As every Canadian farmer knows, basing your business plan on the weather and fluctuating commodity markets can be a challenge. The Ference family mitigates those risks by going bigger and doing more.
They call it a “four farming enterprise,” referring to four separate business units — grain, feedlot, nursing herd and custom farming — that operate separately to manage risk. And with 10,000 acres of cropland, an 8,000-head feedlot, 4,000 mother cows plus the custom work, those risks aren’t small.
“When we joined my parents in running the farm, we envisioned a multiple enterprise business,” says Craig Ference, who together with his wife, Jinel, and his parents, own and manage Double F Farms, located near the hamlet of Kirriemuir in south-eastern Alberta. “That meant combining cattle with cropping and learning to work smarter so we could do more with less.”
Craig and Jinel are the 2018 regional winners of the Outstanding Young Farmers award for Alberta. Double F Farms was founded in 1985 with a single wheat field and has since expanded to a second location in Biggar, SK. Craig and Jinel are fourth generation farmers who have made growth through diversification their main priority.
“In many ways the technology available today allows us to work better and helps us do more,” says Craig, “A lot of that technology comes down to genetics — both plant and animal genetics. Today we can produce more feed per acre and calve more cows without increasing our labour needs. These advancements allow us to grow more and to try different things so we can take advantage of opportunities in good years and weather tough seasons.”
Market swings are the driving force behind the Ferences desire to diversify. And even when times are good, it’s all about controlling costs. They carefully watch the price of fuel and make bulk purchases when they see a number that works for them. Right now they are looking at barley prices and determining a good price to lock in.
On a farm this size, labour costs are always a concern, and they know it is easier to get full-time labour than seasonal workers. By diversifying the operation, they have value-added businesses in each area of their enterprise, allowing for more year round work and efficient use of their labour force.
The people behind the farm
A farm this size requires all hands on deck, especially during the busy seasons. At its peak, the farm employs up to 20 workers. However, they generally have a dozen year-round fulltime staff.
Because it’s challenging to find farm labour locally, the Ferences often use the temporary foreign worker program to find experienced farm workers from around the world, and work with an immigration consultant to stay on top of visa applications and paperwork.
“We now have guys who come back every year. We have several workers who have been here seven or eight years,” says Craig. “In addition to our seasonal workers, we have key operators from Ireland, Sweden, the Ukraine and Australia. Our most seasoned and experienced employees have helped in hiring and sourcing employees from their communities overseas. We have been able to develop a network of like-minded workers who support our growth mindset.”
One of the challenges in finding temporary workers willing to work on rural farms is making sure they have nearby accommodations. The Ferences have worked hard to make their farm a desirable location for workers to live. “We own properties in a nearby town where most employees live,” says Jinel. “Craig’s dad also built a duplex for our employees. We think it’s wonderful to have accommodations available for our employees and their families so they can be close to work and also part of our community.”
Harnessing technology to manage growth
Advances in all areas of technology throughout the operation have helped facilitate growth. The Ferences have become big proponents of feed corn and the advancements in corn hybrids, as well as seeding and harvesting technology that has allowed them to manage more cropland each year.
In addition, computer-based systems help them manage the entire operation from their farm office. “I enjoy operating our feedlot and farming software,” says Jinel. “These programs allow us to watch and manage the different aspects of our farm — from feedlot management to inventory control,” she explains. “We can look at the performance of different areas and make decisions based on the information from those programs.”
Naturally, a farm this size requires a lot of equipment, so Craig and Jinel make that equipment work longer in order to manage the capital costs. “The custom farming aspect of our farm means we can use our equipment better,” says Craig. “This area of our business is rapidly growing, especially as corn acres increase in this area. We custom plant corn in a 200-kilometre radius from our farm and help other farmers out with the agronomy and harvesting. Again, this helps us use our labour force and our equipment more efficiently.”
Double F Farms also uses section control on the sprayer and in plant management programs to make the most of hybrid seed technology. In addition, the Ferences have adopted the latest feedlot management technology for a healthier, easier-tomanage herd.
Keeping it in the family
The Ference family manages costs by doing as much as possible in-house, building on family members’ wealth of knowledge. For instance, Craig’s dad, Harvey, builds most of their structures while his mother, Joyce, does the majority of the bookkeeping. Three generations of Ferences live on the farm site, which allows their three children, Maddie, Nate and Macy, to experience farm life and the role different generations play on the farm.
“We have a lot of connections in the community. In fact, a neighbour nominated us for the Outstanding Young Farmer award,” says Jinel. “As part of the OYF program we get to meet lots of Canadian farmers across many agriculture industries and learn how other people do things in order to help us run our business better. We’ve already made some terrific connections and met some great people who are all interested in growing agriculture in this country.”
For Craig, travel is also a priority when possible — not just for pleasure but also to learn how people in other countries deal with adversity. For instance, on a trip to Australia, Craig saw how growers in that country dealt with consecutive years of drought, which helped him deal with that same issue at home.
“We never dreamed we would be where we are today so in some ways it’s challenging to look to the future because we are already so much further ahead than we thought we’d be at this point,” says Craig. “We have invested a lot in our physical assets over the past few years so right now we want to use those assets better and invest in expanding our land base. We are always looking forward to see how we can do more, get better, farm sustainably and instil strong rural values for our kids and for future generations.”