Back to the land

Que­bec cou­ple among grow­ing num­bers of en­trepreneurs mak­ing farm­ing their busi­ness

Kingston Whig-Standard - - BUSINESS - DENISE DE­VEAU

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.”

AN­TOINE DOYON/HAND­OUT

A farm busi­ness ölis­tik near Sher­brooke, Que., owned by Genevieve Blan­chard and An­toine Doyon. Blan­chard col­lects the har­vest with her dog, Bali.

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