Sowing the seeds of a new farm frontier

A lot of people yearn for a simpler life but few follow those dreams through to reality. I wrote this feature about young urbanites turned farmers for the Community News Commons. This piece received the Eric and Jack Wells Excellence in Journalism award. 

Yellow House Farm sits atop a rare hill in southwest Manitoba. Looking out the big picture window in Katie and Colin McInnes’ tiny farmhouse, the rolling Pembina Valley unfolds onto the horizon. Chickens, geese and turkeys mill about in the yard.

“We joke a lot about how this window is better than TV,” says Katie.

The McInnes’ are first-generation farmers who moved from Winnipeg to the country last spring. Katie and Colin were both born and raised in the city, but their desire for a back-to-basics kind of life brought them to rural Manitoba.

While this lifestyle is new to them, other city folk have been trying their luck in the fields for centuries.

The back-to-the-land movement became popular in North America in the ’60s and encouraged people to give up their urban lifestyles for small-scale farming operations that supported themselves and others.

Social and environmental consciousness motivated Colin to learn about farming and when the couple started dating, Katie also fell in love with the idea.

“I used to, as a teenager, fantasize about living in the country one day and having horses and a big dog,” says Katie. “But, unlike Colin I was taking no steps towards that.”

In his early 20s, Colin was volunteering with Canada World Youth when he got a chance to work on a farm in British Columbia. His first time unloading a manure delivery turned into a surprising moment of realization.

“You could see the donkey turds and the feathers from all the other animals. It wasn’t like a bag of manure. I remember telling my dad and he thought it was hilarious that I was excited about manure,” says Colin.

Back in Manitoba he started actively looking for farm internships and learning everything he could about farming. Katie and Colin had only been dating for a few months when they stumbled upon the land that would eventually become Yellow House Farm.

During an internship at Harborside Farms in Pilot Mound, Colin connected with Pam and Clint Cavers. Seasoned farmers, they helped Colin look for farmland to buy, but after months of looking, nothing fit. One day, after another unsuccessful tour, Clint brought Katie and Colin to a plot of land he had just purchased.

The land hadn’t been worked for years and the only building was a run-down hunting shack on top of a hill. Yet, Colin saw its potential and offered to help Clint develop the land the next spring.

“It was pretty impulsive of him, but I knew Colin couldn’t be in the city for much longer,” says Katie.

Katie quickly decided she would move out to the farm with him.

“The next thing we knew we were making plans to start a farm in six months,” she says.

They’ve kept a collection of lists that illustrate their early vision, which included buying a team of Oxen and only producing enough to support themselves.

Katie and Colin were living permanently in their mostly renovated house by spring 2013, and a few short weeks after leaving the city Katie was off to her first farm internship.

While Katie was away, Colin broached the idea of turning the Yellow House Farm into a commercial operation.

“I was there having mini-life crisis’ every day because of all this change that had just happened,” says Katie. “I was just like ‘I’m not ready, I don’t even know how to grow a tomato yet!’ But we just went for it.”

They started promoting $1,000 farm shares to friends and family, which included portions of pigs, lambs, chicken and geese that they would raise, slaughter and deliver to buyers in the fall.

“We wanted to do it for ourselves and there was all this money that needed to be invested so it made sense to do it for other people as well,” says Colin.

They realized that a lot of their city friends also wanted to eat better food and feel more connected to their food source.

The local food movement has been growing in Canada over the last 60 years according to a report by the Government of Alberta. Farmers markets are becoming increasingly popular as more people turn away from prepackaged supermarket offerings.

On top of signing up for organic pasture-raised meat and homemade preserves, their friends wanted to help out on the farm and see how Katie and Colin were living.

While their season had a lot of ups and downs — like buying their first animals and losing a whole crop of tomatoes to a late frost — they had a large circle of support. Trial and error was a big part of the learning curve for the McInnes’ but they also turned to agriculture books, Internet forums and helpful neighbours to steer them out of trouble.

Their immediate community of Pilot Mound was intrigued, if not a little skeptical, of the couple’s old-school, no-tractor farming methods.

“We never experienced any negativity,” says Colin. “But, I don’t know if we’re looked at as farmers.”

“Yeah, farmer means a combine and a tractor and 600 acres of canola or 100 head of cattle. I think we’re just the wacky kids who have ‘all those chickens.’” adds Katie. “What we’re doing is farming like their grandparents.”

The McInnes’ aren’t the only young farmers embracing this old-way of life. Lydia Carpenter and Wian Prinsloo, are friends of theirs who moved out of Winnipeg in 2012 to pursue a farming business together.

Carpenter and Prinsloo have put a lot of energy into making LunaField Farm a viable business and as a result, it’s a bigger operation than Yellow House. On their 320 acres the couple raises just under 1,000 meat chickens and 50 hogs a year; they also have a sheep flock of 300 ewes and about 20 cows.

“It seemed like the right thing for us to pursue,” says Carpenter. “I was interested in agriculture and Wian and I shared a similar philosophy around land stewardship, good food and being independent.”

Prinsloo has always wanted to farm and as a young child living in Pretoria, South Africa, his family allowed him to raise chickens in the city. After finishing high school in Winnipeg, Prinsloo studied Agriculture at the University of Manitoba. When he realized ‘big farming’ wasn’t what he wanted to do, he turned his attention to working on various farms and raising chickens on rented land.

When the couple met in 2009, Carpenter was finishing her masters in Natural Resources Management and working with farmers in Brazil. Starting their own farm was a natural progression.

Moving from Osborne Village to rural Manitoba was easier than expected and the couple never felt isolated in the country.

“We found it to be the opposite. Of course, there are fewer people, but much of our interactions with others are more meaningful. There is a lot of ‘neighbours helping neighbours’ and there is more impromptu visiting,” says Carpenter.

Similar to Yellow House Farm, Prinsloo and Carpenter rely on direct marketing and sell most of their products in Winnipeg. At this stage, the couple also has to pick up work off-farm to support their lifestyle.

“It is a challenge to invest in livestock, capitalize a business and pay ourselves but we live frugally and we are managing,” says Carpenter.

Even small farms require huge investments upfront, which means it often takes a long time for new farmers to see a return. The McInnes’ also work casually during the year on top of farming full-time. Katie works at the local newspaper and Colin helps out at a nearby abattoir and builds houses in the winter.

For most first-generation farmers, money isn’t the end goal. What’s more attractive is the farming lifestyle and the rekindling of a lost connection to the land.

Corey Walske has a different perspective on farming. He comes from generations of farmers who have owned land outside of Morden since the ’40s.

This year, Walske sold the family farm. His decision came down to two factors: supporting his young family and climbing land prices.

“Do you keep expanding? Or do you treat your investment like the stock market and turn your good investment into cash?” says Walske. “I was very fortunate to be in the profitable side of the business. When I sold off I didn’t owe anyone anything.”

At its peak, his mixed-grain farm was close to 2,500 acres. Walske believes the days of profitable family farming are over as farms start to resemble corporations.

“Many of the people I farm with and are friends with run under corporate names. Heck I’m a corporation,” he says.

As smaller farms sell off their land, bigger companies swoop in and farmland monopolies develop. So where do small farms fit in to the business?

“Farming is a great livelihood and it’s fun, but it’s a tough game. Someone’s not gonna walk out of the house one day and say, ‘I’m gonna be a farmer,’” says Walske. “There’s a reason there’s second and third generation farms out there. It takes that much capital.”

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