2009 Outstanding Young Farmer

 

I was honoured and humbled to be awarded Alberta’s Outstanding Young Farmer in 2009. The Alberta Venture magazine wrote a feature following that tells the story of San Emideo Ranch and how I got started in this business.

[article and images courtesy of Alberta Venture magazine]

At Home on the Range – Horse trainer Geoff Hoar built a modern business to support a traditional lifestyle on the ranch

by Paul Cowley

When Geoff Hoar’s bankers nominated him for Canada’s 29th annual Outstanding Young Farmers Program, he felt he could hardly say no. What chance did he have to win? But, heck, those guys at ATB Financial practically owned his ranch. What was he going to say?

But as it turns out, Hoar was just what the judges were looking for: an 18- to 39-year-old who makes most of his or her living on the farm, doing it in a way that sets a new standard for the profession.

“When they announced my name, my jaw just about hit the table,” says the affable Hoar, the 34-year-old owner of San Emideo Ranch, his horse training facility near Innisfail, a 20-minute drive south of Red Deer. After all, the guy he was up against that January day at Edmonton’s FarmTech show was the walking, talking epitome of Alberta farming tradition. He ran a feedlot for natural beef and farmed 4,000 acres of oats. Let’s face it: you don’t get more Alberta than beef.
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“It just surprised me. But it was maybe [because I represented] the new face of agriculture. This is what you have to do to make a go of it these days. You can’t do what, stereotypically, everybody thinks farmers do.”

Which means you can’t just plant your crops, raise your livestock and hope for the best. So what Hoar did was take a quarter section of family land and, in five years, built an agri-business from the ground up to train work and show horses and break colts. The result was a sustainable rural business that supports him and two employees.

Raised on a family farm nearly a century old, Hoar always knew his future wasn’t to sit in an Audi stuck in a bumper-to-bumper, Deerfoot Trail jam en route to some city job. He also knew that in today’s economic climate, staying on the farm isn’t easy. “I wanted to make a living off the land. But it just wasn’t feasible to buy in.”

It’s not unusual for quarter sections in the area to sell for as much as $500,000 thanks to the price pressure of urban development along the Edmonton-Calgary corridor. To make a go of it, farming has meant big equipment and a lot of land. Nobody is plunking down half a million dollars, plus equipment, to work a quarter-section. The return doesn’t justify it. But Hoar made quarter-section economics work.

“The typical family farm, running it the way dad did and grandpa did, just doesn’t exist anymore,” he says, sitting at his desk in a pine-panelled office just off San Emideo’s 9,600-square-foot indoor riding arena. Impossible to miss mounted on the wall is the stuffed head of a giant, horned steer, a 2,000-pounder that kept a watch over the herd until he got too old.

Before Hoar took on the challenge of making a living in farming, he went to school, a tradition in a family that embraced higher learning. He followed up two years of commerce at Red Deer College with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture from the University of Alberta. After graduating, he did what thousands of students do: he hit the road. But even after he landed in Australia, he didn’t stop learning. Tired of playing tourist, he jumped back in the saddle and started training horses at a facility near Melbourne. Returning to Canada, he held a few jobs, handling weed control for the Alberta Land and Forest Service in the Crowsnest Pass and then worked for an environmental company dealing in agricultural land management. But all that time he kept riding. Soon he was renting barns to train horses in the winter months.

Then he figured it was time to stop putting money into someone else’s pocket and get on with building his own barn and riding arenas. Dreams are all good and fine, but when they come with a $250,000 bank loan, they can sidle up uncomfortably close to nightmare territory.

“There was a couple of sleepless nights there. You’re kind of lying there at night going, ‘Man, I hope this works. You’re jumping in pretty big here.’”

He got lucky on the timing. He built his indoor riding arena and fenced two outdoor pens before Alberta’s boom ignited and prices skyrocketed. Now, five years on, San Emideo Ranch offers one of Alberta’s biggest outdoor riding arenas. Looking every part the cowboy – Wrangler jeans, white cowboy hat and a battered pair of boots complete with spurs – Hoar quits the office to give a tour of his ranch. In one corral, a pair of beautiful brown horses is warmed by the morning sun. One is being trained for a recreational rider, while the other will be developed into a fine-tuned athlete for a calf roper. At any one time he has 15 to 20 horses.

Hoar doesn’t just train horses for others. He competes on his own as well. And wins. He was the 2007 Canadian Supreme Open Snaffle Bit Champion. Later that year, he went to Texas and left as Appaloosa World Champion.

Moving forward, he’d like to focus more on high-performance horses. He also recognizes the need to work more on long-term marketing. So far, he sees potential in conducting clinics or even creating a line of instructional DVDs for clients that could include ranchers looking to develop their own working horses or recreational riders seeking a hobby.

“You can only ride so many horses in a day, and if you’re going to grow your business, that’s what I’ve got to look at.”

Hoar is also taking a far-sighted approach to the nuts and bolts of running a business. He may look like a cowboy at work, but when it comes to making business decisions, he’s all suit. He put his staff on payroll and put workers’ compensation in place. There’s nothing in the rules that says you have to do that; it just seemed right. “It’s a high-risk job,” says Hoar. (He’d know. It took 13 screws and two plates to piece his foot together last year after it was crushed under a horse.)

Environmental sustainability – another reason he was singled out by the Outstanding Young Farmers Program – is also part of the approach. Wood shavings from horse stalls are reused as cattle bedding before being composted. A water dugout for fire suppression is filled by runoff from the arenas. He’s also planted more than 1,000 trees to create a shelter belt and tries to keep the land under perennial forage to protect topsoil. “You do every little bit you can, I guess.”

His business established, Hoar is now looking forward to the trail ahead. Part of that will involve heading back to the Outstanding Young Farmers competition in December. This time it’s to Ottawa, carrying the flag for farming excellence for Alberta and the Northwest Territories region, with a shot at being chosen as one of two national winners from seven regions across the country.

But even if the recognition has convinced Hoar that he’s found a way to make life on the ranch economically sustainable, keeping him out of those Deerfoot traffic jams, he’s not about to say it’s any easier than the way dad and granddad did it.

“It’s like traditional agriculture. It’s a lot of hard work. There are risks involved. Margins are low.” But Hoar adds, “Sometimes there’s a reward being on the land.”