By Skye Forcier —
In the 21st century it is only a fortunate few who get to step outside their door on a warm summer day and be met with a field of gently grazing cattle and an eager cow dog licking their hand. Fading are the times when, after finishing their chores, children could mosey down to the creek to catch frogs and capture some mud to decorate their mother’s freshly cleaned floors. I am very lucky to be one of those fortunate few. Born on my family’s ranch and a 10-year 4-H member I have fully experienced all the wonderful things that come with being a country kid.
It’s so rare for someone to have the genuine experience of farming. No, having a Farmville™ account is not the same. The farming family is a disappearing breed, the reason being in this day and age it is becoming more and more popular for ranches to be owned by corporate giants and the family owned operation is fading into the dust. This is due to a number of factors including: family dynamics, younger generations fleeing the farm to escape the hard work, slim profits, having to compete with larger outfits, and the expense of land and farm equipment.
There are many challenges that families face when working together. Communication between generations can sometime be strained due to traditional vs. new age ideas. Family members may not feel included. A study done by RJ Fetch from Colorado State University showed daughters- in-law and mothers commonly complained they were “not part of the operation.” Machinery break downs, disease outbreaks, accidents, government regulations, and fluctuating prices can make for a very stressful environment. One third of farms do not have a designated successor in the family.
Those interested in becoming a new rancher or farmer find it difficult due to how expensive it is. Existing farms are often land-rich with much money locked up in machinery. A small farm will have anywhere between $250,000 to $400,000 in equipment. The work is very hard; often ranchers will pull 100-hour workweeks. A study done in 2005 showed ranchers made an average of $41,600 a year, and 75 percent of that was from off-the-farm sources. Today, the average age for a farmer is 53. The parents often run the land until they have to sell to retire. The decision to sell your family legacy can be a hard one.
BC holds some very historic farms and dude and cattle ranches such as Chilicoh, Hat Creek, Diamond S, Gang, Alkali Lake, O’Keeife, Quilchena, and many others. Only 12 ranches in BC run more than 1000 head; the majority of them are split between the Thompson-Nicola and the Chilcotin regions. The biggest working cattle ranch in Canada is BC’s Douglas Lake Ranch; currently it runs 20,000 head. Previously, the half-million-acre ranch was owned by Bernie Ebbers who had the largest personal bankruptcy ever with a debt of $11 billion. He was forced to sell it to current billionaire owner Stan Kroneke. Kroneke is married to Ann Walton, the heiress of the Walmart fortune. Kroneke himself holds $3 billion in Wal-Mart stock.
The Douglas Lake cattle company also owns the Alkali Lake Ranch, Quilchena Ranch, and the James Cattle company. So essentially, Walmart controls 565,000 acres in deeded ranch land and three or four times that in range ranch permit land. When one company dominates such a large portion of an industry, it has the ability to manipulate the prices and rack them up once all the smaller business have sold or gone bankrupt.
There are benefits to large operations: the economy of scale in technological advances, marketing efficiency, and labour resources, to name a few.
I heard it said recently that ranching is the only profession that buys everything at retail and sells everything at wholesale. Although there are many obstacles in small-scale agriculture, perhaps the rewards outnumber them. As Jacob C. Toews wisely pointed out: “in this technologically advanced world, most are unaware that a prosperous society does not hinge on acquiring gadgets, vehicles, or other luxury items. Rather, a significant indicator of a healthy society is the stability of the family unit. As small farms vanish from the countryside, with them disappears one of the best environments capable of producing strong, character-driven families. This – building strong character – is the most tragic loss as family farming dies out.”
Knowing you can wander over to your neighbour’s to borrow an egg or a cup of flour to complete the pancakes upon which you will slice a freshly picked strawberry is priceless. A recent British study found that the average child was better able to identify characters from the game of Pokémon than the plants and animals surrounding them. Knowing what Pikachu is isn’t going to feed your family.
I believe 4-H to be part of the solution to this growing problem. One hundred and thirteen years ago, when the very first 4-H club was formed, the intent was to encourage youth to stay involved in agriculture and find new, innovative ways to adapt to changing conditions. For most rural kids, from the early 1900s all the way to the 90s, the options for entertainment were very limited. 4-H provided an opportunity for country kids to have an activity. The goal was to connect public education to country community clubs to solve agriculture challenges using a “hands-on” method and hopefully the next generation would become more enthusiastic about inheriting their family’s ranch.
Today, 4-H continues to produce agriculturally-minded adolescents who are independent, responsible, dedicated, hard-working, knowledgeable about family values, and well-educated regarding animal husbandry. I hope there are enough of us to ensure the family farm lives on for generations to come.
Living on a farm has its hardships. Despite the 5 a.m. wake-up calls, no vacation time, loss of animals, and failed crops, I believe us farm kids really are the lucky ones.
Skye Forcier is 16 and lives on her family ranch in the Rose Lake/Miocene community. Along with 4-H and ranching she also enjoys snowboarding, mountain biking, rugby and basketball.