A Calling, Found

Pun or not, this son flowered into a terrific farmer and helped make both his and his dad’s dreams come true.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole

Rodney Fraser and daughter Rachel, photographed in one of the family’s sunflower fields.

Rodney Fraser and daughter Rachel, photographed in one of the family’s sunflower fields.

“I tell you,” declares Rodney Fraser, “when that window opens, you’ve got to jump through.”

Fraser is not plotting his escape. Instead, he’s acknowledging one of the facts of farming that’s all the more critical in Ontario. That’s where he lives and farms, on land that has been in his family for six generations.

Up here, he says, “we can get the first frost as early as the first of September … and we’ve actually finished up combining corn many years in snow. That may not be unique as farming goes elsewhere, but it does [make] fall a very small window to get stuff done.”

Considering all he has under way these days, for Rodney such a sprint to winter creates a serious bottleneck. His window of opportunity is, if you will, more akin to a porthole.

Based at his family’s Anne Vista Farm, about an hour west of Montreal, Rodney and his dad, David, farm some 850 acres, where they raise corn, soybeans and sunflowers, the latter being bagged and sold to individuals and retailers for birdseed. In addition, they run a custom farming operation, serving about 45 customers and providing manure spreading, harvesting and baling. During the winter, they board and custom feed cattle, and Rodney runs a snowplow.

It can be long hours, but they both grew up in the dairy business, compared to which the Frasers feel like they now live lives of leisure. “Seven days a week with rarely a break was tough,” says Rodney of milking cows at his dad’s dairy, which they sold in 2000.

It was then that Rodney began working off the farm full time. David continued to grow corn and beans on the 250 acres he owned then, but, says his son, “There was enough here to support my dad, but not enough for the two of us. I worked for custom operators during that time and realized I wanted to do my own thing. So, I started my own custom manure business.”

Rodney and David have roots on this property going back to the 19th century

Rodney and David have roots on this property going back to the 19th century

It was a risk to go out on his own, but it paid off and Rodney bought the farm in 2004 from his dad, who continues to work, but these days for his son. Since then, the Frasers have doubled the amount of acreage they own. Yet, as it is with many farms, it’s the custom work that pulls the weight, allowing the Frasers to spread the cost of bigger, better machinery that can be used on their own farm as well as their customers’ farms. “We always joke that’s why we do custom work,” Rodney says with a grin. “So we can afford to cash crop.”

Rodney and David have roots at Anne Vista going back to the 19th century. “The main part of the land,” says Rodney, “has been the Frasers’ since the crown,” referring to when it was held by the Canadian government.

“My great great-grandfather … bought this land for the lumber that was on it,” explains David. “Once that was cleared off, they started to farm it and we’ve been farming it ever since. I guess that, the history, adds to the pride I have that this land is still ours.”

Residents in this mostly rural area of Eastern Ontario speak French and English, and it’s a region known for its agriculture. Ontario has the fourth most acreage in farms of all the 10 Canadian provinces and about half of the nation’s Class I, or prime, agricultural land.

Yet, for a country its size, Canada has a relatively small amount of land in agriculture. According to a 2006 study, Canada only uses 7.3% of its total area for farming. (Compare that to Brazil and the U.S., both of which farm about 42% of their total area.) Such low numbers are due in large part to the country’s climate.

David (right) says it is every farmer's dream to see the farm go on to the next generation.

David (right) says it is every farmer’s dream to see the farm go on to the next generation.

While summer can get hot—in 2012, Rodney says temperatures hit a record of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) on his farm—the region is better known for brutal winters. The mercury can dip as low as –40 degrees Celsius (–40 degrees Fahrenheit) and, as noted above, frosts can start in early September then last through April, even May.

Small window indeed, and a factor that has added pressure on him and his equipment (see “Efficient, Smooth, Reliable”), as well as farmland values. In part because of the scarcity of good agricultural land, Rodney says he’s seen prices in the area triple over the past five years, while officially values have increased on average by 81% since 2008.

Rodney and David seem easygoing. All the more so when they’re around each other.

“I have no more headaches with paying bills and all the rest of it,” says David about working for his son. “I actually enjoy the work. And to see the farm going on—that’s always every farmer’s dream.”

When asked what it was like growing up at Anne Vista, Rodney replies, “There were days when we didn’t have a lot, but I think it made us appreciate more what we have today, that’s for sure. I don’t think I’d change anything.”

Rodney bags sunflower seed off his farm and sells it for bird feed.

Rodney bags sunflower seed off his farm and sells it for bird feed.

These days, Rodney and his wife, Carol, are raising the seventh generation to live on the family farm. They have one daughter, Rachel, now 5 years old, adorable and at ease on the farm, not to mention with her grandparents on both sides, who pay frequent visits. “It’s nice having family around,” says Rodney. When asked why, he laughs and says, “Help and babysitters.”

As far as the farm, he adds, “it’s great having my dad here. There’s always somebody to ask or bounce an idea off of.”

As an example, Rodney notes that he hopes to eventually expand his farming operation to 1,000 acres, but David reminds him of what happened in the 1980s. “I was just a little bit too young to remember … but he said it was almost impossible not to make money on agriculture in the ’70s. Then, the high interest rates hit in the ’80s and put a lot of people out of business. History has a tendency to repeat itself, so he said, ‘Grow the business, but grow cautiously.’”

That’s good advice no matter what business you’re in, agrees Rodney, adding it’s the kind of wise counsel he needs to help keep this six-generation farm in family hands. As David said, that’s every farmer’s dream.

One that’s come true for Rodney, who says, “I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else than what I’m doing now.”