Like most Saskatchewan farmers, Dan Bonkowski was hit with wet weather this fall.
It’s mid September and he’s waiting patiently for his land near Wapella to dry up so he can get his combine back in the field. In spite of the rain, he’s managed to stay positive, confident that he’ll get his crop off before snow flies.
Bonkowski sounds like a lot of other Saskatchewan farmers. Until you find out he’s only twenty-three. And that he seeded 10,000 acres this year, including 3,800 of his own land.
Bonkowski is less than half the age of the average Saskatchewan farmer (whose average age jumped from 50 to 53 between 2001 and 2006, according to Statistics Canada), and his farm is more than three times the size of an average Saskatchewan farm (1,450 acres in 2006).
Dan Bonkowski is something special.
GETTING HIS START
Grain farmers typically get their start working with their fathers, sharing machinery and pooling labour while they build up equity in their own operations. But that was never an option for Bonkowski. He was raised on a farm near Wapella, and although his mother Anne says she and husband Garry are “farmers at heart,” they operate a metal roofing business and rent out their land.
Still, their son always wanted to be a farmer.
“You can recognize kids who are interested,” says neighbour Dwayne Wolf. “Daniel seemed to take that extra interest at an early age. I hired him to work on our grain farm when he was eleven and he started running the combine that year.”
That isn’t a great idea for most eleven-year-olds but Wolf says, “Dan knew what he was doing and paid close attention to what was going on. For his age, he’s always been exceptional.”
As Bonkowski got older, Wolf says, “sometimes I had to write him a note so he could skip school to come to work for me during harvest.”
At age 15, Bonkowski asked his parents to help him take out a loan. They agreed, and Bonkowski started a custom haying business. Anne remembers her son using his cell phone at school to keep tabs on the employees he’d hired to operate his equipment when he couldn’t be there.
The profits from the haying business went into a custom swathing operation. Bonkowski kept on saving money and reinvesting until he was running a full-fledged farming operation. This year, his 10,000-acre operation includes 2,500 acres that he custom farms, land rented from his parents and others, and the 3,800 acres he’s purchased on his own.
What he lacks in experience is more than compensated for by his management ability, says Wolf.
“He acts and reacts to constantly changing situations. Also, Dan is able to realize where his strengths and weaknesses are, and is quick to consult professionals to help manage those areas.”
With his own farm and no pressure to do things the way his father did, Bonkowski has been free to chart his own course.
When it comes to new gadgets, he says he “has everything that’s out” and this year, is particularly excited about the sectional control technology on his new air drill. Not surprisingly, he’s constantly on his Blackberry, talking and texting with friends, and checking market prices and forecasts. And he’s also keen to take advantage of new markets and trends. This year, he’s experimenting with soft white wheat grown especially for the ethanol market.
MONEY AND LABOUR
As with most farmers, Bonkowski’s biggest challenges are financial. He admits the financial risks makes him nervous and figures he may have expanded a bit too quickly over the last few years.
“The toughest part of farming is building equity and maintaining cash flow,” he says.
His biggest constraint is labour. Right now, he’s operating with the help of his parents, one full-time employee, and some help from friends.
“When I take food out to the field, I can never be sure exactly who’s going to be out there,” his mother says.
Bonkowski’s operation is based at his parents’ farm. His parents live there, so their son, who is single, rents a house in Moosomin, about 24 kilometers away.
Not all twenty-three year olds spend as much time working as Bonkowski. He admits that there are days when he’d appreciate having more time for fun. But he plays rec hockey in the winter and says there are many other young farmers in his area.
When he started out, Bonkowski often turned to Wolf for advice and ideas. Now their roles are sometimes reversed.
“I respect his opinion as much as someone who’s been in the farming business for many years,” says Wolf.
In a time when many farmers urge their kids to do something other than farm, Bonkowski’s parents are pleased their son has pursued his true calling.
“You could always tell he wanted to be a farmer,” says Anne.
Dan says the same thing. “I love farming so much, it’s all I ever wanted to do.”
For now, the income from custom farming is necessary to maintain his cash flow, but Bonkowski’s goal is to run a 10,000-acre operation with no need to do custom work by age twenty-five.
Wolf has no doubts he’ll meet that goal.
“He’s not a talker. He’s a doer. If Dan says he’s going to do something, it happens.”
And after that?
“The sky’s the limit after what I’ve done so far,” says Bonkowski.