Every farm has its own story. No two farms (or farmers) are exactly alike. Everyone got started in a different way, and every farm has a different combination of family and hired staff who make the decisions and keep things running. But, in general, even after you consider all of the details, Prairie farmers are more alike than different.
This is the story of Devon Walker, a farmer, husband and parent near Lashburn in northwest Saskatchewan.
Where do you farm?
Devon Walker is a fourth-generation farmer in the Lashburn area, in northwestern Saskatchewan. Devon and his wife Pamela are the parents of three children.
What crops do you grow?
Devon farms 2,200 acres of canola, wheat (hard red and CPS), yellow peas, faba beans, and malting barley.
How long have you been farming?
Devon started farming in 2010. He recently took over the management role of the farm from his father. He says the transition process took about seven years.
In 2008, Devon graduated from Lakeland College in Vermilion with an applied degree in environmental management, conservation and reclamation. He worked in the open pit coal mining industry near Hinton, Alberta. Then he moved home and worked in the heavy oil sector for two years, while trying to farm simultaneously.
Farming was always the end goal but he had to wait for the opportunity, he says. Eventually push came to shove “and all the eggs were in the farm basket and it was time.”
What’s your favourite farming season?
“I personally like the start of every season on the calendar year. The first little bit of seeding is awesome and the end is always terrible,” says Devon.
Overall, his favourite season is harvest, as he’s reaping the fruits that he’s sown. But, he adds, “the first bit of harvest is awesome, and by the end of the season it’s like: ‘Get me out of this glass cage of emotion.’”
It’s similar with grain hauling, he adds.
What’s a good decision you made on the farm?
In 2017, the Lashburn area struggled with excess moisture. “We had a very late seeding date for our area.”
He decided to seed his canola first, because he’d been quoted saying that he could deal with frozen wheat, but not frozen canola. The result was “ugly, gross wheat,” but good canola. He says he’s happy with that.
His other good decision came about in his early years of farming. When he was first farming, and also working in the oilfield, he asked farmers he considered successful for advice. “And everybody said the farm suffers if you’re not all in.”
So he decided to “jump into agriculture with both feet first.”
Is there a decision you regret?
Devon tries not to dwell too much on negative choices. “You obviously have to learn from your mistakes, but I don’t so much regret.”
He tries to stay modest with how he farms. “I think my regrets would be small, at this point.”
However, looking back on 2017, he can think of one decision. “I guess booking some $9 wheat would have been a smarter choice this season.”
What opportunities do you see in agriculture?
“When I left the farm to go to school, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in agriculture. Land prices were low, producers were not overly optimistic.” But he noticed a lot of farmers would be retiring, and he appreciated his upbringing on the farm and the skills he learned. He wanted to make sure he kept those skills and passed them on to his kids, as it seems to have worked for his family for several generations.
Then he saw there would be opportunity to grow the farm, make a living, and raise a family. Going forward he sees this opportunity continuing for new producers. There are plenty of succession programs out there through agencies such as Farm Credit Canada. He also sees opportunities for current producers to grow their operations.
What challenges do you see in agriculture?
Devon sees land ownership as a future challenge. His farm is okay in the immediate future. But further down the road, when he wants to do a big land purchase, “I think the price may not be very attainable for me, or other growers of my size.”
Traditionally retiring farmers approached neighbours who they wanted to farm their land. But now there may be several bidders on a land parcel, and the dollars are high, he says.
Renting is a good partnership, but there’s not always much certainty beyond the contract term. And as urban people with no other agricultural connection inherit or buy farmland, farmers will have to communicate “agriculture’s way of life” to them, he says.
What do you like to do for fun?
“Family stuff is really awesome right now.” Devon and his wife have a five-year-old, a two-year-old, and a baby. Devon enjoys community activities such as threshing bees and Halloween activities for the kids. He also enjoys swimming with the family and curling.
You could have done anything. Why did you decide to farm?
He has three main reasons:
Having been raised on the farm, he had the knowledge and skill to do it. Agriculture gave him an opportunity to challenge himself, with the skills he learned. And as the farm evolved, that gave him a chance to make it his own.
There was a changing of the guard underway. Agriculture hadn’t seen a massive group of farmers retiring since the late ‘70s, Devon points out. Devon looked at the demographic shift and saw that land would be available for him to farm.
Agriculture underwent big changes between the time he left the farm and when he came back. The future looks positive, and “full of tech gizmos and programs and options.”
“There’s really been a big shift in every aspect of the farm. It’s new and exciting.”
What’s the farm implement you can’t live without?
“I can’t live without my John Deere 4450. That is the one piece of machinery on our farm that hasn’t changed since 1985. My father bought it the year I was born.”
Devon remembers riding with his dad the day he paid it off, and how proud his father was. The 4450 used to be the big tractor on the farm that handled tasks such as pulling the anhydrous wagon. It was the biggest tractor Devon learned how to drive when he was a teenager.
“I logged a lot of hours in it.”
The JD 4450 is an iconic-looking tractor. Devon compares it to the Johnny tractor from the kid’s books.
“It’s got a little blade on the front so we plow our snow with it. And we run the grain augers with it. And we run the grain vac with it.”
He likes the 4450 so much that he bought a 4430 from the neighbours.
“My dad and wife laugh because if I get a day in the summer where I’m not busy I’ll find a way to fire that tractor up and do something around the yard, whether it’s levelling gravel or moving an old shed or dragging a grain bin across the yard to a better spot.”
Follow Devon on Twitter @walkerfarm306.