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(Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
(Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Many young people are taking another look at the family farm Add to ...

Under a bright sun early on a mid-June morning, a bulldozer scrapes away soil from a strip of land on Alain Leduc’s farm, clearing a path for a gravel road to a towering grain elevator added to the bustling family business three years ago.

In the fields, white and black beans are emerging from the earth, and stalks of yellow corn grown mostly for ethanol are already knee-high, weeks ahead of last year. The family’s winter wheat crop is looking good, too, almost ready for harvest.

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Even with Eastern Ontario’s blistering summer heat wave and drought, which have strained their crops, it is shaping up to be another prosperous year – nothing like Mr. Leduc expected at this stage of his life. After several generations of farming, the 55-year-old thought he would be the last in his family to work the land. He thought he would be downsizing about now, not expanding. His children, Erin and Patrick, had shown no interest in making a career out of agriculture: The prospects seemed too meagre.

But as they sought to carve out different career paths than their father, an economic revival was taking root on their family farm and on many others across Canada. Prices of corn, grains, oilseeds and soybeans have been soaring in recent years, helping to fuel a 31-per-cent surge from 2006 to 2011 in farm operations reporting more than $1-million in gross receipts.

Those 9,602 farms were bigger and more profitable than they were six years ago. They accounted for nearly half of Canada’s food production and 49 per cent of the $51-billion in gross farm receipts, even though they made up just 5 per cent of producers.

While it’s true that not all sectors of agriculture are thriving (consider beef cattle and hogs), for many, farming has never looked more promising. Younger generations who thought there was no future in agriculture – such as 25-year-old Patrick and 27-year-old Erin – are returning to the land, bringing fresh energy and new ideas to the family business.

“This is happening all over the place. The really sharp young people are coming back because they can see the possibilities,” says Larry Martin, a senior research fellow at the George Morris Centre, an agri-food think tank in Guelph, Ont.

Take the Leducs’ latest solar project. It was Erin’s idea. Later this summer, the family will start erecting a 28,800-square-feet building with a roof of solar panels on their homestead, about an hour’s drive southeast of Ottawa. Along with generating guaranteed income for the farm from the green power fed into Ontario’s grid, the steel structure will provide space for offices, storage and a lunchroom for their seven employees.

“It’s an incredible time in agriculture,” Erin says, beaming. “I’ve kind of come in at a bubble and I think it’s not necessarily a short-term bubble, either. I think it’s about time that farmers do make some money. They should.”

***

Inside their modest two-storey house, at an oval kitchen table made of maple wood, Mr. Leduc’s wife, Susan, pulled out a scrapbook chronicling their life on the farm. Erin made it this past Christmas, a present for her father. She wanted her parents to take stock of all they had accomplished.

Although agriculture runs deep on both sides of the family, the Leducs started from scratch in building their farm operation three decades ago, buying 140 acres and renting another 300 to grow corn and soybeans. Mr. Leduc’s parents, who were small-time dairy farmers in the region, had tried to dissuade him from agriculture. It was the “life of a pauper,” he recalls them warning.

But farming was his dream and he was determined to make a go of it, hence the name for his business, Wanna Make it Farm. Ms. Leduc, his sweetheart since high school, was initially reluctant, but supportive. Both had full-time jobs off the farm. Mr. Leduc worked at a tile drainage and land improvement company, while Ms. Leduc was a delivery-room nurse at Winchester District Memorial Hospital, where she still puts in 12-hour shifts.

The first few years were really tough. Facing low commodity prices and big start-up costs, the Leducs dipped into their wages to cover the farm bills.

“We weren’t hard done by, mind you, because we still had our off-farm jobs,” Mr. Leduc says, “but it made you think, ‘Is this thing a viable business?’”

The financial struggles resonated with their children. Even as the farm’s prospects improved slightly, allowing Mr. Leduc to quit his job and focus solely on farming in 1999, the business demanded long hours, seven days a week most months. There was little spare time for Erin and Patrick.

“Growing up, dad wouldn’t be around too much. He would be steady out the door,” Patrick recalls, including out to meetings to help organize Canada’s largest agricultural protest in decades.

Several pages of Erin’s scrapbook are devoted to the nationwide rally. Thousands of farmers across Canada took to the streets in convoys of tractors and trucks in the spring of 2001, calling on the provincial and federal governments to boost emergency aid. Crop prices were dismal then. Many producers were selling their food below the cost of production. The future of the family farm looked bleak.

“My son doesn’t understand why we are doing this,” Mr. Leduc told a reporter at a rally in Ottawa. “My daughter says the farm is a drag, why don’t we get rid of it? We are losing a generation.”

***

Out on the farm, Erin was on her smartphone again. The calls are constant. She takes care of the seed sales and buying and selling grain. When problems surface, such as the storm that pelted corn crops with penny-sized hail in June or last month’s hot, dry weather, she gets the phone calls that used to inundate her father. Looking after customers’ concerns is part of the seed-sale business.

“We try to keep everybody happy. Easier said than done some days,” Erin says as she headed in a dusty pickup to hay fields the family bought not long ago and converted into land for corn.

Wanna Make it Farm has grown significantly in the past few years, and the family is not done expanding. The Leducs own 3,750 acres and rent another 1,640 for crop production. It is a big operation, far larger than the average 244-acre Ontario farm.

Although cash crops have always been the family’s primary business, Mr. Leduc diversified his operation early on, branching into land clearing, hauling and harvesting services as a way to cope with poor commodity prices. With his children now working alongside him, the varied nature of their farm allows each to focus on a different piece of the business.

“I give them a lot of responsibility. I feel it’s important at a young age,” Mr. Leduc says. “I know lots of kids that are 40 years old and they still don’t do what Pat and Erin will do.”

Patrick came back first. He was employed at a mechanic’s shop in a town nearby when he realized he didn’t want to fix cars for the rest of his life. He went to Algonquin College in Ottawa in 2004 to study business for three years and began working on the farm on weekends and during summers. Unfamiliar with cropping or the equipment, he had a lot to learn, but he was a quick study.

He’s now in charge of the maintenance schedule for the farm’s $7-million worth of trucks and high-tech machinery. In the fields, he has reduced their soil tillage and staggered their fertilizer applications to make better use of the nutrients.

As Patrick learned the family business, Erin had her sights set on living in a big city. After studying international business at college and marketing management at Ryerson University in Toronto, she went to Hong Kong for her final year of school, travelling to about a half-dozen countries while overseas. But when she returned to Toronto in 2008, the recession-battered employment market was grim. The best job she could find, it turned out, was in agriculture, as a market development specialist for Mycogen Seeds. Farming, she soon realized, had changed dramatically from her high school days.

Indeed, the Leducs’ diverse operation is part of a new breed of family farm. Debt loads are higher these days and the weather always poses a risk, but revenues on many family farms have grown substantially. The Leducs’ gross farm receipts were more than $2-million in 2010, one of 3,298 Canadian farms to hit this top category in the agricultural census, a 22-per-cent increase from 2006. (Expenses chewed up an average of 83 cents on the dollar, according to Statistics Canada.)

The number of $1-million farms grew even more, climbing 37 per cent to 6,304 operations. Two-thirds were family corporations.

When they’re not busy on the farm, Mr. Leduc and his children hit the road together sometimes, looking at fields to buy or scanning for ideas to make their business better. It’s been hard to grow their acreage lately. Competition for farmland is fierce. It is not just food producers who are looking. Investment funds are gobbling up large fields, from Ontario to the Prairies.

One day soon, Mr. Leduc says he will “slowly roll out” and take some time, finally, to travel with his wife. See Europe, maybe. After all, he knows Wanna Make it Farm is in good hands.

***

9,602

Number of farms that reported $1-million or more in gross receipts in 2011, a 31-per-cent increase from 2006.

83

Percentage of farm revenue that went toward expenses in 2010, down from 86 per cent in 2006.

205,730

Number of farms in 2011 - a decline of 23,643, or 10 per cent, from 2006.

778

Size, in acres, of the average Canadian farm, up 7 per cent from 728 acres in 2006.

19.4-million

Number of acres devoted to canola, the top field crop, a 56-per-cent increase from 2006.

48

Percentage of producers aged 55 or older, up from 41 per cent in 2006. They represented the largest group of operators for the first time.

40

Percentage of farmers who worked more than 40 hours a week on their farms in 2010, down from 47 per cent in 2005.

Source: The 2011 Census of Agriculture, Statistics Canada

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