Illness puts life into perspective

HALBSTADT, Man. – In their 15 years of farming, Danny and Anita Penner have met and conquered the daily, daunting challenges of earning their living from the land.

They have been through drought and the great flood that covered the Red River Valley.

They have seen prices rise and fall, and world grain subsidies ebb, then rear their ugly heads.

“I don’t know if there’s any occupation that’s as challenging,” mused Danny.

It’s the constant challenges that engage his interest in agriculture.

But in 1992, the Penners faced their biggest challenge. It tested their time management skills, their marriage, their faith, their ability to lean on family for help.

In the spring of that year, their three-year-old daughter Stephanie was diagnosed with leukemia.

Cancer was no stranger to Anita. When she was 19, the disease claimed her mother. Less than a decade later, she faced taking her daughter to the same clinic in Winnipeg where she used to take her mom.

She recalled working hard to fight her fear. “I dared not dream,” she remembered.

Today, the deep brown eyes and lively smile of 10-year-old Stephanie remind the Penners to keep challenges in perspective.

While they still get anxious about the havoc wreaked on their crops by hail or on markets by a new American loan rate payment on soybeans, their daughter’s complete recovery means the couple manages problems differently than they used to, said Danny. They see the bigger picture.

“It’s not just him, it’s not just us. It’s the family, it’s the faith,” said Anita.

Danny started farming part-time in 1981, when his dad ran a 1,000-acre cereal and sugar beet operation. But he was the type of person who wanted to do things on his own rather than follow in his dad’s footsteps. So he worked winters as a carpenter, then sold insurance, and then sold vehicles for a General Motors dealership in nearby Altona.

Anita grew up in Winnipeg, but her family sent her to a Mennonite high school in Gretna, where she formed strong ties with a group of six other girls from the area.

She got to know Danny in 1984, and married him the next year. Living on a farm felt like part of her destiny, she said, although it wasn’t always easy to get used to how busy Danny was in spring and fall, nor the financial risks involved in farming.

But bringing Stephanie and son Michael, now 8, home to the farm as infants sealed her love for country living.

“I’m kind of in my own element here: I belong here,” she said.

They took over the farm from Danny’s parents, Jack and Dora Penner, around the same time they got married. Jack was the founding president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, and was too busy with the then-fledgling farm lobby group to manage his operation.

“That was probably the best thing he could have done for us, because he walked away totally and left us to make our own mistakes and decisions,” recalled Danny.

While Jack is still a financial partner in the farm, he has not been actively farming since. In 1988, he got into politics, and has been the Tory MLA for the Emerson constituency ever since.

The first years farming on their own were tough. Danny’s younger brother Lorin and spouse Jennifer moved to the farm in 1986, and his older brother Larry and wife Mary-Jean in 1988.

“We each have our own strengths,” Danny said. He handles the financial side, while Lorin manages the shop and equipment, and Larry does a bit of each. All three brothers bounce ideas off each other, and have a pact that they must agree on the big decisions for the farm.

With three families involved, Danny said there is less chance of making emotional decisions rather than sound business decisions on the farm.

They also have enough labor to be their own crop consultants, said Danny.

They have tripled the size of the farm, and pay close attention to fields during the growing season.

Spouses pitch in when it’s busy. And the brothers trade labor with neighbors to make sure everyone gets their crop in and off the field.

Anita does the farm books, a skill she’s honed over the years with several college accounting courses. She also works part-time at an Altona bank while their children are in school.

Last winter was the first time Danny did not sell vehicles in the off-season, concentrating instead on managing the farm and the marketing.

This summer, the Penners are growing 3,300 acres of wheat, corn, canola and five types of dry edible beans. They’ve grown beans since 1991, and expanded their acreage in 1996, when Manitoba lost its sugar beet plant and beets were no longer an option.

While Danny regrets the province lost what could have been a strong value-added industry, he doesn’t miss the tight margins and constant political lobbying involved with the crop.

The Penners also have other cereal crops in their rotation, and in dry years, they plant sunflowers. They’ve tried peas, lentils, flax and even a plot of potatoes.

One year, they grew chicory for an Ontario company hoping to extract an enzyme from the root crop. The company ran into financial problems, but Danny thinks there is still potential in the crop. He hopes to have an edge on producing it if another company picks up processing again.

Open to ideas

Their entire farm is within seven kilometres of their farmyard. They have turned down chances to buy land 16 km away because they believe they can better manage crops close by.

And the Penners are always looking for new crops or ventures that make sense for their operation, said Danny.

While Anita and Danny, both 35, know how to work hard, they also take time to play hard.

Their friends are important to them, they said, and they enjoy curling with them in the winter, and camping in the summer.

They are involved in 4-H, their church and local agricultural groups. Last year, Danny became a director of the Manitoba Pulse Growers Association.

In July, Danny and Anita were named winners of Manitoba’s Outstanding Young Farmer program for 1999.

They are honored and thrilled. But Danny said the recognition could apply to any young farmer who can meet the challenges of the business these days.

“It’s tough to make a living. You have to be exceptional,” he said.

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