Young farmers – Tobacco grower goes green (onions, that is)
Anne Howden Thompson
Getting started in the business of farming today is undeniably difficult. But it isn’t impossible.
Jason Ryder made it work. Ryder grew up on his family’s tobacco farm near Delhi, in Norfolk County, Ont., and graduated from the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph in 1999.
At 31, he’s just the type of keen young entrepreneur that every industry needs to stay vibrant and sustainable. But as the tobacco industry struggled, Ryder saw no room for expansion. If he wanted to farm, he would need to explore other opportunities.
For the first few years after university, Ryder worked at a local crop input company. But a unique opportunity presented itself when a neighbour was named chairman of the Ontario Asparagus Growers’ Marketing Board. With the demands of the neighbour’s expansive 800-acre operation and the new demands as chairman, something had to give. Ryder was approached to see if he would be interested in taking over the green onion production of the operation, which required full-time management.
Green onion production is a niche market, and one that is very labour intensive. Not everyone wants to get involved with managing the size of labour force or the required infrastructure to support the workers.
Ryder and his wife Jacklynn accepted the challenge. At the end of the first year, they decided there was opportunity in the sector. Today, their operation consists of 250 acres, with 120 acres of green onions, 50 acres of asparagus, 10 acres each of red and savoy cabbage, and the rest in grains and oilseeds.
To maximize resources, he shares labour with his neighbour and together they employ about 75 workers a year from St. Lucia and Jamaica.
Ryder says the key to their success is that they started small. As other producers in the sector would exit, Ryder bought up their equipment and took up their contracts and marketing opportunities.
He has succeeded without the safety net of his parents. “I didn’t need to drag them down. They have never been in fresh produce,” he says, describing the horticulture sector as very different from the tobacco industry. What he has received from family and friends is the sharing of equipment, land and other resources, which has been invaluable to the young entrepreneur.
Ryder has chosen what many would consider a difficult path, but it’s given him insight that he shares with other young farmers: Get off your own farm and find out what’s out there. It’s that off-farm experience that allowed him to see the tremendous diversity and opportunities that exist in agriculture.
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