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At Home on the Range

Sep 1, 2009

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.

“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.

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