Tap into strategic planning

A trouble-free harvest and pandemic restrictions have given producers a rare commodity: ample time to take stock and plan for next year. Unfortunately, too few will use this opportunity.

“The sad story is that 21 percent of farmers across Canada have a written business plan and less have other forms of written plans,” said Heather Watson.

“And 40 percent say, ‘we don’t need a plan because we’re succeeding without it.’ ”

Watson is executive director of Farm Management Canada, which was formed after the 1980s commodities crisis to help producers weather such storms by helping them develop business management skills.

She was guest and moderator at Strategic Farmer Scorecard 2021, an online event presented to about 100 participants by Aberhart Ag Solutions on Dec. 18.

The benefits of planning range from fiscal to family, Watson said. FMC research completed in the summer of 2020 shows that producers who plan enjoy positive mental health, peace of mind, increased confidence and better relationships with family and team members.

Planning also helps producers assess new technologies and developments, prioritize, and make sound decisions to drive financial performance. But it doesn’t come naturally.

“It’s not an innate ability and it’s not something you can buy off the shelf. It really does take that training and that focus on managing the farm as a business,” she said.

The online event featured four farmers, one from each of the prairie provinces and Montana. All were asked to reflect on the past year and plans for the upcoming season, guided by “The Strategic Farmer Scorecard” prepared by Watson.

Despite it being a pandemic year, all were thankful for good health among their families and were feeling far less stressed and more optimistic after an easy harvest and good prices.

Ron Krahn said 2019’s “brutal” harvest that left crop out in the field made for a hard winter.

“I found out that I struggle with anxiety and so kind of coming from a pretty dark place to feeling good again… and enjoying farming again,” he said. “It’s been a good year, even though it was a tough year again — 2020 — but it was fun.”

Krahn farms near Rivers, Man., northwest of Brandon where he and his brother grow wheat, canola, peas, soybeans, sunflowers and corn. The two have just completed taking over the farm from their parents and are already thinking about positioning Krahn’s 18-year-old son to take over from them in the next 20 years.

Watson said Krahn’s experience underlines how producers need to factor in their health in their planning — physical and mental. This was a theme shared by other farmers on the panel.

For Frank Groeneweg, 2020 took away opportunities to learn and network by attending farm shows and meet people face-to-face in hospitality suites. But it opened up new channels, and with them, opportunities.

“I subscribe to this: when you’re handed lemons, you make lemonade,” he said. “Awhile back, I was on a conference that happened in Ireland — but it was in my office that it happened and there were speakers from around the world. So I think the speed of learning can be increased.”

Groeneweg was farming near Edgeley, about a half hour northeast of Regina, when he and his family decided they needed a change. After selling the farm in 2018, they cast about for where to go next, finally buying a farm near Three Forks, Montana, moving south on March 18, 2020 — the day the pandemic closed the border.

The Groenewegs grow wheat and chickpeas on their 14,000-acre operation, and focus on selling direct to consumers. They have a relationship with a local commercial bakery and are exploring business further afield such as a bakery serving the Orthodox Jewish community in New Jersey.

For Kent Erickson, the past year was a time to re-focus. They are in the fifth or seventh year of the transition process as his father gradually backs out of the operation and they start to think about the next generation (his oldest son, at 16, is showing interest in farming).

“Rather than having yield on the top of the priority list, things like soil health, sustainability, we wanted to use some cover crops, we really wanted to focus on nutrient-dense food,” he said. “All those words went to the top of our strategic planning.”

Erickson farms with his wife and father near Irma, about two hours east of Edmonton. There, they grow grain on 4,000 acres and run a herd of about 100 bred cows, sometimes backgrounding the steers and heifers.

Over the past year, they tweaked their fertilizer strategy, for example by going to liquid, in-crop application. They also strove to cut back on herbicide. Yields suffered somewhat and Erickson said “we need to do better in finding that equilibrium, that middle ground” which is a goal in their strategic planning.

While dry weather made harvest much easier in 2020, Marcel Van Staveren said drought in his area interfered with timely application of herbicides and fungicides.

“Those are stressful things for me because I know that’s what’s costing me money, when things aren’t being done timely,” he said.

Van Staveren farms with his two brothers in the Weyburn-Estevan region about an hour and a half southeast of Regina. The brothers farm about 22,000 acres along with some custom work, growing canola, durum, spring wheat, red lentils and soybeans. The farm is transitioning to “generation 3.0,” which includes Van Staveren’s two sons and two of his nephews.

On the plus side, Van Staveren said some key inputs such as nitrogen, phosphorus and some generic herbicides were cheaper, all adding up to a reduced cost of $20 to $30 per acre. The dry fall weather has also been a plus, allowing application of fall fertilizer and herbicides.

“Teeing up 2021, this 2020, from a positive perspective, it keeps on giving,” he said. “We’re the most prepared ever for a growing season and that feels really good.”

The full panel discussion is available online on the Aberhart Ag Solutions YouTube channel.

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