By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
One of the biggest crises facing agriculture in Canada today is an aging farm population. Over the next decade many farmers will retire and there are not many young men and women coming up to replace them. The challenges for young farmers wanting into the business are well documented. The price of land, the cost of machinery and equipment, the cyclical nature of cattle and crop markets and the lack of avenues to help train young farmers in how to thrive and survive in the agriculture business. Putting those challenges aside, probably the biggest single factor is a lack of confidence in young people today who maybe want to get into farming but don’t know how to go about it.
Confidence is one thing 27 year-old Dustin Vossler from Seven Persons, Alberta has never had a problem with. Bordering on brash, Vossler currently sits as an elected councillor in Cypress County and is never afraid to speak his mind. Vossler decided to get back into farming about four years ago after leaving his family farm to go to work in Medicine Hat as a mechanic and welder at the age of 18. Vossler admits he was likely in denial about where he truly wanted to be.
“I went out into the world and I did a little bit of everything,” remembers Vossler. “I worked as a mechanic. I worked as a welder. I moved drilling rigs. I ran around the countryside doing that. I even worked at a parts store; and I lived in town. I eventually realized I definitely did not belong in town. My neighbours in Medicine Hat loved me because I always shovelled their sidewalks for them because I was up at six o’clock and I was so damned bored.”
Vossler says it wasn’t easy in the beginning to return to the farm and make a go of it, but he knew it was what he really wanted.
“It can be done. A young farmer can get into it. You have to have some good neighbours and you really have to care. Starting out I worked a full time job and farmed too. It wasn’t until this year I finally said enough, and now I mainly farm. Even as it is right now, I still have to go and do lots of custom work. I still do lots of side mechanical and welding jobs for guys. I have to do stuff like that to keep afloat because, honestly, I don’t make enough income just off of farming to live.”
Vossler says any young farmer thinking of getting into the business has to think about the long game, and find ways to cushion him or herself against the vagaries of the market.
“It’s horribly expensive to get into farming,” acknowledges Vossler. “To be perfectly honest if I wouldn’t have been born into it I would never have been able to get into it. It’s one of those things where you have to have good backing from your family to be able to afford to do it. For me to go out and buy a quarter of land, and all the equipment, is just unfeasible. But one of the biggest things that has to be done once you get into the operation is you have to diversify in your agriculture. You have to farm, but you also have to run cows. Especially for someone with a smaller farm, you can’t just do only one thing because you can’t handle a harsh fluctuation in the market.”
Vossler says you also can’t be afraid to lean on other more experienced farmers or neighbours for support and advice.
“Money is one of the biggest things you have to understand if you are a young guy wanting to farm, but one of the other biggest things is the know-how. For me I have my father to lean on. Whenever I get stumped on something, or something is going on; he’s been doing this for a lot of years. And I can usually go to him and go: ‘Pops, what the hell is going on here?’ If you don’t have that it makes it tough. But one of the great things about living in the country is having neighbours that farm, and everyone looks after each other. You can’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it and give help when you are asked.”
According to Vossler you also need to have courage in your conviction that you want to be a farmer.
“I would say if you are passionate about it, pursue it. If you think you can make a go at it, run with it. And if you go broke, at least you can say you tried. If you do well, good on ya. There is no harm in trying. God hates a coward…There is nothing more rewarding when you are watching that grain come out of the combine and into the truck because you feel like you did something.”
And nothing can compare to the lifestyle either, says Vossler.
“It’s a freedom you just don’t have with an 8-5 job. It is one of those things where you want to go to work because you are working toward a goal for yourself and not for somebody else. You are always working toward your own independence. You have to decide you are never going to be rich. And you have to take and want the lifestyle. That lifestyle is a huge thing to me. That willingness to walk out of your house in your underwear and shoot a pheasant off your doorstep is an excellent thing to me,” says Vossler with a broad smile and laugh. “And yes, it has to be in your underwear.”
In the Seven Persons area where Vossler lives he is not the only young farmer returning to the land to make a go of it. About a dozen of his old classmates have also taken up the charge; a percentage that is quite extraordinary by western Canadian standards for any region or community. They all face their own challenges, but perhaps none moreso than 31 year-old Dustin Kreiser. Unlike most young farmers who come into the business with the help of a generational boost, Kreiser came into farming six years ago starting from scratch with a hundred acres of land, a small house and a willingness to succeed no matter the cost in effort.
His grandfathers had been farmers, but the family land and equipment was sold off years ago. Kreiser was determined to fulfill his father’s dream of returning to the farm.
“Both my grandfathers were farmers and ranchers. As life went on my dad and my uncles couldn’t afford to make a living off of what they had there. It all kinda got sold off over the years. When I was 24 or 25 my dad passed away, and he was always adamant he was going to buy grandpa’s farm, but it never worked out. He was always trying, but he never really pulled the trigger. I just figured when he passed that life is short and you better do what you want to do,” explains Kreiser.
Kreiser admits his first five years in the farming business were a tough go, and he wasn’t always sure he would succeed.
“There’s one cheque a year and a lot of people who need a piece of it… I would say the biggest thing was getting everything you needed from supplies, chutes, building, corrals, fencing. The first couple years I was ranching I didn’t have enough money to buy fencing supplies. I could buy a bundle of posts and a couple rows of barbed wire, but I didn’t have the cash flow built up to go buy what I needed to do it properly. It was a lot of making it work, kind of thing. Once you get over that five year hurdle, after you take out a loan and buy a load of cows. They will give you a loan on them for five years, and once you’ve got those cows paid for everything turns around. That’s when you can finally see a little bit of daylight.”
Kreiser still works a job off the farm to makes ends meet, but he has doubled the size of his land and foresees in ten years, with a lot of hard work, being able to farm nearly full time. He says if you want it you have to make a plan to go out and get it.
“First thing is if you walk into the bank without a plan you’re going to walk out sad. I did that a lot. Luckily FCC eventually gave me a shot. You are also going to have to have an (off-farm) job for sure. That way you will be able to make your payments and live. Other than that, don’t be scared to try. You’ve just got to figure it and think: ‘I will find a way to make it work.’ There’s no better investment than doing something you actually enjoy and want to do.”
Despite his challenges and struggles, Kreiser says he has absolutely no regrets about giving it his all in the agriculture business.
“It’s been 110 per cent worth it. The community I am a part of now can’t be replaced. The guys and the people in this area that have helped me get things done when there was a time I couldn’t get it done because I didn’t have the right equipment or stuff like that; you couldn’t ask for a better support. And then there’s that pride of owning land and being able to pass that down to the next generation some day, and they don’t have to start from scratch. This is one of the most satisfying things you’ll ever do. I would say there is no price you can put on the lifestyle.”