Passing the torch to the next generation is often the greatest challenge faced by farm families.
But the way the Ference family met that challenge is a big reason why Craig and Jinel Ference were recently named co-winners of Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmer award.
“It was such an interesting group because we’re all in different sectors of agriculture,” said Jinel. “We learned about everything from bison to potatoes to large-scale vegetable farms to the retail industry — farmer to plate, farmer direct to consumer. So it was a great learning experience.”
“It was quite an honour to be selected for the award,” added Craig. “We don’t think we’re outstanding by any means. We’re just doing what we love.”
Others obviously take a different view of Double F Farms, located near Kirriemuir (close to the Saskatchewan border). And given its size, it’s not hard to see why.
Craig’s parents, Joyce and Harvey, started with a small 150-cow mixed farm in 1985. The operation now has 4,000 Angus-Simmental-cross cows, an 8,000-head feedlot, 10,000 acres of grain and corn, 41,000 acres of grazing, and a custom farming business. Their owned and rented land spans a 35-kilometre radius (not including a 750-cow farm at Biggar, Sask.).
Craig runs the day-to-day operations and now that their three children are older, Jinel is increasingly involved in managing the business, overseeing employee benefits, dealing with software and tech, and “doing creative, innovative stuff.”
“She’s keeping up with all of the stuff that’s important to watch like cattle yield and field production data,” said Craig.
At the heart of the operation is the ability to recognize talent and enthusiasm, and fostering that in the younger generation has been key.
Craig credits his dad for recognizing those qualities at a young age and continually giving him more and more responsibilities — and for keeping farming interesting, fun, and realistic.
Harvey recognizes the same ambition in his seven-year-old grandson Nate.
“When you watch Nate play, you always see him making a farm, lining up equipment with a field over here and a field over there,” he said. “That’s the way Craig was growing up — his play habits always came back to the farm.”
Starting at age 12, Craig was given major responsibilities.
“We were short on labour so he was driving a tractor, calving, and sorting cattle at a young age,” recalled Harvey. “He was doing the work and I would just come and see how he had done it and it was good.”
Craig learned most of the farm’s daily tasks by carefully observing his father.
“Growing up it just becomes part of you,” he said. “You’re always learning how to drive vehicles and quads, chase cows, sort cattle, and fix equipment.”
Despite his enthusiasm for farming, Craig left the operation to attend the University of Alberta — where he met Jinel. After getting an ag business degree, he spent a year working in Australia.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to farm 100 per cent full time until I moved away,” he said. “I guess once you move away or get another job, you really start to understand what you love.”
With help from his parents, Craig had bought land at Biggar in 1999, shortly before heading to university. This has become something of a tradition in the Ference family, with Harvey’s father Tony offering some funds to his sons when the time came to pursue their own opportunities.
“Our dad just gave us an inch and we took a mile,” said Harvey. “He allowed us a little bit of cash to see what we would do with it. That allowed us to make decisions and we learned from the little decision-making. Each time he gave us bigger and bigger responsibilities.
“That’s basically what I did with Craig: start out small to see what he could do, find out how to steer him into the right thinking, and help him as he was thinking and growing.”
He even suggested a different career path for his son.
“I tried to steer him into oil but his heart was set on farming,” he said.
Of course, things are different today.
Changing attitudes in regard to farm safety means children aren’t operating equipment at a young age, but Craig and Jinel have other ways to give their three children more responsibility as they get older.
“Towards the house they have a little petting zoo where they’re around horses, geese, and pigs all the time,” said Craig. “This helps them get a feel for the responsibilities of looking after animals.”
Because he now runs the operation, Craig doesn’t spend as much time on the tractor as he used to. However, he plans to do so again once the kids are old enough to participate.
“I’ll take them with me and get them more and more involved as they get older and become more aware of the dangers,” he said. “There’s definitely more of an awareness of safety today. Agriculture is a lot more fast paced than it was a generation ago.”
The high costs of land and equipment are a huge barrier to succession, but passing on the farm isn’t the be-all and end-all, said Harvey, especially with so many ag-related opportunities off the farm.
“I know in this area there are lots of kids who are leaving who would love to stay and take over the farm, but in this day and age it’s just so hard for them because everything is just so costly to get going,” he said.
“Agriculture has a lot of benefits, and not only just in farming itself. There are also lots of other fields involved in agriculture that are very rewarding. My daughter Shawna is in agriculture — she works with Dow AgroSciences so she’s very much involved but she just went at it a different way than Craig did.”
Craig has no immediate plans for new ventures, although selling direct to consumers is piquing the couple’s interest. Otherwise, they will continue to look for anything that will help grow the business and make it sustainable for the next generation.
“We’ll just keep on doing what we love and see where it takes us,” he said. “We’ve accomplished more than we’ve ever dreamt and now it’s just a matter of seeing where life takes us. We’re going to try to keep it fun, keep it interesting, and keep going.
“As the next generation becomes involved we might have to tweak our business and our business model because their interests might be a little different than ours. We’re hoping we can build business today that can support multiple enterprises that aren’t really related to agriculture.”
The other co-winners of the national Outstanding Young Farmer award — which recognizes farmers aged 19 to 39 who exemplify excellence in agriculture — are Jordan and Alex McKay of Willow Tree Farms in Port Perry, Ont.
Also honoured at the national event in Winnipeg earlier this month were Rod and Shelley Bradshaw, winners of the Motherwell Award, which recognizes leadership and dedication to both the OYF program and Canadian agriculture. The couple, who won the provincial Outstanding Young Farmer title in 1993, are vegetable growers and members of Innisfail Growers, an alliance of vegetable producers.