For prairie grain farmers, diversification opportunities can come in many different shapes and sizes — everything from livestock production and value-added processing to custom combining or agri-tourism.
For Somerville Farms at Eatonia, Sask., diversification meant climbing behind the wheel of a truck and hitting the highway — something members of the Somerville family have been doing for decades.
“Trucking has been in our family’s blood for a long time,” says Bryan Somerville, one of four sons involved in the family-owned business.
“What drove us to get into commercial trucking was that there were four boys and we all wanted to stay on the farm so we knew we had to diversify one way or the other.”
“We had livestock … but we wanted something that we could shut off for the weekend so we decided to get into commercial trucking.”
The decision to get into trucking seemed like a natural fit.
Bryan’s father, Ray, was an experienced truck driver.
One of Bryan’s first jobs off the farm was a driving gig with L.E. Matchett Trucking.
Shortly after that, Somerville Farms launched its own commercial trucking operation, starting with a single truck and later adding a second.
The decision to get into commercial hauling could not have come at a more opportune time for the Somerville family.
In the 1970s and 1980s, rail lines across the West were being sold, torn up or abandoned and the distances between grain delivery points was increasing.
“With rail line abandonment … all of a sudden grain had to be hauled 40 or 50 miles or more to get to the nearest elevator,” Bryan recalls.
“A lot of farmers just weren’t prepared at the time. They had smaller farm trucks that couldn’t move grain efficiently over longer distances so we managed to capture a lot of that business.
“At one point, I would say that roughly 75 percent of our business was local grain. But as farmers got bigger and more people started buying their own trucks and trailers, we had to start looking at other options besides grain.”
Today, the trucking division of Somerville Farms Ltd. boasts a fleet of 16 trucks, 10 of which are owned by the company and six that are owner-operator units.
Somerville provides shipping services to customers primarily in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia, hauling products such as grain, organics, fertilizer, potash, road salt, sand and other bulk commodities.
More recently, the trucking division has expanded into the long haul refrigeration business, moving perishable food products across Western Canada and much of the United States.
Somerville’s long-haul refrigeration division — launched in July of 2017 — now has four dedicated rigs.
A typical haul will involve refrigerated pork and beef products moving south into the U.S. market and a backhaul of vegetables or other edible products.
“Our long haul reefer division came out of a need identified in 2014 and 2015 when the oil market took a turn for the worse,” said trucking manager Grant Keith.
“We found that a lot of guys that were hauling oil at the time were suddenly getting into the grain business so of course our market share on the grain side took a bit of a hit.
“We diversified out of need.…
“Our long haul division complements what we do as an agricultural based carrier. We’re basically going right from field to fork now.”
Both Keith and Somerville said there are challenges associated with managing a long haul trucking company out of a small rural community like Eatonia.
Recruitment, for example, is a challenge, particularly when it comes to attracting drivers or owner-operators based in larger urban centres.
Eatonia, located about 250 kilometres southwest of Saskatoon, has a population of fewer than 500 people.
But the Somervilles appreciate the rural lifestyle and are committed to Eatonia for the long haul.
Despite its rural location, there are plenty of opportunities for Somerville to expand its long-haul refrigeration business, says Keith, as long as the company remains focused on outstanding customer service and recruiting top quality rigs and drivers.
“We’re looking at expanding the long-haul division,” said Keith, who brought 25 years of long-haul experience to Somerville’s trucking division.
“Our grain business tends to be cyclical, so there are lots of peaks and valleys.”
“We needed to identify a way to level out those peaks and valleys and the integration of the long-haul division has allowed us to accomplish that.”