How to pay off your first farm (by age 30)
As one of five children on his family’s 30-cow dairy farm near Ailsa Craig northwest of London, Ont., Jeff Vanhie always knew he wanted to farm.
As a toddler he farmed the living room carpet. By 12, he was saving to buy his first farm. At 23, his dream became a reality. Approaching his 30th birthday, Jeff will have that farm paid off.
“I spent a lot of time renting farm land and building up a down payment, and I bought my first farm three years out of school with the goal of paying for it by the time I was 30,” says the 2006 graduate of the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus. “I bought a farm that was affordable, and I was lucky that the right opportunity came my way when it did.
The long-term objective, though, was dairy farming. Another big milestone came last fall when Jeff and his wife Sara began milking cows on the Kerwood-area farm where Sara grew up. To meet their long-term goals, says Jeff, it was best to buy only Sara’s father’s quota and rent the rest of the operation from him.
Today, they’re milking 90 cows and cash cropping 400 acres, but their future is set firmly on expansion. That’s costly – so they’re currently focused on making their existing operation as efficient as possible.
“We want to grow as fast as we can, but it’s also important to find ways to make what you have easier. You can also grow by being efficient,” explains Sara, a part-time teacher who also works on the farm. “Every step forward is expensive, so you have to make sure things are running well before you expand.”
That includes using technology and making barn improvements to reduce their labour needs and improve animal health and comfort.
Seek out information everywhere
Information is one of the cornerstones of their business success. Before taking the plunge into dairy farming, for example, Jeff had his FCC Relationship Manager provide him with industry data to help with gauging profitability, and take him to visit other successful farmers so he could learn from their operations.
YouTube is his go-to source for ongoing agricultural education and he’s also found courses like the Ontario government’s Growing Your Farm Profits workshop to be extremely helpful.
“Those programs are great because they let you work with people who have seen other farmers do what you’re trying to do,” Jeff says. “There is always financial risk when you’re trying something new, but this helps you improve your business with a bit of assistance, which minimizes that risk.”
Through Growing Forward 2, Jeff and Sara accessed funding for a succession planning professional; they also regularly work with an accountant for ongoing financial and business management.
Grounded in data
Collecting information is important for us because numbers are what drive progress.
Their decision-making is heavily rooted in gathering and analyzing data. Using sophisticated custom spreadsheets developed by Jeff and his software-engineer sister-in-law, they keep records current and track as much information as they can about all aspects of the farm.
“Collecting information is really important for us because numbers are what drive progress,” Jeff explains.
And although both Jeff and Sara are proficient computer users, having someone in the family with the expertise to develop customized tools is an invaluable resource. All their spreadsheets are tailored to the farm and Jeff’s data interpretation preferences.
“This lets us use our money to our full advantage, and allows us to be competitive with our margins,” Sara adds.
Surround yourself with good people
Family is also a big contributor to their success in many other ways. “We couldn’t do it without the support of our families and employees,” Jeff says. “Having good people around us helps the farm progress.”
Their own family’s future is the ultimate motivator for Jeff and Sara, parents of two small boys – the goal of one day being able to farm with their kids or offering them an investment opportunity in the business.
“Like any career, you do it because you love it, and we want the opportunity for our kids to have the same kind of future,” Sara says.
Top tips for young farmers
1. Plan ahead – “When I was 12, I already knew buying a farm was my primary objective. So I saved, got an education as quickly as I could, and made sure I graduated without student debt,” says Jeff, who opted for a two-year diploma program.
2. Seek advice and learn from mistakes – Jeff and Sara are not shy about getting input from other farmers and from industry professionals – like veterinarians, nutritionists, input suppliers, equipment manufacturers and others – about new tools and technologies to try on the farm. They also try hard to learn from things that don’t go so well, so mistakes aren’t repeated.
“We try to focus on self-education and do a lot of on-farm research in the barn and with our crops,” Jeff says. “If you don’t try anything new, how do you learn?”
3. Keep going – Farming requires sacrifice and determination, Jeff and Sara both agree, but it’s important to keep the end goal in sight and not give up, even during trying moments.