Each couple owns their own home and land, but working together provides financial and lifestyle benefits
WYNYARD, Sask. — Four operations are better than one. That’s the thinking at Windy Poplars where a father, his two sons and their best friend farm collectively.
While they operate separately under the Windy Poplars umbrella, the farm families have chosen to operate as a unit to optimize both purchasing power and labour.
“Each farm owns its own land, but we work together as a collective so we can book all inputs together, sell our grain together and manage our crop rotations together,” said Dustin Burns, who runs one farm with his wife, Kristi.
Dustin and Kristi established their operation in 1998, following in the footsteps of Dustin’s parents, John and Linda Burns, who operate the founding Windy Poplars Farms Ltd.
Dustin’s best friend, Doug Reeve, and his wife, Bonita, later joined the collective, followed by Dustin’s younger brother, Tyler, and his wife, Janelle.
Each family has a farm site and land. The families have made purchases together, including five combines, three 90-foot air seeders, six semi-trailer trucks and rows of bins filled with seed and fertilizer.
The 20,000-acre operation is unique its size and management structure and in the expertise and education from each of its managers.
Dustin and Doug left engineering careers in Saskatoon to pursue the dream of farm ownership while John has his doctorate in chemistry. Kristi and Tyler have arts degrees while Bonita is a teacher.
The combination of skills leads to innovative practices like the design of a new seed plant with elevators, conveyors and a unique dust collection system. The engineers are currently working on fertilizer conditioning equipment to remove lumps and foreign matter from their stored fertilizer and several farm managers are taking management courses to ensure the operation runs smoothly.
“We have monthly management meetings where we sit down at the table and we not only talk about our work goals for the farm, but we try to visit our personal goals so we know where each person is at,” said Kristi, who home schools the couple’s five children.
The Windy Poplars management team, which includes John, Dustin, Kristi, Doug and the youngest Burns son, Tyler, focuses on profitability, growth and land stewardship.
“You’re not going to have yields if you’re not taking care of the land,” said Tyler.
“Our values include our children so if we’re buying land for what we’re buying it for, the payoff has to be long term and we have to take care of things like soil health to take care of our investment.”
Windy Poplars focuses on minimum till and planting hay crops in a three- to four-year rotation to add nitrogen-fixing components to the soil and interrupt the disease and insect cycles.
They added 65 cow-calf pairs to the operation, in addition to commercial hay sales, to maximize profit from the hay rotation.
The biggest challenge for Windy Poplars is employment. Keeping six full-time positions filled is a constant struggle.
“We get lots of competition from the mines and oil so finding good quality people that aren’t transient is very difficult,” said Doug, a father of two sons.
Communication is also a challenge, but the group agreed that the costs of operating as a cohesive unit far outweigh the difficulties.
The economy of scale when purchasing seed, chemical and equipment works in the collective’s favour, along with the ability of the managers to have family-friendly lifestyles.
When it comes to holidays and kids’ activities, the farm’s structure ensures that no one family or one manager is indispensable. The arrangement allows each to get away for holidays and special events.
“In my opinion, the stereotype of a farmer working their fingers to the bone is a thing of the past,” said Doug.
“The working together is what allowed each of us to get into farming and it’s allowed us to slowly grow to where we’re self-sufficient,” said Dustin.