‘More of a business and less of a lifestyle’: Farmers face growing challenges – Edmonton Journal

A picturesque 100-year-old red barn is nestled beside the Kowalchuk family farm off a remote range road about 80 km southwest of Red Deer.

On a warm, sunny day John Kowalchuk stands in the middle of a field of barley, a tiny speck among the acres of canola, peas and wheat that surround the hamlet of Rumsey.

Kowalchuk took over 1,000 acres from his father 15 years ago, eventually expanding the family farm to 2,000 acres.

But since then, shrinking margins, volatile weather, markets and a changing approach to the industry have altered how he views his profession.

“I think that more guys are treating it more like a business and less like a lifestyle,” Kowalchuk said.

“For the longest time I think farmers kind of felt it was a lifestyle and as long as we did everything right and watched everything and tried not to overspend that everything would be fine. But it doesn’t work that way.”

Kowalchuk points to a field of yellow canola on the horizon, explaining how he’s recently doubled the size of his crops to help mitigate some of his losses.

John Kowalchuk at his Alberta farm. Dylan Short/Postmedia

This past summer, farmers in northern Alberta battled wildfire evacuations while producers in the south face drought-like conditions — and numerous counties in between declared agricultural emergencies as a result of high levels of rain. To top it off, anyone producing canola, pork or beef was caught in the middle of a political trade dispute with China, one of the world’s largest markets.

“People are having to look at being smarter with how they spend their money,” said Kowalchuk. “Maybe you spend a little more time fixing and not worrying about having the newest combine or tractor and looking at the numbers a little closer. I look way closer now than I did 10 years ago.”

Fewer farmers working more land

Numbers from Statistics Canada illustrate that Kowalchuk’s experience isn’t an anomaly in Alberta or even the country, with dwindling numbers of farmers tending to larger amounts of land.

Between 2011 and 2016, an average size of an Alberta farm grew by nearly six per cent, to 1,237 acres, up from 1,168 acres. In that same period, the total number of farms in the province fell to 40,638 from 43,234.

And the remaining farmers are facing higher costs as operating expenses across Alberta increased to $15 billion from $9.7 billion.

The silver lining for farmers is that while their costs are increasing, so is the capital value of the farm, with the average property increasing by 60 per cent or $1.3 million. But Kowalchuk notes that doesn’t offset higher costs.

Cut out supply chain middlemen

Ian Griebel, a farmer outside Castor, is taking a different approach, saying the growing size of farms and costs puts the spotlight on a society that values cheap food over sustainability.

“The problem with having cheap food all the time is that it’s coming at a cost to farmers,” said Griebel. “The only way to counteract that has been, for most people, to sell and create more product.”

Griebel has teamed up with some other Castor area producers in order to source his pasteurized pork and grass-fed beef to local butchers and restaurants, cutting out the supply chain middlemen.

“When you build these localized food models, I think that actually becomes way more sustainable,” said Griebel. “That’s something I think our society actually really needs. But you know, it’s very difficult to change and shift that.”

Known as the Prairie Farm Project, the group works together to market themselves and educate their local community through open farm visits and farm-to-food dinners.

“What we decided to do is actually resort back to a lot of what my grandfather used to farm out here,” said Greibel. “He did this out of the need to do it because it was the only way to survive, to join with and work with other farms.”

‘Always optimism’

Kowalchuk agrees producers need to adapt, and he’s shifted another direction, taking to Twitter where a supportive community for farmers has formed. Rather than shift away from foreign markets completely, he focuses on making sure he controls what he can to make the numbers add up on his end.

“You can’t really control if China’s gonna buy our canola, as a farmer you don’t have that control,” said Kowalchuk. “So you start looking at numbers and then you say, OK that’s lost income. But, then what I would do is say, well I don’t need a new combine. I don’t need to trade the combine that was giving me problems last year, I’m going to keep it and work on it.”

It’s that mindset that keeps farmers going, Kowalchuk said. And it really always has. No matter the rising costs or changing weather, producers will continue to roll with the punches.

“There’s optimism, there’s always optimism,” said Kowalchuk. “Basically how we look at it, next year the prices will be better or the crops will be better.”

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