Ditch labels, share ideas to build strong ag network

One neighbour helped her select the right tractor for vegetable farming. Another gave her an old two-row potato planter as an engagement present.

Those sorts of neighbourly acts helped Lydia Ryall in her farming career. The fact that most producers in her area are conventional and she’s organic never enters the equation.

“A good producer is a good producer,” she says. “That’s what should garner respect.”

The truth is that farmers in Ryall’s small corner of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland have bigger things to worry about than their neighbour’s farming philosophy. They’re an endangered species and they know it.

“There’s a lot of mutual respect among growers in our area, and the biggest reason why we get together is land-use issues,” she says.

“Delta is one of the few municipalities left where we still have some good large parcels of land and you can farm full time. We know we have to work together to protect that.”

The 30-year-old operates Cropthorne Farm on Westham Island, the last bit of mainland Canada before you hit the Pacific Ocean.

“One of my biggest goals is to have productive farmland in the Lower Mainland remain farmland, so I want my neighbours to do well, regardless of how they choose to farm,” says Ryall.

She enjoys growing crops organically but doesn’t label herself by her production method.

“You don’t hear a dairy guy introduce himself as a supply-managed farmer,” she says.

“I’m a farmer. That’s how I think of myself.”

Ryall always wanted to farm, but taking over her parents’ 18 acres of greenhouses and managing its 100 employees wasn’t for her.

“It was too structured,” she says.

“I wanted to be outside, with my hands in the dirt, rather than being in the office.”

As a teen, she had a “romantic” dream of ranching in B.C.’s Chilcotin. However, six years ago, after getting her agricultural degree in Alberta and working there for a while, she started growing vegetables on a small acreage she rented from her parents. Organic was the right fit with her vision of being a good steward of the land, and premium prices for organic produce made her start-up operation financially viable.

Her parents bought 50 acres on Westham Island, south of Vancouver, after selling their greenhouse and rent 15 acres to Ryall and her sister, Rachel.

It’s an intensive operation with hoop houses to maintain year-round production and two year-round employees and five seasonal workers. Its success earned Ryall the province’s Outstanding Young Farmer award last year.

The honour was nice, but the best thing was connecting with other OYF winners, she says. All were large operations (dairy, beef, grains, and potatoes) and none were organic. However, that made no difference.

“I talked a bit about potatoes with Andrew and Heidi (Lawless) from P.E.I., but it was mostly about things like managing employees and risk,” says Ryall.

“You could look at their farm or one in Saskatchewan and see what made them successful. So we talked about how to bring those things into your operation.”

That last comment is something you’ll hear from every Outstanding Young Farmer, and why they keep in touch, often forming life-long friendships. They don’t hesitate to share details of their business strategy, and even finances, with each other.

Tractor advice was helpful in the early days, but Ryall now needs a network of colleagues that she can talk frankly to about managing people or evaluating business opportunities. And those relationships don’t develop if you’re hung up on things like whether someone is an organic or conventional farmer, she says.

“Farmers are two percent of the population, if that. That’s a really low number,” she says.

“We don’t need to be bickering about how we are farming any more than we do about what colour of tractor we drive. What’s important is making sure we’re all productive and able to keep farming.”

The simple truth is that your farm will be more successful if you have a network of progressive farmers you can talk openly and honestly with. And the more diverse that network, the better. That won’t happen if you talk only to people who grow what you grow or employ the production methods you employ.

Ideas for making your farm business prosper can come from anywhere. So why would you want that sort of fence around your farm?

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