Young farmer winners focus on diversification

Outstanding Young Farmer winners are Craig and Jinel Ference from Alberta and Jordan and Alex McKay from Ontario

For the first time in the 38-year history of Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmer program, two brothers from Ontario are sharing top honours alongside a husband and wife team from Alberta.

Jordan McKay and his brother, Alex, from Port Perry, Ont., along with Craig and Jinel Ference from Kirriemuir, Alta., were chosen as the national winners from the program’s seven regions during its national event held in Winnipeg, Nov. 27-Dec. 2.

The McKay brothers operate Willowtree Farm, located an hour’s drive northeast of Toronto.

Their father started the original seasonal store in 1990, which the brothers expanded in 2016 to include a 4,300 sq. foot retail market complete with a butcher shop and commercial kitchen open year-round.

With a focus on fresh local food, the vertically integrated 650-acre farm produces a large selection of hand-picked fruits and vegetables, maple syrup, and beef and lamb.

They also participate in a community supported agriculture program, which delivers fresh fruit and vegetables to customers’ doors each week.

From left, Alyson, left, and Jordan McKay and Kelty and Alex McKay stand outside Willowtree Farm’s sugar shack at the family’s farm near Port Perry, Ont. | Willowtree Farm photo

The brothers’ goal is to create a working farm experience for customers while making the most use from the large variety of home-grown products.

“The way we describe our operation is it’s very diversified and we do a lot of value-adding on site as well,” said Jordan, who focuses on the day-to-day retail and marketing side of the business.

Alex oversees the farm’s daily production, which involves growing crops, raising animals and managing about 35 seasonal employees.

The brother’s spouses, Alyson and Kelty, are also involved full-time in the day-to-day operations, which has seen the customer base more than double since the new market space opened in 2016.

“Customers can come into the market’s cafe and have lunch made with soup that we used our own vegetables, our own meat to produce. They can go over to the butcher shop and buy beef, lamb, chicken and pork. We’ve got a lot of frozen meals and frozen soups,” Jordan said.

“It really is a true farm-to-table experience.”

As part of their marketing platform, Willowtree Farm also hosts a variety of hands-on events throughout the year.

Weekends in March saw more than 3,000 visitors tour their 600-tree sugar bush area, where they learned how maple syrup is made. In April, more than 1,000 children participated in Easter activities. Then in September, more than 22,000 people picked their own strawberries, and the brussels sprout festival wrapped up in November, in which customers could pick their own while learning how to grow them.

As well, culinary or “foodie experiences” are held in the store, which include craft brews and taster plates made from the kitchen.

“We’re always coming up with different ideas to bring people to the farm by keeping a core focus on education and food,” said Jordan.

Craig and Jinel Ference of Double F Farms live in the southeastern Alberta community of Kirriemuir near the Saskatchewan border.

What began as a wheat field in 1985 by Craig’s father has grown into a 4,000 cow herd, 8,000 head feedlot with 13,800 acres of crops and 41,000 acres of grazing, and a custom farming business.

Like the McKay brothers, diversification is key to success for the Ferences’ various operations.

Craig said working smarter and doing more with less in all aspects of their farm achieve diversity.

The advantage of multiple enterprises is getting more use out of the same equipment, labour and land base, which in turn allows for different cash flows, income streams and better equipment.

Creating diversity in many agriculture sectors is also fuelling success, which in turn feeds into their succession planning.

“It’s a lot easier to have succession planning in place if you have a successful business. And because of the multiple enterprises, it’s allowed us to be more successful, which is a lot easier for the exiting generation, or the incoming generation,” said Craig.

“We want a succession plan that’s going to work for multiple generations. So we’re very careful on how we put it all in place because we want it to work time and again. We’re not short-term farmers. We’re building my dream, my dad’s dream, the next generation’s dream. And so it’s important that it transfers down with ease.”

Part of that multilayer succession plan is leaving the soil in better shape each year by improving the organic matter.

“We’re naturally increasing it the way we’re farming today as a farm in general, but we’ve really focused on more marginal land to increase that organic matter level faster,” he said.

Because of the size and scope of their operation, good employees are another important key to their success, which they secure through the foreign worker program and an immigration consultant.

“Our operation has diversified alongside growth in employees, because when you have a strong workforce there’s so much more you can do. So diversification and our employee base go hand in hand,” said Jinel.

OYF organizers found this year’s crop of nominees to be a diverse selection of farming operations, however all regional winners were progressive and forward thinkers.

“They have gone beyond the traditional ways of farming and they’re seeking new innovative methods that’s increasing their efficiencies and they’re great ambassadors for agriculture, not only in their own sector but for all of agriculture,” said Luanne Lynn, past chair of OYF.

“We always think every year we found the cream of the crop, but then you always find the cream of the crop the next year, it seems.”

“The (OYF) program itself seeks out those pockets of agricultural excellence across Canada and it’s not always visible to everyone. They might not have been heard by everyone, but they’re thriving and doing amazing things in a small area of Canada that gets showcased at this event.”

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