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Farming Smarter, Not Bigger

What gives a 28-year-old the courage to play a high-stakes farming game that many say is more of a gamble than going to Las Vegas? What does he do to up the chances of his winning? What can the rest of us learn from him?

Most people say they farm to live, well I live to farm, says Paul deChamplain.

The grain farmer from the Westlock, Alta., area says he s been farming ever since he could drive a tractor. DeChamplain crops 1,700 acres with the help of his semiretired parents, Emile and Dianne. He employs a private agriculture coach, and says he never stops learning and is always trying something new.

If it wouldn t have been for my parents, I don t think I would be farming, says deChamplain. Not only do they help when needed, but they are also a great source of encouragement. What can you lose, they are apt to say to him.

HIRE THE BEST

Like many successful farmers, deChamplain concentrates on what he does best and hires someone for those things he needs help with. He s worked with Geoff Doell of Growth Agri-Coaching Inc. of Westlock, Alta., as his agronomist for three years.

I can honestly say that he is probably the most important part of my farm, he says.

An independent consultant, Doell gives suggestions on general farming operations and bases fertilizing and spraying recommendations on soil and plant-tissue sampling. Those working with Doell usually have a higher fertilizer bill, but deChamplain says the extra money he spends on Doell s services and extra inputs generates higher net returns.

Doell does all of the field scouting for deChamplain. Even in the fall he s around to look at crops, deChamplain says. Knowing that someone is on top of what s going on in the field also gives him peace of mind.

We ve had to upgrade the equipment to work with him, deChamplain says of Doell, who recommends variable rate fertilizer and uses exact yields in order to plan and compare.

Probably for my size of farm I have some pretty big equipment, deChamplain says. But it makes me quite a bit more efficient. I can get things done really quickly and on time when they should be, which all contributes to the bottom line.

Last year he purchased a new 40-foot air drill with a 400 bushel grain cart. I can start to variable rate some of my fertilizer, he says. No-till is the cultivation method of choice, unless weather dictates otherwise.

TRY NEW THINGS

Two years ago, deChamplain started straight cutting his canola. He says the MacDon D60 draper header he purchased recently gave him that option. (He also replaced his two old John Deere combines with a New Holland CR9070.) Straight cutting saves him a swather and a man. He s not crazy to do so many farmers don t own swathers anymore, usually a result of farming more land. He finds that Invigor canolas stand up well and rarely thresh out in wind.

DeChamplain never stops learning, even if he never took any post secondary training. He likes to be on top of the newest trends in agriculture.

I always try going around to different farmers, seeing how they do things, he says. If he sees something interesting, he tries it out.

Most of my experience comes from actually doing it, he says. I have made my share of mistakes, but it s not a mistake if you learn something.

STAYING NIMBLE

Being a smaller farmer has its advantages. Less land gives him more time to try out something different. This year he is experimenting with winter wheat, seeding directly into desiccated hay stubble. DeChamplain has tried flax, a crop rarely grown in his area, but it mostly worked well for him. He s also grown some grass seed and even tried sunflowers, which he describes as very interesting and a huge learning curve.

This crop year deChamplain grew peas, canola, wheat, barley, oats and a little hay. I am trying to split the farm into thirds to spread out the rotations, he says. He wants to increase his grass seed acres, putting some land into timothy seed, but needs to build up the soil first.

As most of his land is close by, deChamplain uses a grain cart instead of a tandem truck, with a set of scales to keep accurate track of what is coming off the field. Knowing his exact yield gives him a better handle on what each bushel costs.

He purchased a new tandem grain trailer to haul off the field with, but bought an old Kenworth cabover truck which he spent the winter fixing up.

I do a big majority of the repairs, he says. I like the fixing part.

A continuous flow Vertec dryer is part of the operation, and deChamplain is in the process of switching all the bins over to an aeration system. It just makes things go a little faster, he says.

While Doell checks the fields, deChamplain does the marketing. While many farmers find marketing a headache, he says it s something he enjoys.

If you re growing the grain, then you have to promote your product and sell it, he says. The Internet is a wonderful tool.

He used to subscribe to some marketing sites, but has found enough free information to help him make his marketing decisions. I am always watching what s happening around the world, he says. He uses grain brokers from time to time, but generally sells to the end-user if possible.

RIGHT-SIZED VS. BIGGEST

At this point, deChamplain isn t concerned about getting really big. I don t want to get much bigger than 2,000 acres, he says. I find I can do a better job of fewer acres than I can on more. He says it is definitely getting harder to pick up land. Bigger farmers have been in business much longer than he and have much deeper pockets. I am more concerned with sustainability and, actually, diversity as well.

Farmers are optimistic people, deChamplain says. We always keep saying next year will be better.

With his attitude and management planning his chances of winning next year again look pretty good.

MarianneStammoftenwritesfromWestlock, Alta.,butwrotethisfromSwitzerland

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