Couple thrives as modern, big acre farmers

Improved efficiency | New technology has helped Alberta couple make their 8,000 acre farm more productive

GIBBONS, Alta. — Mike Kalisvaart represents a new generation of prairie farmer who spends as much time planning and marketing as he does getting his hands dirty.

“I almost rarely get out and drive a truck. Seeding and harvest it is all hands on deck, but this time of the year, I spend 95 percent of my time in the office,” he said.

“A lot of what I do is relationship management. People that we deal with on service, most are based on relationships, not always the lowest price,” he said.

His wife, Karen Jansen, agrees.

“It’s more cerebral now,” she said.

The couple from Gibbons, Alta., was selected as Outstanding Young Farmers for the Alberta-Northwest Territories region and will travel to Regina in November for the national event.

Kalisvaart and Jansen met in high school and married 20 years ago. She was originally from Ontario where her father was a minister who relocated to Edmonton.

“It was pretty much as far from farming as you could get,” said Jansen, who runs a home-based graphic design business and maintains Kalco Farms’ website.

The pair has three children: Anna, 16, Marijke, 13 and Tim, 11.

Kalisvaart is the son of Dutch immigrant Jack Kalisvaart, who came to Canada in 1969, started a pig farm and became involved in Alberta Pork and the Western Hog Exchange.

The changing fortunes of the hog business forced the family to convert the farm to a major grain operation where Kalisvaart works with his brother, Dan, sister, Stacey, and brother-in-law, Greg. Their father works on the farm during the growing season, helping produce canola, wheat, oats, yellow peas and barley.

The hog barns are now used for storage and a family hockey rink.

“This is the highest rated area in Western Canada for canola yields,” said Kalisvaart, citing yields of 50 bushels per acre.

Last year, an infestation of aster yellows resulted in a disappointing harvest.

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The main farm site, 10 kilometres from couple’s place, houses a large grain handling facility with 16 hopper bins that hold 350 tonnes each. Eight more bins hold another 2,400 tonnes. Most recently, they added a 10,000 sq. foot shop that includes office space and a boardroom.

Disaster struck in 2009 when six of their new bins collapsed, spilling about 90,000 bushels of No. 1 hard wheat, prairie spring wheat and malt barley. The grain had to be sold as feed because it had mixed together.

Insurance covered most of the loss and the manufacturer rebuilt the bins by the following harvest.

“We were shocked and speechless for quite a while,” he said.

They had planned to live closer to the main farm, but in the early 2000s, the county classified the area as part of the Heartland Industrial zone.

Major energy companies have purchased hundreds of acres east of their farm.

“Half of our community has disappeared to the east of here because all the land was bought and everybody moved out,” he said.

They rent land from some of those companies to continue farming it.

“I am not opposed to industrial development and it isn’t nice having them right next door to you, but they really make an effort to get along with us and accommodate our needs,” he said.

The changing landscape has not altered their expansion plans.

“Our plan is to continue to expand, but sustainably. I couldn’t put a number on where I want to go,” said Kalisvaart, who serves as the farm’s chief executive officer.

He has studied leadership, farm management and technology adoption and has incorporated a system called value stream mapping where processes are mapped out and evaluated to do things more efficiently with less waste.

They adopted GPS and are piloting a precision farming plan so they can take advantage of variable rate seeding and fertilizer placement and be more efficient.

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It took them a month to seed 2,500 acres a decade ago and today they plant the entire 8,000 acres in 14 days.

Last year, everyone got a 4G tablet with specialized software to collect data from the field during seeding, spraying and harvest.

The new processes have resulted in data from the field like fertilizer use, field application records, weather and yields. The next goal is to work with a consultant to use the data for planning and analysis of their costs of production.

“That is an advantage in having a larger farm because you can make some of those investments and justify paying them off,” he said.

It should also streamline the planning process that starts a year in advance.

“Before harvesting, we are putting plans together for next year.”

Kalisvaart is also part owner and chair of Providence Grain, an independent farmer owned grain merchant.

The group started with a single elevator purchased from Agricore United in 2002 and expanded to 320 shareholders and five elevator sites in Alberta and Saskatchewan. It is also expanding into fertilizer and farm chemical sales.

In its last fiscal year, the company shipped 500,000 tonnes of grain amounting to $100 million in sales.

“It is a great way to see the industry from one end to the other,” Kalisvaart said.

The family appreciates the recognition from the OYF program.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done and a lot of it is based on best practices,” he said. “This was an opportunity to share what we have done.”

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