Family learns to separate business, family

Seed, media businesses | Love of agricultural industry allows both on-farm businesses to thrive

PICTURE BUTTE, Alta. — Shaun Haney appreciates the dichotomy that is his life.

On one side, he is running the Haney Farms seed business, a venerable company established in 1927 and made famous in the Canadian seed industry by his grandfather, Leonard K. Haney.

On the other side, he built and operates Real Agriculture, an agricultural communications business that uses modern technology and social media to inform farmers.

Both businesses are based at Haney Farms near Picture Butte, Alta., where Shaun and his wife, Trish, are raising their three children, Kalem, 11, Rylynn, 9, and Karsen, 8.

The Picture Butte Feeder Association, the largest in the province, also operates from the farm office and is run by Shaun’s father, Dick. Shaun’s brother, Kevin, and sister, Kerri Lynn Haney-Vandenberg, are also in-volved in various parts of the operation. Trish does office administration for both the seed and media businesses.

“There’s multiple things happening in this office,” said Shaun, citing the efforts of a staff of 10.

“With two separate businesses running, I cannot say enough about the group of people we have in both companies. I’m extremely fortunate to have the team that we have here.”

Their dedication was forged partly through a rocky farm transition about six years ago.

“Going through a very tough family succession struggle has really sort of solidified the group that is here,” said Shaun.

“Like any family business, there are some moments of stress but I think there’s a pretty solid relationship.… We really try to make sure that there isn’t factions or silos that develop. There’s very much a belief that if we’re going to talk about something, let’s really talk about it, as a group.”

Dick said inevitably there are contentious issues that crop up in business.

“They have to be parked,” he said.

He credits his wife, Joyce, for making a concerted effort to maintain a work-life balance, keep in touch with children and grandchildren and organize get-togethers, some of which she often declares as “business free zones.”

“Shop talk is off limits,” Dick said. “You have to make a conscious effort to leave the business at the business and just become a family,” he said.

Dick said the farm’s evolution and embrace of technology have allowed the operators more time to work on the business as opposed to working in the business, citing more time for long-term planning and analysis as examples.

The approximately 4,500 acres of farmland that once comprised the farm were sold about six years ago and feedlot operations were leased to a neighbour.

The seed business continues to flourish with about 20 growers contracted to produce seed, which Haney Farms then sells, retail or wholesale, to customers.

“We’re really kind of a unique model from the traditional seed grower operation that you would find across the West,” Shaun said.“My grandfather survived and thrived in a business where basically people just drove onto the scale. That’s long over. There’s strong competition in the certified seed business.”

The farm’s most recent accolade was being named a 2013 shareholder of distinction by Canterra Seeds in early November.

Shaun handles the big picture issues for the seed business.

Ironically, he never planned to get involved in agriculture. He has a finance degree from the University of Lethbridge and had his eye on law school.

“I’m the most unmechanically inclined farm kid ever. I’m horrible. Absolutely awful. I’ve never changed the oil in a vehicle. I’ve never changed a tire.”

He once tweeted that he needed help to change a windshield wiper, he said.

“But I’m really, really interested in the (agricultural) industry. Probably too many times we think that in order to be a part of it, you have to have that skill set.”

Shaun formed Real Agriculture in 2008. It started as a blog and a hobby but after positive feedback from online readers, it has grown into a popular source of agricultural information.

“At no point did I ever really know what I was doing,” said Shaun.

Real Agriculture now has five full-time staff.

“It’s a good niche and we don’t try to cover the news, so to speak. We try to provide insight and information on what’s happening.”

The two jobs require considerable travel, combined with many weekends spent at hockey rinks with the kids. Shaun said he and Trish manage their work and family demands carefully.

“One of the success strategies in running a family business, I think, is you sort of try to draw the line be-tween family time and work time as much as you can. We’re getting much, much better at that.”

The work also brings its own enjoyment.

“We love the seed business. We are committed to that.

“I love the industry and how all that plays a part, but that’s probably one of the reasons why Real Ag spawned into something larger.

“I love meeting the people. I love the conversation and I feel extremely fortunate to be able to travel across the country to really, really understand agriculture.”