People who dream of being a farmer flock to ‘business bootcamp’

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It doesn’t look like there’s any shortage of people who want to be farmers.

The inaugural edition of the Young Agrarians Business Bootcamp for would-be farmers quickly filled up and organizers have added a second one with plans for at least two more in the coming year.

“There are more new farmers in Alberta than we were anticipating,” said Alex Pulwicki, e-learning co-ordinator with Young Agrarians, which describes itself as a “network for new and young ecological, organic and regenerative farmers.”

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“There’s a hunger for that community and knowledge around how to start a farm.”

The business bootcamp helps participants conceive and write a business plan, covering topics such as marketing and financial plans to talking to lenders and accessing capital.

“It covers all the different kinds of elements that you would need to consider for the business aspect of starting a farm,” said Pulwicki.

Most participants don’t have a traditional farming background, she added.

“Even if they have worked on a farm, they don’t have the skills needed to run a farm business,” she said. “The entrepreneurial background isn’t there, but the passion to create a beautiful farm is. We’re trying to create a community of peers and business experts and other farm startups as they write their business plan.”

The program was capped at 30 people and those spots were quickly taken.

“We have had a lot of interest in the program, which has been very exciting,” said Pulwicki.

“We were just anticipating running the one group in January, but we had a long enough wait list to fill another course as well.”

Participants prepare for the course by watching pre-recorded videos and doing worksheets.

“When we come together online, it’s almost entirely discussion in breakout rooms. There’s lots of time for people to ask questions that are specific to their context, and run ideas by their peers and experts to get feedback on their business plan, make sure it’s realistic, and sort out those kinds of details.”

Members of the first group, who are mostly from Alberta and B.C., are considering everything from vegetables and cattle to flowers and yaks.

“A common thread is that all the people are interested in starting small and really focused on having an ecological farm, working with their surroundings, the natural systems they are farming in, and feeding their local community,” said Pulwicki.

The program, which costs $249 to $349, runs over 10 weeks, although the second one will be a condensed five-week version so participants can finish before the growing season starts.

The key is getting feedback from others who have gone down the same road, added Pulwicki.

“We’re able to bring together instructors from all over the country who can share experiences and stories,” she said.

One of those instructors is Blake Hall, who operates Prairie Gold Pastured Meats near Bentley. He and his wife are first-generation farmers who finish their cattle on grass and direct market the meat to consumers in Red Deer, Calgary and Canmore.

Access to land and financing are the main barriers for new farmers, he noted.

“We had to get creative to come up with solutions when we started out 12 years ago, but we’ve been able to forge a career as farmers and buy our own farm eventually,” said Hall. “Young Agrarians called on us to share our experiences with other young people who are starting out and help them in that journey.”

That meant sharing some tips, and then answering questions.

“My main advice is to invest in portable infrastructure and to lease land, because land rent is still tied to production value, whereas ownership is not,” he said. “Our main advantage came from direct marketing because we were able to set our own price. That was critical. We had to account for every part of our cost.”

He and his wife started out small, and knew who their customers were when they began.

“I’m encouraging the participants to follow a similar idea,” said Hall. “I think farmers are pretty notorious for producing and then looking for their market.

“Instead, you can find out what your customer wants, and let them pull your production along.”

Hall has already led one session, and he will have another group call with participants who are interested in livestock farming.

“Now that the participants have had a chance to look at their business plans and their farm trajectory through the lens of this program, we’ll be available to help guide them as their business plan draws to a close,” he said.

Other Alberta instructors include Andrew Rosychuk of Rosy Farms, Laurie Trigg of Backwoods Buffalo Ranch, Dong Jianyi of Freshpal Farms, and Mike Kozlowski of Steel Pony Farm as well as the Agricultural Financial Service Corporation and Business Link (an Alberta non-profit that assists people starting a business).

Young Agrarians will be running the program again this coming fall and next winter, and may also offer another session this spring. For more info, contact Pulwicki at [email protected] , or go to youngagrarians.org.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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