Grain farmers Grant and Colleen Dyck, Manitoba’s 2009 Outstanding Young Farmers, will be among six other regional finalists from across Canada competing at the national OYF awards event in Ottawa in early December.
The southern Manitoba couple operate a 13,000-acre grain and oilseed operation called Artel Farms near Niverville, just south of Winnipeg.
Entrepreneurs from an early age, along with the farm, they also operate a food energy bar business — Great Gorp Project — and a reclaimed wood business, WoodAnchor. Having had their hands in a number of business ventures, they always knew farming was their true passion. Grant rented his first piece of land at age 16, and after they both completed post secondary educations, they began farming with Grant’s family, eventually becoming sole shareholders in 2005 after Grant’s father’s death.
Grant and Colleen value their staff at Artel — a business they describe as a group of people working together for a common goal. And the goals they’ve achieved demonstrate the success of their approach — Artel has doubled in size since they took over, adopted zero till and minimum tillage practices and integrated GPS in all equipment.
Colleen’s beginning energy bar business, that uses a number of crops grown at Artel, is already getting notices with a first place in its category at the recent Manitoba Food Fight contest. And the couple’s reclaimed wood business, finds new uses for old wood.
Grant and Colleen also find time, with their young family of three (1, 3 and 5), to volunteer their time — Grant as a director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers’ Association and the local Canadian FoodGrains Bank, and Colleen with the Manitoba Food Processors’ Association and their local church.
BUSINESS BEGINS WITH PEOPLE
The couple agree one of their greatest strengths, underpinning all of their operations, is their staff.
“We believe strongly in culture here,” says Grant. “When we started farming we developed a philosophy of people first, land second and then equipment third.”
“I think half the battle is hiring people that are smarter than you,” adds Colleen. “We haven’t shied away from hiring people who are phenomenally qualified to add value to the farm. The most important thing to us has always been the people.” The Dycks have five to seven full-time and around 18 part-time employees.
Beyond their employees, other key elements of their success include being innovative and a willingness to incorporate new technology, pursue new ideas, try new crops and take a risk.
“I guess we do look at the biggest problems as the biggest opportunities,” says Grant. “Vertical integration, as well as high-volume, low-margin agriculture lends itself to try new ideas.”
Diversification is something both Grant and Colleen have proven to be very good at.
They operate WoodAnchor, a reclaimed wood business that recycles Dutch elm-diseased trees into flooring, as well as wood salvaged from CN rail cars and elevator beams made into maple tables. (See www.woodanchor.com)
And Colleen is launching an energy bar business, Gorp Bars (see her website and blog at www.gorpbar.com), which will begin commercial production in January from a government-inspected facility being built at the farm.
Colleen originally developed the recipe for a high-energy bar because of her need for a nutritious, high-protein snack to take on the road when training for triathlons. As she researched the ingredients, she realized that many were being grown on the farm or by other local producers.
“These ingredients are literally on our own doorstep,” says Colleen. “The flax, oats, hemp, sunflower seeds and honey all come from our fields, so it’s adding value to our own farm.”
Obviously an entrepreneurially minded couple, the Dycks are always looking for ways to add value and improve productivity to the crops and resources that the farm produces. For example, the wood recycling business generates around 10,000 tons of biomass byproducts each year, which Grant hopes can be processed on farm to produce energy for drying crops and other uses around the farm yard.
A dream for the Dycks is to be able to operate their home and farm off the power grid. They have already incorporated geothermal heating in the house and are looking at installing a small-scale wind turbine. I would like to be at the forefront of this,” says Grant.
The Dycks are both excited to be a part of an agricultural industry that is changing rapidly and see flexibility as being vital to the continued productivity and profitability of the farm
“Volatility is the new norm,” says Grant. “I am extremely excited about the future. I think, however, we’re going to have to move even quicker than we have in the past.”
In the year ahead he is moving the whole farm to a variable-rate fertilizer and fungicide application system, something he has been working on for the past couple of years. “We have already got the technology integrated and now it’s applying it all and taking out the data and layering it,” he says.
He is also adopting vertical tillage, and would like to see a new piece of machinery he’s bought, Salford Reduced Tillage System, used for fall and spring anhydrous ammonia applications too.
“We’ve tried zero till, minimum till, maximum till and this tool offers a lot of benefit for residue management as well as ground percolation of water,” he says. “Optimizing equipment is always on your mind with a goal to find a balance between fuel costs and man hours and what’s doing the best job agronomically”
Field drainage is something Grant has also made major investments in, and he uses various methods to maximize yields, prevent erosion and maintain soil quality.
“Twenty years ago we were still planting shelterbelts thinking that was the answer for soil erosion,” he says. “However, I wouldn’t do anymore because we can protect the soil with crop residue,” says Grant.
As the face of agriculture changes, Grant and Colleen Dyck are determined to keep ahead of the curve.
“There are different perceptions of what agriculture is right now,” says Grant. “I don’t think you can put it in a box as to there’s corporate farming or there’s GMO, or there’s organic, or whatever,” he says. “I think there’s just a lot of in between. There’s a balance to it all.” He believes it is vitally important to participate in producer organizations and other associations to keep informed and open minded about the future.
“We are creating a lifestyle for other families in our community too,” says Colleen. “The exciting part is building this team and all working together and all profiting from it. That’s what keeps us going. There’s a bigger picture around it all that just keeps us motivated.”
Angella Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, MB