Start a farm from scratch: Advice from first-generation farmers
If you’ve thought about starting a farm from scratch but wish you could hear from someone who’s done it, look no further. The CEOs of YR Ranch and Lockwood Farms have enjoyed plenty of success starting their own unique farm businesses, and offer some confidence-boosting advice.
When Rod and Yvonne Mills bought land in central Alberta 18 years ago, all they were after was wide open space, not a completely different career path.
”I could barely spell farm,” Rod says. They both had off-farm jobs. However, the seller was a bison farmer, and the Mills decided to buy eight animals that the previous owner would manage. Over time, the Mills took over farm duties, grew their herd and eventually became full-time livestock producers. Today, they run 77 breeding females on 350 acres of land. “Now, we do everything,” he says.
Each year they learned something new, sometimes the easy way, other times the hard way. One year early on, their hired worker could not cut their hay due to a health issue while the Mills were on holiday. The crop was ruined, and they had to buy every last mouthful of feed for the bison.
“You can’t repeat that process very many times and be profitable,” Rod says.
At auction, they bought a non-automated baler, rake and cutter but later learned they had to upgrade their existing tractor to handle the baler. It helps to know how to use the machinery as well. “I was watching from the kitchen window, and his first bale was a foot in diameter,” Yvonne says with a laugh. “And then his next bale was a foot in diameter.”
They called a rancher neighbour who came over and taught them how to use their new implement. It’s all part of the adventure, they say proudly.
Once livestock amateurs, the Mills are now synonymous with bison farming in Alberta. They’ve used many third parties to assist them in becoming better producers. Yvonne is heavily involved with grower associations, which the couple believes was likely the biggest key to their success.
Industry conventions are invaluable with the things you learn from other producers.
“The industry conventions are invaluable with the things you learn from other producers,” Rod says. “It was amazing.”
As a way of giving back, they encourage new farmers to join producer groups to fast-track their knowledge. “We might have learned something the hard way, and maybe they don’t have to,” Yvonne says.
Above all, every newbie must practice patience and study the marketplace. “Whatever product or livestock you want to produce, know your market,” Yvonne says. “You have to know you have a market, what it pays and whether or not you can get into that market. What are you going to do with your product once it’s ready to go?”
Similarly, be honest about your finances, explains Yvonne, who credits their off-farm income as a huge help to make key purchases over the years. You can learn to farm, but you can’t operate without cash flow.
“People can be unrealistic about what they need to get in. You need to have a good income, and you can’t expect that you’re going to be farming and get rid of your job for quite a while,” she says.
Farming was something that Cammy and James Lockwood wanted to get into, but it was tricky on Vancouver Island, where available land is scarce. Faced with the prospect of moving off the island to advance their careers — which they didn’t want to do — they made a big choice to take their backyard gardening hobby to new heights.
After acquiring a five-acre parcel of land, the couple officially began farming in 2012. They grew a few dependable crops and became regulars at the Duncan Farmers’ Market. Often in a direct-to consumer role, Lockwood says it’s crucial to understand and embrace your community, which is also your marketplace.
“We provide so much to the community. People love and appreciate the direct face-to-face meeting of the people who produce their food,” she says. “We see the value so much in what we do.”
After grinding it out for three years, they successfully applied to the B.C. Egg New Producer Program and became supply-managed chicken farmers in 2015 with 3,000 birds. Today, the operation has doubled – and they also sell a small number of chickens for meat. For Lockwood, it really did change everything.
“It was such a joyful moment,” she says. “We could farm without having to live on the edge.”
The process of securing financing for their operation proved to be a larger challenge, as they are less familiar with supply management in that area of the country. “Being in an area not as active agriculturally, without the same expertise in quota, was difficult,” she explains. Lockwood says they had meetings with multiple banks and even had to explain how the quota system worked. “In the end, we went with a financial institution that presented a plan to us,” she says.
The relationship is so valuable that Lockwood says if their banking representative ever switched institutions, they’d move their accounts to wherever he went.
The early days of “just making enough money to continue” were behind them, and the workload didn’t change drastically since they were accustomed to working long hours and running a market garden, which they still do.
Wishing she had more time to spend with her children early on, Lockwood now realizes the power of stepping away and delegating tasks. All new farmers should work toward this, she believes. “We know we’re more productive if we’re not doing the regular tasks,” she says. “It’s really important to know how to do everything but be able to step back and leave. To take ourselves out as much as possible is really what drives us forward.”
“It helps you to see the bigger picture and your piece in it,” she says. “That’s what I find really life-giving. You come back with new ideas, a fresh set of eyes and a different perspective to make the changes necessary to be more successful.”
Lessons from first-time farm operators
- Create a business plan straight away, and revise when opportunities arise.
- Get to know your local marketplace via your community and supporters.
- Ask other farm operators to share their expertise with you.
- Do your research before making purchases.
- Join grower associations.
- Delegate tasks.
- Leverage third-party advisors to help with planning.
- Review and manage a risk management plan regularly – don’t bet the farm.
- Schedule weekly business meetings.
- Step off the farm to give and to learn — whether ag advocacy, trade shows or peer groups — it’s a win-win.
- Take a break from business duties and make time for yourself and family – even if it means building this into your business plan.
From an AgriSuccess article as told to Trevor Bacque.