Albert Einstein said that in the middle of every difficulty comes opportunity. Martin Leuenberger is someone who finds those opportunities. Grain farming in the Peace River country of northern British Columbia is generally classified as high risk. Drought and rising input prices have made it increasingly so. But Leuenberger thrives on the opportunities these difficulties present.
Leuenberger, 30, and his father, Ernst, crop 8,500 acres at Flatrock, B. C. They are technically two farms using one set of equipment and operating as one unit. Martin owns and rents 5,500 acres and his dad 3,000. They grow mostly canola, CPS wheat, hard red spring wheat, barley, peas and fescue.
Leuenberger’s parents emigrated from Switzerland in the 1970s. Ernst bought four quarters of land and farmed on the side while working as foreman on a road and bridge maintenance crew. He bought five more quarters when Martin began farming in earnest in l999.
The younger of two boys, Martin always wanted to farm. “Since I was a little kid I was dreaming about being a big grain farmer,” he says. He missed hockey tryouts because he was on the combine. After school he would jump on the tractor, his dad telling him what to do over the phone.
Flatrock is just north of the Peace River, close to the Alberta border. Because the region is a “forgotten area” for grain production, that gave Leuenberger the opportunity to expand. “In a good area I could never have gotten into farming,” he says. Their average yield for canola is 30 to 34 bushels per acre fertilized with 60 to 69 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
Only owning four quarters himself, most of Leuenberger’s land is rented. He does all cash deals, with an average rental rate of $15 to $20 per acre. Land rent tends to be lower because of the distance to grain markets. The closest elevator is in Dawson Creek, about 100 kilo-metres away.
Most of the rental contracts are long term, giving him some security. “If I had to go out and buy all that land, then you have the high risk,” Leuenberger says. Prices for land along the road are about $80,000 a quarter, off the road around $70,000. But very little land is actually for sale.
Being able to rent reasonably productive land at a reasonable price gives him an edge.
Crop insurance is an important part of Leuenberger’s risk management. And like many grain farmers in the Peace River area, the Leuenbergers grow fescue to control risk. They have about 1,750 acres in fescue, which is harvested in August. “You’re usually guaranteed something there,” he says.
With the cropping season as short as it is in the Peace, being ready to go in spring is essential. “When the time is right to put a crop in, you have to go at it 100 per cent,” Leuenberger says. “You’ve got such a short window in the spring, you can’t waste any time. Same in the fall.”
Handling 8,500 acres is new for him. “I only got to this size two years ago,” he says. “There was some land available, the rental deal looked good, and so we took that opportunity.
“It’s kind of a cycle you get into, too. You get two combines, and you need a little more land to make it worthwhile. You’re making a certain amount of payments on your equipment so you need a certain amount of acres to make those payments. I like to get maximum use out of my equipment.”
The Leuenbergers buy all their machinery, using credit as necessary. This year they added a class nine combine — a Lexion 590. They also ran a New Holland CX860, and found it takes both combines to take those acres off.
They don’t do any fieldwork in the fall. In the spring they cultivate one pass, letting it dry for a day before seeding. They seed with a 47-foot Bourgault airdrill pulled by a Buhler 2425 tractor, putting anhydrous down with the seed.
There’s an aeration fan on every bin. “A bin without aeration is a waste,” Leuenberger says. With such a short season, moisture is often an issue at harvest time. The fans won’t always dry the grain, but they will keep it from spoiling.
They’ll need those fans this year. Leuenberger still had one third of the crop out when it snowed beginning of October. “We combined through the snow,” his wife Bettina says. “It was so cold the snow shook off the (canola) swaths as we combined them.” She says it’s thanks to the new Lexion they were able to get the rest of the crop off.
Leuenberger holds no formal agriculture degrees or diplomas. He did attend three winters at Olds College to take mechanical training. He reads a lot and learns by experience. “If you have a seeding system or marketing strategy that works well, you stick with it,” is his tactic.
A fair amount of Leuenberger’s market information comes from the DTN services, and he keeps in contact with a few grain marketers. He pre-prices some of his grain, but doesn’t hedge anything. He has used some of the CWB pricing options. “I do a lot of basis contracts. I like to have canola priced out at a certain time, because you need cash flow.” But after last year’s massive drought, he has learned to be careful about prepricing too much of his crop.
Being able to work with his dad is important to Leuenberger. “It’s a huge advantage. We get along well,” he says. Martin is the risk taker while Ernst is more reserved. They discuss decisions then come to an agreement together.
Leuenberger is married with three young children. His wife Bettina comes from Switzerland. She wanted a time-out from her job there with the postal service and a mutual friend suggested she visit the Leuenbergers. It turned into a long visit!
Bettina does the bookkeeping, the childcare and brings meals to the field. Their older daughter Shaelyn, three and a half, calls Daddy every night when he’s on the field to say good night. It’s that kind of flexibility that keeps a farm family together.
It helps that they enjoy farming. “Its nice being out there, harvesting a good crop, seeing stuff grow,” Leuenberger says. And if the opportunity to expand comes along, he’ll “jump on it right away,” he says. It’s that attitude that makes Leuenberger so successful at what he does.
Marianne Stamm lives on a farm near Jarvie, Alta.