By Trevor Bacque
An unspoken goal of many farmers is to take what their parents created and try to make it better than when they began. At Double F Farms just east of Kirriemuir, Alta., this is what they are striving to do.
Craig and Jinel Ference manage the diversified farming operation full-time, which includes a feedlot, a cow-calf operation, a grain farm in addition to a custom farming venture. Since Craig’s parents Harvey and Joyce are slowly stepping back from the day to day operations the last few years, it has allowed Craig and Jinel to step up and really flex their inherited work ethic and farm philosophy.
Harvey and his brother Jim split off from their other two brothers and ran the 2,000-acre farming operation together in 1985 complete with 200 cows in addition to a fertilizer and spraying business on the side. Over the next 10 years both the farm and the off-farm business grew, yet Harvey had a greater passion for the cattle side of the business. By 1995, the two of them decided to split off and Harvey focused full-time on the farming and cattle.
After another decade, Harvey got a helping hand from his son Craig who moved back after earning an agriculture business degree from the University of Alberta. Not long after, Jinel, originally from Stavely, Alta., arrived after completing her education degree. The two were married in 2007 and now have three budding children—two girls and a son.
For Harvey, seeing the next generation learn and thrive has been a pleasure to watch, even if it reminds himself a bit of his rambunctious self.
“It’s like my dad said—he’s following my footsteps when I was younger,” says Harvey, 67. “It’s pretty hard to tell him not to take chances and do things. I can remember when I was his age, I was doing the same thing.”
Harvey regularly advises Craig and is still apart of management today. Craig’s not alone in making it work out, either.
With a workforce of 15 full-time employees, and 22 in peak seasons, there’s never a shortage of hands, or work, to make Double F run on all cylinders.
Since transitioning into leadership, Craig and Jinel made a concerted effort to expand and do so in a fairly aggressive fashion. Harvey’s custom farming business went from about 1,000 acres annually to more than 8,000 today. They won’t just plant the crop and harvest it, though. They silage, spray, vertical till, land roll and pack silage as well as offer manure spreading. Similarly, the cow herd went from 800 to 4,000 while the feedlot increased from 1,000 to 8,000 head. Cropland likewise increased over the years from 1,000 to 15,000 acres. With annual soil testing and adapting aspects of precision agriculture, they’ve managed to increase organic matter from one to four per cent across their land.
The family also vertically tills certain portions of their land to mix soil layers and residue without sacrificing moisture. Their grazing practices have been fine-tuned over the years, as well. Today, they have pulled marginal land out of their crop rotation and begun to rotate graze perennial forages. The family also owns 2,050 acres of pastureland in Biggar, Sask.
“We believe in delayed spring grazing to allow the land to sustain the cattle later in the season,” says Craig.
Their production practices have rarely stayed static, either. With careful tinkering and measured approaches to change, they have found success with many agronomic practices such as liquid fertilizer starters, spin spreading with auto-calibration, pulse-width modulation for spraying and sectional controls.
“These are all new practices that we have researched, tested and implemented,” says Craig.
It’s simply a hallmark of Ference families to not sit idly by and let others take your opportunities.
“My grandpa was pretty progressive, dad was pretty progressive and I’d say I am too,” says Craig.
One of the family’s biggest moves was their dream to grow the cow herd. However, they picked quite the moment in time to get bullish on cows, the BSE crisis. At a time when most ranchers were looking to salvage a few dollars on greatly discounted animals, the Ferences went the other way. He fondly recalls buying a lot of “$400 and $500 cows.”
“BSE was our shoo-in, that was our opportunity,” he says. “It’s what started our herd and really allowed us to expand. Everybody always thinks we were crazy, even banks, because of the rate of our expansion. It’s nothing new to us, we’ve been fighting banks for three generations. It was really tough during BSE. Banks only want to give money in the peaks of markets.”
The family was keenly aware of the trade-off, though. Going headlong on cows meant less capital for land acquisition. As their cow herd continued to increase, so did surrounding land values. In fact, land values in the area increased three times in a 10-year period from $700 to $2,500 per acre.
Not dismayed, they took their 1,000 acres of farmland and began to rent additional acres and through creative agreements and joint ventures, slowly expanded that number, as well. In 2018, after once again taking an aggressive tack on expansion, this time on land, the Ferences acquired 63 quarter-sections.
The big question is what does one grow on so many acres? The answer may surprise you: corn.
Never an area that would be considered a traditional corn market, the Ferences have found a home for their yellow ears. The area is right on the line for both heat units and suitable moisture, however, with Pioneer’s big push in corn genetics, the family has had great success. It’s allowed them to cut down their feeding costs by growing their rations themselves. This year, 80 per cent of their 15,000 acres will be dedicated to Pioneer corn.
“Pioneer has treated us very well,” says Craig. “We believe they have the best genetics. It’s allowed us to shift our entire operation and not just grow corn for silage, but other end uses. You’re able to take a traditional cow-calf farm and turn it upside down. It’s been pretty exciting for us.”
He takes an identical approach to bull genetics, as well. They source exclusively from Lewis Farms in Spruce Grove, Alta., and LLB Angus at Erskine, Alta., and pay a premium for what they get.
“We home in on genetics. We are strong believers that we can produce more beef with the same amount of cows,” he says.
By virtue of buying less bulls of a greater quality genetics, the family has managed to surpass their own internal benchmarks and greatly improve their cash flow as a result. They have also managed to naturally increase their herd by 10 per cent each year by keeping around 1,000 to 1,200 of their own replacement heifers.
The family has now made it standard business practice to hedge, forward contract and play the futures market to give them a competitive advantage.
“Grain is marketed throughout the year and cattle are finished in different months to allow for changing markets,” says Craig of their cattle plan.
With the purchase of nearby land, it has allowed them to completely alter their program. They now provide a high-quality feed source during only a few summer months and the rest of the year the animals graze corn stalks and earlage residue.
One of the main reasons the family has been able to undergo such a great amount of diversification is its labour force. With a sizeable staff, the Ferences have been fortunate to attract and retain such a crew of talented employees. Perhaps the surprising part is that most of them aren’t Canadian. They currently employ workers from Australia, Ireland, Ukraine, Sweden and South Africa. Those employees and their families now live in the area and, thanks in part to the Ferences’ farm operation, the local school population has not only been boosted, but now contains 10 per cent foreign students, virtually unheard of in such a remote area.
Craig says without their employees they simply would not have been able to scale the farm and additional agribusinesses as well or as quickly as they would have liked. More than that, however, the farm has grown to be something greater than crops or cows, it’s a new beginning for many of their workers.
“We live in a yard that is multigenerational, full of culture, and I feel like we’ve created a yard that’s welcoming and nurturing,” says Jinel. “I hope our farm is a happy place for people. I hope it’s a starting point for many people to come to Canada and start a new chapter in their lives.”
Hiring foreign workers is often an area of farm business that is only talked about with negative adjectives and references to the constant headaches of dealing with government, visa permits and application wait times. However, the Ferences, given the labour shortages of the industry, accepted that foreign employment was their only chance to have on-farm success.
“It has been an intense learning curve from paperwork, visas and language barriers but we have found excellent employees from far and wide,” says Jinel. “We have created a positive and stable work environment that allows us to retain employees for many years as well as a good balance between seasonal and year-round employees.”
Those same employees have also helped implement logical and time-saving ideas around the farm. Never one to shy away from a new school of thought, Craig points to their switch away from North American machinery to a high percentage of European equipment fleet. He has likewise been pleased with another employee idea, the innovation of multiple, decentralized silage pits as opposed to one massive pit in one yard. Craig labels the latter as “a huge thing we never really noticed before.”
“We try to always keep and open mind,” says Craig. “If we don’t keep an open mind, were not going to learn anything.”
It must be contagious, too. In 2018, the Ferences were surprised to get a call and learn that they had been nominated by a farmer in the area for Alberta’s Outstanding Young Farmers award, given to a farming family under 40 that demonstrates excellence in many areas, including growth, financial and environmental sustainability, farm management and community involvement.
The couple spent two days being interviewed and grilled by judges about their farming practices, finances and operational management. By the end of the competition, they were selected as the Alberta winner, beating out two other qualified farms.
“The Alberta event experience was great,” says Jinel. “You get to spend time with like-minded people that are positive and progressive.”
From there, the Ferences were automatically entered into the national competition, which occurred later that fall. However, going up against the best of the best from each province upped the stakes and quality of their competition. After another gauntlet of judging and scrutiny, the Ferences shared the top honour with Ontario’s regional winner as Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2018.
“We were absolutely shocked,” says Craig of the winning moment. “You would have been proud of any one of those nominees. Everyone is doing very amazing things.”
Some have thought the young family’s approach has been too bold or brash—maybe brainless—at times, but it’s never hindered their drive to create a farm they are proud of today and tomorrow.
“Going against the status quo, sometimes when you have a creative mind or think outside the box people raise their eyebrows and question you, but it’s interesting to see the people that support us,” says Jinel.
Craig echoes his wife’s belief and is glad he is farming in 2020 and not yesteryear.
“It’s like it’s OK to be creative and entrepreneurial and push the limits of creative thinking,” he says of agriculture today.
And as far as the family farm being left in a constant state of flux, but for the better, Harvey has the benefit of history on his side to offer insight.
“I’m very proud of what I’ve done and even prouder of what he’s done,” says Harvey. “Craig’s done an awful lot and I’m very proud of him, but also all of our employees. They all put something into it and it’s very amazing.”