Back to the land
Quebec couple among growing numbers of entrepreneurs making farming their business
In the 1960s, Green Acres was a runaway comedy hit. For six years, TV audiences tuned in to watch the misadventures of a high-society Manhattan couple’s struggle to run a dilapidated farm.
These days, the notion of urban professionals turning their hands to farming is no joke. In fact, a growing number of them are applying their considerable business and technology talents to agrarian pursuits.
The Washington Post recently reported that a growing number of highly educated, ex-urban people under 35 years of age are leaving their desk jobs to take up local farming — thanks to the growing consumer demand for local and sustainable foods.
For Geneviève Blanchard, 29, a financial professional, and Antoine Doyon, 31, an academic, a trip to more exotic climes inspired them to try organic farming in their home community of Sherbrooke, Que., in June 2015. Their venture, ölistik, is a two-hectare, organic agriculture farm.
The couple made sure that the property had a few unique features that would set them apart in the community. For one, it’s a 10-minute drive from downtown Sherbrooke. “It’s quite rare to find agriculture fields close to the city,” Blanchard says.
Another is their geothermalheated greenhouses mounted on tracks, which allow them to produce greens year-round. “No other local farmer can provide yearround greens,” she claims.
As newcomers to the industry, Blanchard says it was difficult for them to know what to look for. “There weren’t a lot of smallscale, sustainable organic farms for us to compare ourselves to. This project was very different because it needed a lot of initial investment, especially for the geothermal system and the greenhouses.”
They had to start from scratch with the property, working the fields and designing and building the greenhouses. Total startup costs were about $500,000.
Despite their concerns, the business took off immediately, and the first year saw production exceeding their estimates. “We haven’t had to look for clients. They came to us. In fact, we often have a waiting list. The challenge for us now is having constant production and quality, especially during the winter.”
A growing number of entrepreneurs are turning their hand to farming, confirms Marvin Slingerland, partner with accounting and tax firm MNP in Lethbridge, Alta. As newcomers to the industry, however, “they need to understand the variables that drive the numbers within a business plan. That being said, I’m seeing a lot more seeking professional advice than I have in the past.”
Slingerland believes that beyond the social and environmental appeal of farming, agriculture is showing very strong economic potential for savvy entrepreneurs. “North America will be a key factor in food production,“he says. ”We’re not even on the cusp of where it will be in five years.”
When entering farming for the first time, creativity is paramount, he adds. “Farming is very capital intensive, so challenging the capital paradigm is key.”
That could mean, for example, leasing land versus buying. “You’ll get the same return as your neighbour but won’t have the huge capital investment that ties you down. You may (wouldn’t) run cattle on your farm, but run sheep because they produce more pounds of protein per acre. Or you can find a market niche and develop new processes to produce it.”
Adam MacLean’s grass-fed lamb farming operation in Darlington, P.E.I., is as lean and creative as it gets when it comes to managing capital costs. “I crunched a lot of numbers and went through a lot of spreadsheets before I made the decision to do it.”
MacLean, 33, secured $45,000 in financing through Futurpreneur Canada and BDC, which allowed him to purchase his first 100 sheep. He also signed 10-year land lease deals with three neighbouring farms. “Without that capital it would have been really tough as a new farm entrant.”
While he admits there is a lot to farming that is beyond his control, he has also learned the importance of controlling the variables he can. “I have almost no business expenses. I only borrow for assets that can reproduce themselves or generate revenue. I barely mechanize things. I don’t own a tractor or haymaking equipment. I put most of the borrowing into the sheep that produce the lambs.”
After a successful production year, he is ready to start marketing in earnest. “I wanted to ensure the quality of the product first without overselling myself. I now have a vision for scaling up.”
MacLean — who initially planned to pursue a medical career — says it’s not about the money as much as building healthy, functional landscapes with livestock. “Creating really good food is part of that.”
A farm business ölistik near Sherbrooke, Que., owned by Genevieve Blanchard and Antoine Doyon. Blanchard collects the harvest with her dog, Bali.