This is likely to be a long post. It may well be so long that I wind up dividing it into two parts. If I had a hunting dog that wandered onto as many side trails and I seem to, I'd give him away, but when I tell a story orally I veer onto side trails all the time so why should writing be any different ? :)
As some of you know, I grew up on a working "conventional" farm which was situated among other working, "conventional" farms in a place that was then, and remains to this day, Canada's bread basket. As some of you may remember reading in our Paradigm Farms blog, I gained my passion for agriculture by following my grandfather, a gentle, patient and kind man, literally through every season when I was a child. With a couple of exceptions, his business and farming mindset was very conventional, if quite current, for the time and place in which he was brought up. He grew commodities (milk, oats, grain, beef cattle, dairy heifers, field peas and sweet corn for the canneries, etc.), and he sold them to someone else to do something else with before they ever their way to someone's table.
His type of commodity agriculture has always required a relatively large scale to produce an adequate living for the operator of choice. By the standards of the day, my grandad ran a large, prosperous farm. He farmed a LOT more land in the 1940's and 50's than I do today and he farmed it far more intensively (and some might reasonably say more successfully) than I do right now. He continued to grow his land base and continued to branch out his business right up until he retired, a whole bunch of years later.
My formal education, which I gained at the University of Guelph, Canada's best "land grant" university, did an excellent job of backing up everything I learned from watching and doing at home. So too did my first couple of jobs after college.
The problem was that by the time I graduated college in 1994, the profit margin in conventional agriculture was GONE. One could possibly make it work, if by chance one inherited one's land and equipment and/or had a spouse with a really good off farm job to support one's large and very expensive hobby.(I've done a lot of crappy things in my life, but to my credit I have never believed in putting my wife to work to support me ! Remember that, Melissa !) If you think horses are expensive, try 3000 (or 30,000) acres of commodity corn and beans ! I promise that after the bills come in, you'll run back to horses. Unfortunately, IMO, most ag industry jobs, land grant universities and most extension personnel STILL do an excellent job of backing up a business model that nearly guarantees failure for those starting out.
After my dad passed away suddenly and very unexpectedly, I returned home, bought our family homeplace, and did my best to make a go of it, still convinced in the precepts if not entirely in the economic reality behind conventional agriculture. As far as it went, I did it all "right", at least according to the extension experts and land grant university types, and through luck and some skill I made the operation modestly successful. What this means is that my business turned a lot of dollars. My cash flow was excellent. Unfortunately it was mostly flowing right back out the door. Even in my best years, I worried about how to make the business a truly viable long term model which would allow me to pay my bills, earn a reasonable living and continue to expand over time, hopefully without borrowing very much money.
I don't guess I'll ever know how that all would have turned out. I was blind sided by a divorce in 2003, and despite my ex-wife's intense dislike of me, she sure liked the thought of getting her hands into the little bit of money I had earned and saved. I sold our farm, which we had bought from my mom after dad died and which had been in our family for seven generations, to pay her out. I hated being forced to sell at the time, but maybe it saved me from an even worse ending a few years down the road. There was much that I loved about the way I grew up (and much that I still want to replicate today) but the business model that served my grandad never really did serve me. Failure has the ability to teach lessons much more effectively than success. I loved my first wife and I loved farming. I failed at both. The day my farm got sold was the day I fully realized my losses. It was the worst day of my life. I vowed that I was done forever with conventional commodity agriculture. My paradigm(s) had shifted, though to what, I wasn't at the time so sure of.
Two years later, shortly after I married Melissa, we bought a bunch of beef calves with a partner in Benson VT. The goal was to finish them all and sell them direct to consumers. We didn't have any money to buy grain but we had plenty of grass, so we grass finished every one of them. Surprisingly, we sold everything we finished, and even more surprisingly to me, the beef was delicious...among the best I have ever eaten ! To honour my mid-life re-introduction to a very different kind of farming, Melissa and I agreed it would be very appropriate to call our new venture Paradigm Farms.
People today remark to me that I walk around most of the time with a goofy grin pasted on my face. Damn straight I do. I'm a full time farmer. I've got one HELL of a wife. I have several viable businesses going on, and I'm living my childhood dream. If that's not reason enough to walk around smiling, I don't know what is !
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