a big growth factor. We started years ago with 100 acres of corn and it’s grown since then,” said Craig. This season, they plan to seed 80 per cent of their cropped land to corn, with cash crops such as canola, lentils and peas making up the other 20 per cent.
Improving the soil’s organic matter is a long-term goal that influences practices such as spreading manure, using vertical tillage and growing perennial forages.
“Organic matter is very important for future growth, for future production, so the healthier the soil, the better the crops we can grow,” said Craig. “We want to continually improve the land, so we’re doing that by proper management, proper fertility practices… Rather than mine the soil, we’re improving the soil, and it’s important not just for my generation but for the next generation.”
The next generation is on their mind when they consider options for diversifying their operation. This mindset has contributed to the sustainability of their farm and allowed for continued growth. For example, their custom farming project allows for extra cash flow, which helps manage the uncertainty in agriculture.
“It’s a huge risk mitigation tool,” Craig said of diversification. “Sometimes when one market is down the other market is up, so it’s allowing us to maintain profit levels and cash flow.”
This also fits into their efforts to increase efficiency. A mixed operation that includes cow-calf, feedlot and grain has hidden benefits, Craig said, such as using land and equipment more efficiently.
One of their past diversification efforts was creating a recruitment business for international agricultural workers. Before then, they hired workers from Australia for the cow-calf division of their own farm. This inspired them to start Cascade Recruitment to connect producers with Australians who wanted to work on Canadian farms. They worked with a company in Australia that screened the employees, and the Ferences connected them to farms in Western Canada.
In recent years, they’ve downscaled the recruitment business but continue to run a website.
“We got fairly busy growing our main business, the farm and its enterprises, so I still have connections in that industry and we utilize it a little bit for our own staff. But we don’t place any more with other farms,” said Craig.
However, this venture was beneficial to their operation in areas beyond extra income. “Having that business was a great foundation for us expanding our own employee base,” said Jinel.
They’re now recruiting workers from Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and Ukraine.
Finding hidden opportunities in challenges
Attracting youth to careers in agriculture is not a new challenge. As young producers themselves, the Ferences know that certain factors may make agriculture a more enticing choice.
“It helps if the industry is profitable to bring young people back,” said Craig. He noted the lifestyle and setting for raising a family are also attractive, but increased awareness and education are needed to help share these benefits with more young people.
“I think there’s a shift currently happening where more and more young people are returning to the farm,” he said. “Farming now is more of a business, so the equipment and the infrastructure and the capital, all that is changing. The youth before would leave the farm for careers in different industries but also to improve their skills, and I think they’re gaining that now on the farm.”
In light of barriers such as lack of capital and rising land costs in Canada, they cite examples in other countries as potential ideas for Canadian youth trying to find a way into the industry.
“Australia, for instance, has a lot of young people coming back to the businesses. They’re not necessarily owners of the land or of that farm, but it’s more like a corporate setting, so they’re managers,” said Craig.
Craig thinks Canada will see a similar shift going forward. As farms get larger, there’s a need for people with management skills. The wages will follow, he said.
“Right now everybody’s focused on that, the youth of today can’t afford to buy a farm, but I think they’re looking at it wrong,” he said. “If you can’t afford a farm off the bat there’s other means or methods to do it — renting land, or partnering up with somebody… If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
The Ferences advise thinking outside the box to create additional revenue sources.
“We think it’s important, too, for people who are wanting to work towards coming back to the farm to come with creative ideas and maybe new education,” said Jinel. “When Craig came back, the recruitment business was something different and it created some income and some foundation for us in the beginning.”
This perspective benefits the Ferences. Rather than being deterred by challenges, they see those challenges as exciting. Challenges bring hidden opportunities, said Craig.
“There’s going to be a lot more communication with our end-users, our customers, with the consumers,” he said. “With social media and with all these other mechanisms, there’s going to be a lot more one-on-one, which we’re pretty excited about.”
They plan to tap into this to add greater value to their business through direct marketing. “We’re very proud of the products we’re producing, and so we want to portray that and we want to show what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and why we love what we’re doing,” said Craig.
They’re encouraged by the beef industry’s approach of meeting the challenge of communicating with consumers. The industry is doing a good job of becoming more involved with consumers, Jinel said, and “using social media to portray that things are safe and farmers are doing what they love and producing good products.” It’s something they’re very interested in, she added.
“I think another exciting thing is just the science behind agriculture and the things that we see happening year-to-year — what we can grow, how we can manage crops, the differences there, the changes and the forward thinking is amazing,” said Jinel.
They find other challenges facing the beef industry more concerning. “A scare right now for us is the relationship with the U.S. and Donald Trump’s politics. It’s such a wild card, and we’re so dependent on the U.S. market right now, so trade is huge,” said Craig. “Canola going to China and beef going to the U.S., right now we’re at a very high-risk situation, our farm. So how do we address these? We don’t know. We hope the leaders we have in Canada and in place are doing this, but it’s always a risk.”
With an eye on these challenges, the Ferences plan to keep efficiency at the forefront of their operation heading into the future.
“Long-term, we want to become a more efficient operation,” said Craig. “We need to be sustainable, so there’s a lot of changes that are going to take place in regards to feeding our cattle and efficiencies that way, and corn is going to allow a lot of these changes to take place.”
They also aim to create opportunities in their business that will allow their own children to become involved in the farm in the years to come.
“We’re very proud that we have a business with Craig’s parents, so going forward we’re hoping that our family wants to become more involved as they grow older,” said Jinel.