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A look back and a step up

When the next generation moves home to the farm, it’s a time for change and role re-evaluation

I am somewhat late for the season of “year in reviews,” so I thought I’d do one better and review, briefly, my last three years on the farm. In May 2015 it will be four years since I moved back to the farm, so I’ve been through four crop seasons. When I moved back to farm with my parents it was pretty much a gut-feeling type of decision. I believed I was meant to be on the farm, even though my only experience with farming as an adult had been driving combine for harvest 2008.

The first two years were a trial period for both myself and my parents, to decide if transitioning farm management and eventual ownership to me was in everyone’s best interest. There was a lot of crying the first year (me, not them), a lot of repeated explanations (them, not me) and a lot of learning (all three of us), but we survived, and my enjoyment of farming continues to grow.

In January 2012 my cousin came to work for us full time and with his excellent mechanical, welding and machinery operating skills, we had a very well-rounded team and farm life hummed along at an even rhythm.

However, 2014 brought some changes. My cousin decided to move on to other pursuits after harvest and throughout the year it became clear to my parents and myself that my dad wanted to pull back on his management responsibilities. 2015 feels like the beginning of the next step up in my farming career and this may lead to more crying, but I have much to be thankful for when I look back on all I’ve learned and experienced in the last few years.

Bubbles

As part of the farm transition, we are working with Merle Good, possibly the most famous name in Alberta farm-succession planning. Besides all the tax and accounting mumbo-jumbo for which there are others well-paid to understand better than I, he has given us some advice for the interpersonal side of things.

One such piece of advice is for each individual of the family farm team to divide the responsibilities on the farm into four or five over-arching areas of responsibility or “bubbles,” and list four to six tasks inside each bubble. Each bubble can be managed by an individual or the responsibilities in the bubble can be shared. If the responsibilities are shared, then list the person who is responsible for each task. Whoever is responsible for the bubble or task manages it and asks other team members for advice. If you’re not in charge of the bubble, you’re not supposed to be giving unrequested advice.

Once all farm members have created and labelled their individual bubbles, then everyone should sit down together and create a final set of bubbles with responsibilities divided in a way that everyone can agree to.

These exercises can seem painful, but once I sat down and started it, it was actually fairly easy and I think the results will be helpful. As I wear the hats of daughter, employee and now co-manager and my dad wears the hat of father, boss and eventually retiree, there can be confusion about who should be doing what task. Things get ordered twice or not done at all.

Over time I will manage more bubbles and tasks. Some tasks that moved into my bubble this year: seed sourcing, commercial grain sales (usually a small portion of our production) and hiring a new employee.

For the first time in our farm history we actually advertised for an employee. I put ads in print editions of the Manitoba Co-operator, the Western Producer and my local weekly paper. Online I advertised on Kijiji and AgEmploy.com. Prior to advertising we wracked our brains for anyone we knew locally who might be interested in farm work and came up empty, so I didn’t have high hopes for a local hire. Surprisingly, the local ad did yield two strong candidates, and while my parents were both part of the interview process, my dad gave me the responsibility for the final decision.

Make Good Spraying Decisions

One task that’s been in my bubble since year one is spraying. With a high clearance sprayer, this can be one of the most fun jobs on the farm. It can also be one of the most stressful as narrow spraying windows and variable weather can challenge farmers with even the longest booms and fastest sprayer filling station.

I started spring 2014 with the mantra “make good spraying decisions” and I repeated it to myself all season long. It can be difficult to manage the pressure of timeliness with the limitations of weather and there have been times in past years when I sprayed and later wished I had waited or prioritized spraying one field over another. There are not enough nice days in the year for every crop to be sprayed under ideal conditions, but it has been worth it to stop and ask myself, “Is there a better time to do this?”

Tillage

One job that hasn’t been in anyone’s bubble for several years on this farm is tillage. With an abnormally wet growing season we had some areas in our fields that held water all year long. Our neighbour suggested using a heavy disc to break up those areas. In his experience, it allows the moisture to penetrate the soil in the spring so the area can be seeded. We rented a disc and I committed my very first act of tillage. We smoothed over the lumps with a cultivator that we pulled out of the tall grasses (I think every farm has one of these).

Given the number of black or partially black fields I saw as I ambled around Alberta this fall, I know we weren’t the only farm going back to some “old-fashioned” ways. Hopefully the experiment proves fruitful and we can establish a strong crop on every acre this spring. I wish the same for all of you as you prepare for your 2015 growing season.

About the author

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Sarah Weigum

Sarah Weigum grows pedigreed seed and writes at Three Hills, Alta.

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