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The right farm size

There seems to be a general consensus out there that farms, especially grain farms, need to keep getting bigger in size to be viable enterprises. Do they really always need to grow or can farmers do just as well by learning to maximize the resources they already have? It could be some of both.

“By just farming and enjoying life we were going broke,” says Richard Seatter, who farms Triple Creek Farm with his wife Valerie and son Luke. “We had to get more land, and then things started going up.” How much land is enough to make a comfortable income will differ from farm to farm. The Seatters started expanding when their son Luke decided to come back to the farm a few years ago. They are now farming 2,600 acres north of Westlock, Alberta.

Paul deChamplain, a 28-year old farmer east of Westlock, is cropping 1,700 acres as a sole proprietor. His parents help him in peak times. “I don’t want to get much bigger than 2,000 acres,” he says. “I find I can do a better job on fewer acres than I can on more.”

Things look different again when there are several family members farming together. Clayton Wierenga farms with two brothers in Neerlandia, Alberta. “Our sons are interested in farming,” he says, “so that plays into my decision to continue to expand in order to give them the opportunity to farm.”

There is no one right answer as to what the ideal land base is. Glen van Dijken also grain farms in the Westlock area. “The size of farm is dependent on one’s goals, and also on future family prospects,” he says. “Twenty years ago I would have looked at the whole thing differently. Then we strove to transition into a multigenerational farm.” At this point he is asking himself what he and his wife need for their future.

Traits of successful farmers

There are some management traits these successful farmers seem to share. For one thing, they enjoy what they are doing. “I farm because I enjoy it so much, and I never look at it as a job,” says deChamplain.

“I really enjoy growing crops and the challenge involved in managing the cropping,” says Wierenga.

Seatter believes that philosophy and attitude are everything. “Your philosophy leads you to better decisions and farming practices, because you’re doing it for the right reasons,” he says. “There’s satisfaction in doing it. Hanging onto the farm too tight creates fear. Enjoying what we have been blessed with brings us joy, energy and enables us to see opportunities.”

DeChamplain is always looking for a better way to do new things. He’s tried some different niche markets like grass seed and sunflowers. Being a bit smaller gives him more opportunity to do that. He’ll often ride with other farmers on the tractor and ask them what they are doing.

“Bring people around you that help you do things better,” says Seatter. “That drags you along, because there’s always someone there pushing it. Just hanging out with some of the top farmers is helpful.”

One of those people is his son Luke. “He picks every field apart ­— what’s wrong with this field, what can we do to make it better,” his father says. Luke’s education, a degree in agriculture, brings real value to the farm. Ongoing education (workshops, reading, seminars, marketing clubs) is important, Seatter believes, to keep sharp and provide timely information.

Inputs and machinery

Both Wierenga and deChamplain employ an agronomist to help make decisions in crop management. “We make use of micronutrients where we believe it is warranted,” Wierenga says. “We do test strips to confirm the value of the different approaches to micronutrients.” To increase the efficiency of fertilizer, Wierengas use variable rate application. Not only is it a better use of inputs but it also has less impact on the environment. Wierengas are shareholders in the local farmer owned Co-op, which has been a real asset for them.

Many farmers, like deChamplain and Seatter, use zero till to both cut costs (fewer fields passes) and improve the soil. DeChamplain also straight cuts all his canola. It gives him more time and he needs one less person.

Doing much of their own machinery repairs definitely helps cut costs, says Seatter. DeChamplain also likes to do his own maintenance, and spent a winter rebuilding the cab of a Kenworth cab over truck.

“Probably for my size of farm I have some pretty big equipment,” deChamplain says. “But it makes me more efficient. Things get done quickly and on time, which all contributes to the bottom line.”

Seatters rarely have the newest iron, but will invest more where they feel it pays, such as in the seeding equipment. “If you don’t have a good start you don’t have anything,” he says. Something he heard at a seminar many years ago: “Don’t mechanize to save time if you don’t have something better to do.”

“There isn’t time to do something more than once,” Seatter says. “For example, you’ll be out there fixing fence all the time, chasing cows — instead of spending one day making a new fence. You try to never do something just good enough for now. You try to set up efficient practices.” Then he adds, “Everything takes longer than you think it’s going to take.”

A good job of marketing or pricing farm product can make quite a difference to the bottom line too. “Many farmers take the approach that production is the most important,” says Geoff Doell, agronomist consultant to deChamplain. “Yet some of the more successful farms spend equal energy and resources on marketing their product for a better grade and price.” DeChamplain enjoys the challenge of marketing and does it himself, spending much time on the internet and phone for information to make good decisions. Wierenga follows the advice of paid market advisors and his sense of the markets based on what he’s read about them.

“Input purchasing power is also a huge advantage to those who can afford to do so,” says Doell. Those farmers who have the ability to buy fertilizer or other inputs when the price is lower, usually in the fall, are already ahead of the game.

If attitude is the most important, as Seatter thinks, then Wierenga has the apt closing remark. “I believe that I should care the for land based on the best science available, since it is a privilege to farm this land that God has given to us.” †

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