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To be, or not to be … a farmer

WINNIPEG — Parents with children in hockey know all too well that it’s not easy to pull back the bed covers on a – 28 C Saturday morning and drive to an early morning practice.

It may not represent the same level of dedication — or madness — but nine Manitobans did force themselves out of bed on a frigid Saturday morning recently to pursue their dreams of becoming  farmers.

Nine wannabe farmers, gathered around a board table inside the United Way building in downtown Winnipeg at 8:45 a.m. to take part in a course called Exploring Your Small Farm Dream.

The course, organized by the Manitoba Farm Mentorship Program, is a resource for urban and rural folk looking to start their own farm, perhaps growing organic vegetables or producing free range eggs.

The course helps prospective farmers assess their skills and aptitude for agriculture. It also helps answer the question: is an agricultural business right for me?

A cynic might envision a group of well-intentioned back-to-the-land types, with braids in their hair and self-righteousness in their veins.

But the folks sitting at the table resembled an ordinary collection of Manitobans. They had conservative haircuts and seemed to be drinking ordinary coffee rather than organic soy milk lattés.

According to program facilitator Clint Cavers, a farmer from Pilot Mound, Man., it attracts both folks who are serious and not so serious about farming.

“Some come in with tons of agricultural experience and real desire to farm,” he said.

“And some people have this notion that farming would be kind of this fun thing to do (for) a relaxed lifestyle.”

In fact, several of the people at the workshop did have on-farm experience, including Kristine Askholm, who has worked on farms throughout Manitoba over the last few years.

Askholm has a degree in international development and has volunteered at Manitoba farms as a wwoofer — a willing worker on an organic farm. In exchange for labour the producer provides Askholm with room and board.

The experience has helped Askholm develop practical farm skills, but she isn’t quite ready to make the leap into running her own farm just yet.

“Part of my being at this course is to figure out the business side, to see if it is something I could make money at or want to make money at. Because for the most part I just want to provide for myself,” she said during a break.

“It (making money) is not as easy to learn as the tangible physical stuff, which I can just learn by doing.,” said Askholm .

Colin McInnes has worked at farms in Manitoba as an intern building up a resumé of skills. He had a similar reason to attend the workshop.

A cautious person by nature, he has no plans to take out a $100,000 bank loan to pursue his small farm dream.

“I’m very scared of debt,” said McInnes, a University of Winnipeg graduate.

McInnes and Askholm offer a typical answer when asked why they want to become farmers. They prefer a quieter life, want to be close to nature, enjoy the work and feel that food production is an essential human activity.

Yet, they are aware that popular perceptions of farming and real life food production aren’t one and the same.

“I think a lot of people can fail at it because it is a very romantic idea to move to the farm,” McInnes said. “The reality is it’s not like that and I always have to push myself away from that view.”

While their feet may be grounded and they may be headed down a path toward farming, the couple aren’t completely committed yet.

After leading a wandering life for a few years, Askholm has a hard time envisioning a life where she’s rooted to a specific location.

“I’ve been moving from farm to farm for years…. So I’d have to really be sure that I wanted to invest in something and just be in one place.”

For his part, McInnes is primarily concerned about earning a living from his farm.

“(You can’t simply say) I’m going to get some pigs and plant some trees in the ground and they’re going to make me money.”

Although their situation is slightly different, Florent Legault and Debbie Troche, who own 240 acres of land near Elie, Man., are worried about the risks related to starting a small scale farm.

Legault grew up on the farm he owns and used to operate a pregnant mare’s urine farm before getting out of the business and selling most of his land eight years ago.

The couple, in their mid to late 50s, grow more vegetables in their half acre garden than they can consume. So they are considering an expansion  and plan to sell their produce.

Last year Legault and Troche took a course at a naturopathic doctor’s clinic and met a community of Manitobans who want to eat organic or naturally produced fruit, vegetables, grains and meat.

From that experience, Legault realized it might be possible to start a small farm business, producing veggies, poultry or pork.

“I never thought there would be the possibility of farming small. My mentality has been bigger,” he said.

“Now I’m looking a this and thinking if we could do it on a smaller scale … (maybe) we could stay farming until an older age.”

But Legault and Troche aren’t sure they want to take a financial risk at this stage in their lives.

“We’re not 20 years old starting out.We’re getting closer to the retirement age, so how long is your health going to hold out?” asked Troche.

“My fear is that I’ve got a nest now…. To start up again I’d have to take my money out of retirement (savings) and it’s the fear of losing that,” Legault added.

Given their fears, Legault and Troche will give the matter more thought before they make a decision.

Askholm is also taking a thoughtful, go slow approach, because she would like to start a farm several years down the road.

“Five years is what I tell myself right now. Maybe in five years I’ll still be saying that.”

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