According to Statistics Canada, the old adage that farmers toil from sun-up to sundown certainly seems to be true. Canadians who dream of owning their own farm must understand that saving the down payment and earning enough to pay off the mortgage just marks the beginning of their commitment to this type of real estate.

Traditional farming couples who work on large farms generating over CN$100,000 in annual sales spent an average of 100 combined hours a week on farm work, while those on small farms with sales between $10,000 and $100,000 devoted 71 total hours, based on data from the Canadian Agriculture-Population linkage database.

The 66,690 husband-and-wife-operated farms evaluated in the 1996 Census accounted for 24 percent of all Canadian farming operations and 22 percent of total farm production. Almost 50,000 farming couples had sales over $10,000 and 48 percent of these couples ran "traditional" family farms in which both husband and wife worked exclusively on the farm. Two-thirds of the remaining 52 percent of husband-and-wife teams spent 20 or more hours per week employed off-farm.

Almost three-quarters of couple-run dairy farms were operated by traditional farmers whereas the great majority of specialty farms such as horse, goat, mink, rabbit, llama, bison and Christmas tree operations, as well as 62 percent of cattle ranches, were run by couples where at least one worked off-farm. Farms with livestock demand more time. For example, depending on the size of the operation, a dairy farm may require 86 to 108 hours a week compared to a wheat-growing venture which may average 62 to 93 hours of labour weekly.

Wives on dairy farms did a smaller share of the farm work (50 percent) than did those on wheat farms (55 percent) or specialty farms (75 percent).

Whether you buy a farm or inherit one, commitment to a 7-24-365 lifestyle is an important step in running a successful agricultural operation.

Raised on the farm he now owns, Manitoban Doug Smith returned from university and started his own 1000-acre operation in 1980. About ten years later, he added 2000 acres by buying his father's farm. He and his wife, Margaret, now work about 5000 acres in wheat and canola with the help of one hired hand. Margaret takes an active role on the farm and handles all the bookkeeping. The farm is large by local standards since the average area operation is about 1500 acres.

"People think that if we earn $120 per acre that's good, but if it costs us $150 to grow an acre of wheat, which then sells for $3 a bushel, at 40 bushels to the acre, we would lose $30 on the wheat acres," said Doug. These estimates are based on costs alone and do not factor in the hours of labour contributed by the Smiths.. "Our gross income is over $1 million dollars with a lot of big cheques going in and out. Not much stays here. We net only a very small fraction."

Whether off-farm work is a necessity or helps gather capital to expand the operation, non-traditional farming couples seemed better off financially. In 1995, even though 67 percent of non-traditional farmers earned less than $10,000 from farming, 82 percent of these couples reported total personal incomes of more than $25,000. In contrast, about 52 percent of traditional farming couples earned less than $10,000 from their farm, but only 72 percent had total personal incomes over $25,000.

"Save a few bucks and put some away for the future," says Doug, who acknowledges that federal income tax provisions benefit farmers. "[Saving] is something a person should do if possible. Being self-employed, there won't be a Canada Pension Plan for us and, being self employed, we don't have an employee benefit plan."

Buying a farm means buying a uniquely absorbing way of life. Are you ready for it?

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