Ontario farmer breathes entrepreneurial gospel

BELLEVILLE, Ont. – To hear him talk, Kurt Vanclief sounds like a poster boy for the new breed of farmer that government policy-makers and economists say will best survive in the free-for-all of future agricultural markets.

The 28-year-old son of federal agriculture minister Lyle Vanclief is an entrepreneurial businessman determined to be a full-time farmer.

For the moment, he works at a paper mill to earn enough to aggressively pay down a third-of-a-million dollar debt. Vanclief doesn’t like the job much and does not like being in a union, but he does see union wages as a means to an end.

Meanwhile, it leaves wife Darilyn, 39, to do most of the farm work on their 600-acre operation, partly owned and partly leased. They grow corn, soybeans, wheat and 20 acres of black beans in a no-till operation.

Darilyn also raises and sells Quarter horses.

To make extra cash, they have a deal with a local fertilizer company to do custom applications in the area.

But there is a plan to change that.

“We want to expand to make this operation big enough so I don’t have to work away,” Kurt said.

Within a few years, they plan to invest in a diversification project, perhaps a soybean and wheat pedigreed seed operation with their own cleaning plant.

And this is where he begins to sound like the entrepreneurial farmer of the economists’ dreams.

Kurt talks about the need for more options and flexibility in his operation, of the need to use debt wisely and the value of strategic alliances in the industry.

Kurt is one of a handful of young farmers from across the country who shelled out $4,500 to take a management course from Larry Martin of the University of Guelph’s George Morris Centre. The Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management course is, he says, his ticket for learning how to plan for a successful, diversified operation:

“I am learning how to make the strategic decisions required.”

As he talks about it, Vanclief’s conversation is peppered with the jargon of the management consultant business – “thinking outside the box” and “strategic visioning.”

But as the Vancliefs plan their expansion, Kurt and Darilyn have more than instinct and management theories to guide them. They also have some bitter lessons learned from experience.

And they have the lessons learned from watching Kurt’s parents Lyle and Sharon struggle through the 1980s to keep their farm operation afloat. A heavy debt load finally forced his parents to sell the farm in 1987-88, just before Lyle ran for Parliament. Kurt said it led his father to discourage him from entering farming a year later.

“Dad has been very supportive but at first, he didn’t want me to farm,” he said. “He had struggled for so long at it, he was tired of it.”

But Kurt had dreamed of farming all his life and in 1989, he began to rebuild the family farm by buying back 160 acres.

He bought some pigs, cropped and started to grow fruits and vegetables as his father had.

Then came 1992, a bad weather year in eastern Ontario that wiped out much of his crop. He was in debt and in trouble.

“In the fall of 1992, I could have cried uncle and gone bankrupt,” he said.

“But I decided to try to stick it out. I didn’t want to live in fear of ending farming the way dad did. I wanted to learn from his experience.”

So Kurt scaled back the operation, took an off-farm job, soon got out of pigs and fruits and vegetables and began to slowly expand.

“We have to do this very carefully, a step at a time.”

Bad luck struck again several years ago when Darilyn’s horse barn burned down. Kurt has been rebuilding as they can afford it.

Their decision to farm without tillage was made in part to reduce machinery and fuel costs. The bonus has been its effect on the land.

“This land is healthier than it has ever been,” said Kurt. “It just gets better every year.”

So now, with their debt load being paid down and Kurt’s management program at the George Morris Centre giving him some new ideas and more confidence, it is time to start planning the next big move.

He has been to several meetings about the livestock business but he figures that is not the route to go. He credits his management course with that decision.

“If I hadn’t gone to the George Morris Centre, I’d probably be going to the bank now to borrow money to build a hog barn. But I really don’t think that would be the best decision. I think the seed business will be a better bet.”

Is having your father, the agriculture minister, living across the road a benefit or a detriment to a young family trying to build a farming operation?

“I prefer to downplay it,” said Kurt.

“But we are better educated about what services and programs are available and how the system works,” added Darilyn.

For the record, they had not yet filled out their Agricultural Income Disaster Assistance forms, do not have an opinion on whether it is too complicated and do not expect to qualify because their farm income has been rising.

“But we’ll probably fill it in by the end of July,” said Kurt.

“Might as well.”

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