Several years ago, Bernie McClean started out farming with next to nothing. The Glaslyn, Sask.-based producer, who serves on the SaskCanola board, says it took “a lot of creative paths” to get where he is now.
One of those paths was the decision to share a major piece of farm equipment — a John Deere 4720 high clearance sprayer — with a neighbour.
“It’s been five springs now, and it’s been very successful for us,” says McClean.
At the time, McClean’s neighbour was unsure about the advanced technology, and McClean didn’t think he could manage the cost on his own. The arrangement meant both producers got what they wanted.
They split the initial cost and cost of repairs 50/50. In the spring McClean’s neighbour keeps the sprayer in his shop; in the winter it goes into cold storage on McClean’s farm. Each producer farms roughly 1,500 acres.
“Our acres are very close, but any other type of arrangement — 60/40, 70/30 —could work the same for anybody,” he says.
“The sprayer we have is more sprayer than what we really need. Between the two of us, he knows what I’m planting and vice versa, so we plan our spraying around that. Because it’s a high capacity machine neither of us is ever really looking for it — we’re a day or two from having it at any time.”
McClean isn’t the only Canadian producer embracing equipment sharing. But according to Sylvain Charlebois, dean of management and professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, it’s found more frequently in Europe, where density is much higher and farmer co-operatives are common.
“In order for smaller farms to survive, this is necessary. If you’re over-capitalized you need to build economy of scale and some farmers just can’t,” says Charlebois. “Scaling up is always a challenge, and equipment sharing represents an opportunity for some farmers to stick around much longer.”
In rural Canada, distances aren’t the only obstacle to equipment sharing; a collaborative mindset is also often missing, according to Charlebois. Land and expertise can also be shared, but some farmers prefer to operate in isolation.
“Generally speaking the shared economy is something that needs to be more embraced in rural Canada,” he says.
In the U.S., a combine-renting company called MachineryLink branched out in 2015 to become an agricultural equipment sharing platform. The company already boasts over 1,600 farmer members across the U.S. and tens of millions of dollars in farm equipment.
“Farm incomes this year could potentially be the lowest since 2002, according to the United States Department of Agriculture,” said MachineryLink spokesperson Jennifer Goldston in an email. “Giving farmers another way to manage their balance sheet is particularly critical now as on-farm cash income continues to decline.”
MachineryLink’s members can list equipment that isn’t being used 100 per cent of the time and select dates when they won’t need it. Borrowers request a booking, which the owner approves. The company handles all logistics.
“For young, next-generation farmers, this online sharing marketplace reduces a significant barrier to entry. For example, it’s become increasingly difficult to purchase combines, which can cost US$500,000 or more. MachineryLink Sharing provides access to combines and other ag equipment for a fraction of that cost,” said Goldston.
According to Kevin Hursh, a farmer and agricultural commentator, larger equipment — like combines and seeders — can be tough for producers to part with, so many producers feel reluctant to co-own essential machines.
“I think it gets difficult with harvesting equipment because people are likely to need it at the same time,” he says. “I think it could be done on a case-by-case basis. But I’m not sure too many people would be comfortable handing over the keys to the combine.”
Hursh says many equipment-sharing opportunities are missed because producers tend to be “too independent.”
Hursh, who farms a moderate-sized grain operation with a fair amount of pulse crops, rents a land roller from a neighbour and does custom seeding or combining for other neighbours when they fall behind or lack operators.
“I think there are instances where more sharing could be done but people don’t like the inconvenience, or worry about working with a neighbour, and would prefer to have their own equipment and not worry about someone else mistreating it, but it leads to more investment in equipment than is necessary,” he says.
Brock Minogue has been farming near Lacadena, Sask. since 2003. His father had a combine-sharing arrangement with a neighbour. “It was tough to watch the combine leave knowing your crop was sitting out there,” he says.
These days Minogue shares less-essential equipment with neighbours, including a land roller and a grader blade.
He says communication is key to these arrangements, especially when it comes to timing. A willingness to pay for repairs is also important. But Minogue says what really makes equipment sharing possible is a spirit of collaboration in his community that contrasts with the highly competitive, secretive atmosphere that can follow large-scale farming.
“I used to think that if someone could get an edge up or grow more and not tell anyone about it, that’s a successful business. But along with that comes secrecy and there’s not that collaborative feeling where people sit around and talk about how things are going,” says Minogue.
“This is a special community, that’s part of the reason why I farm where I do — I love that community spirit. If we lose the social part of farming it’s just a job.”