KINCARDINE – When it comes to the value of having good neighbours, Jennifer and Mathias Seilern, two biodynamic farmers, could probably write a book on the subject.
“Our succession plans, in terms of our agricultural careers, would be considered somewhat non-traditional,” she explains. “I know some farmers in the area and there was one who wanted to retire but didn’t have any successors. So one neighbour hooked us up with him and we began to work on his farm.
“That meant his retirement process took place at a reasonable and leisurely pace. We were all on the land, farming together for about a year or so. He was using up the rest of his feed supply and we were putting in our crop for the next year. It worked out very well and he loved the arrangement.
“He and his wife lived off farm so it meant they could go to Florida, visit their children and just enjoy life. He still has access to the shop if he wants to fix up his truck or other pieces of equipment.”
While Mathias is not from an agricultural family, Jennifer grew up on the family dairy farm in Schomberg, between Orangeville and Newmarket. Her parents still have 45 head they milk there.
“I helped out on the farm but initially I really didn’t want to be a farmer,” she explains. “I went to the University of Guelph to study international development and did agricultural science. It wasn’t until the first semester that my interest in farming started up again. I had been away from the farm while growing up, like going on exchanges as a high school student but this was different.
“It wasn’t until I got to university that I really started to miss the farm back home. There were all the agricultural facilities in Guelph and I often found myself taking walks through the barn and accessing those things again. Before I knew it, I was really back into farming.”
On the other hand Mathias, in his early 30s, grew up with his family, living on a rented farm in Richmond Hill, with another person working the land. While he often helped farmers in the surrounding area, leading to a personal interest in agriculture, he didn’t intend on pursuing a farming career. With his father an engineer, he decided to further his education as a diesel mechanic.
“He has his papers,” says Jennifer. “These are very valuable skills he brings to the farm. His work with machinery means we cut down costs by keeping some older pieces in good shape for much longer. This is very helpful when it comes to budgeting.”
Thanks to their helpful neighbours, they hooked up with two brothers Uli and Martin Hack, longtime friends of Mathias who became their mentors.
“They taught us so much about biodynamic farming,” Jennifer adds. “They have more than 30 years of experience, with practical knowledge you just don’t get out of text books. We also rent or borrow equipment from them. It’s a great relationship.”
FarmStart was also an important tool the two new farmers employed as they moved ahead with their careers.
“I took lot of courses there for some extra hands-on knowledge,” says Jennifer. “This was the kind of practical material that I really didn’t get at university. It also gave me the opportunity to meet other new young farmers, people we could talk with, share thoughts and plans. It was like a community.
“Isolation can be a real challenge for new young farmer and with much of the community getting older; it’s good to find others like us with whom we can generate ideas.”
So what is biodynamic agriculture?
Essentially it is a type of organic farming focusing on the holistic development and inter-relationship of the soil, plants and animals as a self-sustaining system. It relies on the use of manures and composts, with no artificial chemicals.
“We have both grains and cattle,” Jennifer explains. “There are 262 acres and we are doing organic cash crops and transitioning to biodynamic on 130. Then we have a 55 head cow calf operation. It’s a holistic system, with crop rotations.
“You could say it is beyond organic. With this system you have to go that one step further and put animals into the operation in order to keep that larger cycle going. We are still renting. The owner is retired and we hope we can eventually buy the property.
“The idea is to start out this way without the burden of large mortgage. As we get established, we hope to buy the operation. We’re both members of the National Farmers Union and make great use of the Internet, even for things like filing our taxes.”
While Jennifer, in her late 20s, still does some off-farm work, mostly two month contracts in the summer with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the goal is to be full-time farmers within a three-five year period.
So is farming still a viable career option for young people or even those simply looking to change career paths?
“Yes,” says Jennifer. “But it’s not easy. You have to think about generating income from an amount of capital you can access when staring and often that is not a lot. We are a larger scale small farm – accessing specialty commodities to generate more income from crops – rather than a large scale cash cropping operation.
“We feel direct marketing and accessing specialty crops is a good way to generate money. We love both the work and lifestyle so that is why we wanted to farm. We realize it is a business but beyond that the lifestyle is great. It has lived up to our expectations but it is challenging – even more challenging that you can imagine.
“It takes a lot out of you but when it pays back, it is very rewarding.”