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Alberta farm family finds a work-life balance

On the Farm: Dallas Vert and Natasha Popisil run three agricultural businesses but also find time for family vacations

KIRRIEMUIR, Alta. — Dallas Vert always knew he wanted to farm and his wife Natasha Popisil was willing to follow the dream.

The couple, both 36, farm 11,000 acres at Kirriemuir in east-central Alberta and were named the province’s outstanding young farmers for 2019.

Their neighbours, Craig and Jinelle Ference, were national winners last year but Dallas and Natasha admitted they did not know much about the program until they were selected to represent Alberta.

They have found themselves part of a special group of forward thinking, positive farmers.

“Everybody is like-minded and everybody has the same trail of success. They want everybody to succeed and everybody to have fun,” said Vert.

Added Popisil: “It is different when you can have a conversation with somebody who can relate to where you are at instead of trying to explain to somebody what you are doing.”

Both attended Olds College but did not meet there.

Vert studied agribusiness from 2001-03 and Popisil started the land agent program in 2003 after leaving her home in northern Saskatchewan, where her family has a game outfitting business and resort.

As a land agent, her job was visiting farms and negotiating energy leases around country kitchens.

“That lifestyle seemed appealing,” she said.

They met when Popisil visited local farms as a land agent negotiating a pipeline crossing farm properties in the area. She continues as a land agent for a company called Section 25 based in Lloydminster, where she works for landowners.

“You have to be creative with what you are doing for work. You have to keep your foot in the door,” she said.

When Vert returned from college, the family had about 1,200 acres and 500 cows. BSE and the subsequent market collapse had just started so they dispersed the herd.

He started custom spraying and was buying land. An opportunity to buy a fertilizer company came along in 2011.

Vert’s father died in 2017 while they were in a five-year transition plan. The plan was speeded up and they bought out Vert’s mother and are an independent unit now.

Today, they run three businesses: the farm, Conquest Agro Services, a general store and post office, Kirriemur Ag and Oil, as well as Dryland Agro Services, which sells fertilizer, seed and chemicals serving about 100,000 acres.

In the winter, Vert also works for Global Risk Advisors, which offers gross margin revenue insurance.

Farming takes management in this area, so they employ an agronomist. They have three full-time employees between the fertilizer plant and farm. They pull in extra people during seeding and harvest.

Corn is the newest crop grown along with wheat, canola, oats and peas.

Last year, they received about 75 millimetres of rain when normally they get 125 to 205 mm. This spring at seeding in mid-April, conditions looked poor but moisture started to arrive in June. The crops are two weeks behind normal maturity.

Canola is a major crop but when China banned Canadian canola earlier this year, they quickly changed plans. Instead of 4,000 acres of canola they dropped back to 2,000 acres and planted more specialty peas and more corn.

“You have to be quick thinking. You can’t procrastinate from anything,” Vert said.

They farm about 30 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border, but maintain almost all their business in Alberta. Grain is hauled all over and to capture better prices, it may end up going west to Red Deer, about three hours away.

Vert markets the grain and negotiates in freight. At harvest time, he usually sells about one-third off the combine.

“I am trying to maximize what we have. We are almost to the point if we expand acre wise, we need more equipment, more guys. Everything is working really nicely so we want to maximize what we have,” he said.

Kirriemuir has a population of about 20. Families have grown up together and everyone works together on activities and education for their children.

Vert grew up here but Popisil was new to the tightly knit farming district.

“The community is very welcoming and it seems they want to see success in the community,” she said.

“My parents said they were glad I ended up here because it is such a nice place. There is so much support around you.”

She is on the kindergarten board, which is privately run at Altario School, where there are three grades per class. Vert helps at the school farm, which opened this spring as an agriculture centre of excellence. He and his parents also attended that school so the Vert family has deep roots in the community.

Potluck dinners, movie nights and fun nights are part of the local entertainment that involves everyone.

“You have to create your own and you make it happen,” she said.

They have three children: Reese, seven, Tegan, three and Ryker, three months. There is room for the children to one day join the family business, but it has to be their choice.

“We are big believers in letting the kids choose what they want to do. If they don’t want to farm, fine,” Vert said.

The family also carves out time for vacations and travel.

Vert is so committed to farming that their trips often include excursions to check out local farmers to see how they do things, whether it is vegetables, cotton or fruit.

A trip to Hawaii included a side trip where Dallas and Reese stopped at a sugar cane farm that was changing over to vegetables. The farmer was ready to kick them out for trespassing but when Vert explained he wanted to learn, he got a tour and made a new friend.

This December they plan to travel to Fredericton for the national Outstanding Young Farmers competition. Part of the attraction is making new friends and exploring farming in the Maritimes.

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