Katrina Clarke | June 7, 2013 | National Post
Yehuda Nestel is a fast-talking, well-bred 28-year-old entrepreneur who works 70 hours a week and grew up in downtown Toronto.
But Mr. Nestel doesn’t work in a Bay Street office or live in a Yorkville condo. His head office is a 45-acre plot of land in Elora, Ont., and he shares it with two horses, 50 hens and hundreds of different crops.
The business-savvy former Torontonian is a self-made farmer. He is part of a growing group of urban-raised young people who have no background in farming but set out for rural life and become small-scale farmers anyway. Some do it because they love food and want to produce it, some think it will be romantic, some want to be their own boss and others just want a challenge.
“It’s not a different lifestyle, it’s a different life,” says Mr. Nestel of the farming industry compared to city life.
Mr. Nestel had almost no exposure to farming growing up in the St. Clair and Bathurst Street area in Toronto. He mentions his parents spent two years living on a kibbutz in Israel, but “hated it.”
‘It’s not a different lifestyle, it’s a different life’
Mr. Nestel first realized farming could be in his future when he spent a summer travelling in western Canada after high school. He worked on organic farms through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization. “It was the first time in my life I’d done any serious physical labour for extended periods of time,” he says. “I loved working outside with animals and plants. It was very satisfying.”
Fast-forward a few years and he’s now completed two farming apprenticeships and owns Plowshare Farm, based out of Elora, north of Guelph. He rents the land, has three full-time staff and grows around 250 varieties of fruit, vegetables and herbs.
The migration of city folk into farming and agriculture is a trend Rene Van Acker, associate dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph, has noticed is on the rise. He says almost half of the 1,900 undergraduate students in its programs come from urban backgrounds.
“We’re noticing an increasing number of students who do not come from a farm background or a rural background, gaining an interest, or gaining an awareness of the career opportunities in that area,” he says.
Some of the college’s recruitment efforts specifically target students in the GTA. They aim to expose prospective students to an industry that might previously have been “invisible” to them and to dispel stereotypes of “dirty boots and straw hats.”
Mr. Van Acker says although many of their city-raised grads end up back in the GTA, working in agriculture but in an urban setting, he’s noticed a small but growing number who take to the land and “get their hands dirty.”
However, he cautions the independent farming business is not easy to break into.
“It’s a challenge… It’s not unlike other businesses,” he says. He added that a new farmer’s success can depend on connections with other farmers, having someone to direct questions to, and access to land.
For Toronto native Amy Ouchterlony, it was her childhood dream to become a farmer. She even remembers writing a speech about it in Grade 6. Memories of a farm visit when she was 11 are still fresh in the now 33-year-old’s mind.
Handout/Tarrah Young on her land in Neustadt, Ont., teaches a course about the realities of being a farmer.
“I was just captivated,” she says. “Farms are all over kids’ story books. But then to actually be on one and see that people lived there and they weren’t in a book and they weren’t in a movie, they were real… It stuck with me.”
Ms. Ouchterlony may have started off with an idyllic image of farming in her head, but she now knows the learning curve is steep. She and her partner run Fiddle Foot Farm, a 66-acre property north of Orangeville, owned by her partner’s parents. She says “mentor farmers” in the community have helped out and it’s been a benefit to not have to rent the land. “We’re in a very fortunate position,” she says.
Tom Pate, a 58-year-old from Brantford whose farm has been in his family since 1891, says aspiring farmers should make sure they know what they’re in for.
“If you’re going to get into farming to have a leisurely life and make lots of money, I don’t think that’s a reality,” he says. “It’s certainly not an idyllic, relaxed, slow-paced life.”
His advice to city slickers is to start small, read up on the industry, and ask other farmers questions.
Tarrah Young is another resource. The 36-year-old farmer teaches a course in Toronto about realities of the farming business. Some hard truths she shares include the expensive cost of land, details of the highly regulated industry and the importance of not going too deep in debt.
She says most aspiring farmers come in with romantic notions of the business.
“A lot of people come in with those kind of misconceptions,” she says. “A lot of people walk away going, ‘You know what? Doing it for a business is not right for me. Thank goodness I took the course.’”
However, Ms. Young says she doesn’t know anyone who has actually started up a farming business and failed.
Katie Butterill is one of the new rural transplants, striving for farming success. She grew up in Markham, graduated from Queen’s University in 2008 with a degree in politics and geography, worked a job in sales for a year and a half, and eventually ended up following her passion for food to a seven-month internship on a farm.
“No one thought I would last,” she says. “My family… was like, ‘OK, so we’ll see you in a month?’”
Tyler Anderson/National Post Katie Butterill takes a break on the farm where she rents land near Elora, Ont. Butterill grew up in downtown Markham, Ont..
But she did last. Ms. Butterill, 26, is now on her second growing season with her own business, Smallholdings. She grows around 75 varieties of vegetables on about one acre of land she rents from the Mapleton’s Organic Dairy in Moorefield, 50 km from Guelph. She sells her produce out of their store.
Her transition to rural life has been difficult for some of her friends from the city to understand. Most of her Queen’s classmates now work in law or government, she says. When she saw a former colleague after spending a summer on a farm, they were shocked to hear what she had been up to.
“Oh I thought that was just a rumour and you went to work for a computing company,” the former colleague said to her.
But most friends have been supportive, if not a little unsure of exactly what she does. She says it sometimes feels like her two worlds are colliding when city friends show up to her farm carrying designer purses, wearing brand new boots and looking so “clean.”
“They’re not clean very long.”
Ms. Butterill doesn’t see herself moving back to the city but she does say she misses her friends, family and a few urban conveniences.
“Sometimes I just want to go for good sushi,” she says. “It’s such a cliché, but it’s true.”
Adjustments to a new farming life can also include ongoing battles with the weather and pests, necessary 5 a.m. wakeups, getting used to isolation in a rural area and long days out in the field. There is no “typical day,” says Ms. Butterill.
No one thought I would last,” she says. “My family… was like, ‘OK, so we’ll see you in a month?’
These new business owners also have to develop strategies for working as quickly as possible and maximizing efficiency. Ms. Butterill worked about 70 hours a week last year — a difficult work ethic to maintain.
“I almost burnt out,” she says.
These new farmers also have to do the typical work of a small-business owner, including paperwork, accounting, sales, marketing, developing business relationships and keeping up with regulations.
Many aspiring farmers seem to acknowledge that this is no easy industry to get into and start off slow by signing up for a farming apprenticeship or internship programs. For some though, the bigger challenge may be coming to terms with the loss of a former life.
Aabir Dey grew up in Mississauga, recently completed a Masters in environmental studies at York and his long-term goal is now to become a small-scale organic farmer. However, the 25-year-old is conflicted about having to choose between the Toronto life he loves and the rural farming life he wants.
“I love going to concerts, I love going to shows,” he says. “It’s really important and I don’t want to lose that.”
Mr. Dey is convinced he can find a balance between the two lives, but says he would ultimately give up Toronto if push came to shove.
“Farming’s just – it’s too good,” he says.