A lifetime in farming brings perspective. Two veteran farmers, Jean-Guy Vincent and Garry Meier, share theirs – one has some advice for young people entering farming while the other offers some thoughts for those passing on their operations.
After 41 years in the hog business, Jean-Guy Vincent has seen good and bad times come and go. And come and go. And come and go.
“I lived with this cycle all my life,” says the 63-year-old farmer from Sainte-Séraphine, Que. “It depends on many things – grain prices, weather, policies and programs, the economy. There are a lot of things that can affect it. But this is agriculture. And this is why I say that before you think about making money in agriculture, you need to think about how much you like it.”
While some sectors, notably grains and oilseeds, are enjoying boom times, hog producers have seen more than their share of challenges. Production peaked in 2006, when Canadian farms produced 15 million pigs, before a combination of rising costs, falling prices, and a high dollar sent the sector into a tailspin. Overall production fell to 11.7 million pigs by 2010, and in some provinces it was even worse – Alberta lost one-third of its production, Saskatchewan nearly half, and by 2011, the Nova Scotia hog sector was virtually gone.
Vincent, who is chair of the Canadian Pork Council, remains optimistic about the future of the hog business, but says all young farmers – particularly those currently enjoying good times – should think about how they would cope with a down cycle.
“If money is your motivation, then it is very difficult to live and stay on the farm,” he says. “The movement in the price cycle can be very high, and so you never know what your income will be next year.”
The financial aspect is one thing, but it’s also how the day-to-day stress builds up in a person, says Vincent. For example, this year’s early spring raised hopes of a bumper crop. Then summer brought soaring temperatures and virtually no rain in an area that averages a hefty 100 millimetres every month from May to September. As the weeks rolled by and his corn and soy crops withered in the fields, each new hot, cloudless day became harder to face, says Vincent.
“This isn’t normal and it’s very hard to live when this happens … it gets very emotional,” he says. “In June, we were profitable and in July, we were not. Maybe in January, there will be strong demand and it will have all changed again. But who knows?”
In such situations, some will want to quit and others will shut their eyes to the grim reality, but farmers must be able to look at their situation dispassionately, says Vincent, who with wife Lise Trepanier and sons David, 36, and Charles, 31, produces 25,000 pigs annually on three sites and grow much of their own feed on 2,500 acres.
“Farming is in my blood, but it is also a business,” he says. “We are not blind. If I decided the future was not going to be profitable for pigs, we would need to make a decision about doing something else.”
Vincent believes the fundamentals for his industry are strong and expects the rising global population will continue to push up worldwide demand for pork. At the same time, he is pragmatic. He says his main goal as Canadian Pork Council chair is to push for changes so safety nets are more responsive to a crisis, such as this summer’s huge jump in feed prices coupled with a drop in hog prices.
Farmers, too, will have to do more to protect themselves, he adds. This includes quickly adopting profitable new technology, keeping a close eye on foreign markets and competitors, and using every available management tool (such as altering feed formulations when grain prices spike).
“You can earn a good living in agriculture, but you are going to have to work more than people in other sectors,” says Vincent. “You work long days, you work weekends, and sometimes even with all this work, you are not making money. But you get to see animals being born and growing, you get to see the corn getting tall in your fields.
“This is part of the reward of farming. And this is why I say, to be happy in farming and succeed at it, you must have a passion for these things.
“I look at my own sons. They understand how difficult it can be in the pig sector. They know that, but they want to farm. They have the kind of passion you need to be successful.”
Don’t drown the next generation in debt – or advice – is Garry Meier’s recommendation to farmers wanting to pass on their operation.
“It’s very difficult to keep a business going if you have to re-mortgage it every generation,” says Meier, just retired from active farming and now a (mostly) silent partner in a new farm enterprise.
“And that means that when you step out of the business, you have to have income streams to support your lifestyle. Otherwise, you’ve no choice but to sell assets and put that debt on the next generation.”
This spring, Meier helped two young farmers, neither a relative, considerably expand their farm operation. The move came after his two daughters, both in their early 20s, confirmed they weren’t interested in taking over the business – a 10,000-acre enterprise Meier had built with his brother Glen (who also has two daughters pursuing non-farm careers).
That marked the family’s end of active farming in the Ridgedale area in northeastern Saskatchewan, a run that began in 1923 when the brothers’ grandfather came north from Minnesota.
Rather than sell, Garry and wife Bonnie put their 2,000 acres and some capital, mostly in the form of equipment, into a new 20,000-acre operation with a neighbour and two young farmers in their mid-20s (the neighbour’s son-in-law and the son-in-law’s brother) who didn’t have the capital to quickly scale up to that size. It took “some head-scratching” to put a deal together, but a key element is that as a partner, Meier will share the the risk and reward,
“If they have a good year, then I will have one, too,” the 58-year-old says with a laugh.
But if not, Meier will get by on his other “income streams,” which include a leafcutter bee operation, a small plant breeding company specializing in industrial hemp, and a part-time agronomist job. Putting this new enterprise on solid financial footing, including manageable debt, means it will have the wherewithal to continually invest in the latest technology. That’s what Meier and his brother always did, and that is essential to the long-term viability of a farm, he says.
“There’s nothing worse than running a business that’s undercapitalized,” he says. “That’s the Achilles’ heel of many businesses.”
While partnering with a new generation of farmers is nice, this is also a way to continue the business that Meier and his brother created over three decades.
“In a way, the enterprise will continue, it’ll just be under a different name,” says Meier, adding he and his brother took a different approach than many.
“A lot of guys like straight production agriculture, and for them, there’s no better time than seeding and harvest. I call that the ‘driving stuff’ and I was never terribly excited by that aspect.”
Instead, the brothers focused on innovation. They started with a traditional Prairie grain farm, 1,600 acres with one-third in summerfallow each year. They stopped doing both that and pre-seeding tillage, developed their own protocols for pre-harvest glyphosate, tried new crops such as pulses and hemp, and aggressively adopted new technology, including mid row banding fertilizer with seed drills, capturing yield data and variable-rate fertilization. The young farmers Meier is partnering with (none of whom he really knew beforehand) share that progressive attitude and a desire to be on the cutting edge.
And though Meier has the experience to help guide them, he’s careful to stay out of their way.
“I’ve learned that advice is never well received unless it’s asked for,” he says. “I took the advice of some wizened old veterans who said, ‘These guys are going to do it different and if you hang around, you’re going to get frustrated.’ So I stepped back and when they want my opinion, they ask for it.”
Not surprisingly, that happens a lot. Meier says he gets a call, text or email two or three times a week asking for his input. But when he’s not consulted and his young partners do something he wouldn’t, he stays silent.
While his is an unusual arrangement, pulling family considerations out of the succession formula strips away the personal feelings he might have if he were dealing with a family member. For Meier, that means not burdening someone with excessive debt or unwanted advice.
“It’s tough to do because you’ve got a vested interest in how it works out,” says Meier. “But if it’s going to work, you have to pass control while ensuring the next generation has the ability to move the business forward.”