N.B. farm a dream come true for Toronto family, initial challenges daunting
When Karen Anderson Ferron agreed to follow her husband Al's lifelong dream of starting a farm, she didn't imagine she'd have to put her corporate marketing skills to use from the very beginning.
This time she wasn't making cold calls as a fundraiser, as she had in Toronto, but making calls to gather the information needed to get their farm in New Brunswick up and running.
She and her family purchased a farm in Long Settlement, around 20 kilometres southwest of Florenceville-Bristol, not far from the U.S. border, and they moved there in 2021.
Ferron said they did lots of research before falling in love with the property, but reality only really sank in once they arrived.
They have since grown it into Ferron Family Farms Ltd., a farm spanning 137 acres, specializing in grass-fed meats, including goat, beef and pork.
Ferron said she thinks New Brunswick still has work to do when it comes to supporting new-entrant farmers, meaning those new to the agricultural industry, especially when it comes to the availability of information.
"I'm still learning and I still don't even know half of what these generational farmers know," said Ferron. "To be honest, the attitude that we found towards us coming into farming was no one took us seriously, especially when they know you're from the city."
Ferron said they started with the new-entrants roadmap, a lengthy guide from the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture that offers snippets on things to consider and departments to know about when starting a farm.
She still had to call those departments, though, and said department officials wanted to help but often had to look up the information she was asking about, especially since she was interested in farming goats as a meat source, a relatively new idea in N.B. agriculture, she said.
Ferron wanted to speak to more people who working on farms, knowing they would have the deepest wealth of knowledge on day-to-day operations.
Her main recommendation to the Department of Agriculture is to have a roster of farmers willing to mentor new entrants so they don't have to try to find these people themselves.
Even if the farmer is not in the exact same sector of agriculture as the new entrant, they can provide advice on grants, equipment, and local resources, Ferron said.
She sees the interest from new farmers like herself as an opportunity for New Brunswick agriculture, but said the way it is set up now, it's very discouraging. She thinks the roadmap itself should also be revised to include more information on who does what and where to go for information.
"It's a pricey venture to take on," said Ferron. "It's a lot and it can be daunting."
"If you don't have that research background, it's very difficult but like I said, I wouldn't do anything different for us because I've seen how much we've learned from our challenges."
Conversation on agriculture shifting
Jessica McKenna, the workforce development co-ordinator for the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick, said there are more people from outside traditional agriculture showing an interest in making it their living.
Whether it's because they have dabbled in outdoor work in the past, or have a passion for the environment, McKenna said her department is hearing from people from all different backgrounds.
"It seems like more than ever we're having a lot of conversations outside of what that traditional narrative is," said McKenna. "Where so many people feel that it's a succession plan —you get a farm passed down from generation to generation, and and really that's your avenue of becoming a part of the agricultural community."
McKenna recommends working on a farm before acquiring one, if possible, and ideally someone interested in starting a farm would start with the new-entrant roadmap and ask themselves questions about their goals for their farm.
"You don't have to do it alone," she said. "You don't have to, you know, ask yourself those questions alone but rather there are resources there. And with those resources comes a person on the other side of that."
Barriers to entry
Financial realities can be hard to overcome, especially for farming hopefuls hoping to acquire a turnkey operation without inheriting a family farm.
Jerry Bos is the president of Boscenic Farms, a dairy and cattle farm near Salisbury, west of Moncton, and is a generational dairy and cattle farmer.
If a neighbouring farmer is retiring and selling the farm, Bos said a farm like his will likely make a stronger offer than a young person without substantial funds or collateral.
He explained that a generational farm's wealth lies in the assets of the farm, and family owners often have established relationships with their banking institutions.
Bos said even established farmers don't take home a lot of money in New Brunswick because margins are tight.
According to a 2021 Statistics Canada report, farms in Canada incurred an average of 83 cents in expenses for every dollar in revenues. Bos said he suspects that number has gone up.
It's not impossible to start a farm in New Brunswick, though.
According Margaret Johnson, New Brunswick's minister of agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries, there were 35 new-entrant farmers last year, a drop from 42 in 2020, and 52 in 2021.
"We're genuinely working hard to try and make sure that we maintain vitality within that," said Johnson. "Because we recognize that these are the people that are going to keep food on our table. So we want to make sure that we are bringing young people into the fold."
As to what the Department of Agriculture offers, Johnson said they have a various of programs including business planning assistance. She added they are in the process now of surveying new entrants in the hopes of offering better support.
Karen Ferron said farming is not a "sexy" industry to get into as a business, and many of her friends in Ontario questioned their family for moving to rural New Brunswick and taking up farming, but she was not deterred.
She said while she would like to see changes to resources offered to new entrant farmers, when it comes to Ferron Family Farms, she wouldn't change a thing.
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