Three Manitoba farmers share challenges and opportunities for their farms and how they want to work with their ag retailers.

From left to right:

Danny Penner
Letellier, Man.
Penner is a third-generation farmer. Along with his brothers, he farms 6,000 acres of corn, soybeans, dry edible beans, canola and wheat near Letellier, Man.

Colin Crockatt
Argyle, Man.
Crockatt runs a grain and cow/calf operation with his wife and father near Argyle, Man. They grow approximately 2,000 acres of spring wheat, oats, canola, soybeans and peaola.

Dwayne Leslie
Portage la Prairie, Man.
Leslie farms with his family east of Portage la Prairie, Man. In addition to the “usual crops,” they work with potato and onion growers in the Portage area.

Scott Van Alstyne
Van Alstyne is CAAR’s sales and marketing manager, working to deliver valuable products and services to CAAR members..

Scott Van Alstyne: What has been the greatest change that has occurred recently on your farm?

Dwayne Leslie: That’s certainly a loaded question. Technology is always an easy answer because it keeps changing so, so fast. But it’s basically going back to some of the simple things, like drain tile, to make the land work better.

Colin Crockatt: The greatest change on our farm would be the transition from one generation to the next. Technology has also come up in the last few years, starting 15 years ago with GPS and autosteer and it’s slowly gaining ground, but the biggest change for us is the transition of generations on the farm.

Danny Penner: I would say part of what was just said is also the largest change on our farm – how we’re trying to transition responsibilities to the younger generation. The second thing is technology. We’ve adopted all the technology we could and we’ve been through the wringer, from fertility management companies to variable rate companies, and one of the biggest changes in the last two years was deciding to go back to what we know and manage a lot of those things on farm on our own, within our own capabilities.

SVA: Each of you mentioned technology as one of the biggest changes. I’m just wondering, how has it impacted your operations and what are the technologies that you find are most important or that have helped the most?

CC: With the new variable rate and technologies based on that, we haven’t done a full switchover. I’ve seen a few neighbours do it and a lot of it comes with extra fees and consulting with other external parties. That’s just more peanuts that you lose from your bucket at the end of the day. We haven’t quite bought into it, both on the cost side and also with how it would actually work. 

DP: One of the most beneficial technologies that we’ve adopted in the last number of years is autosteer. It makes the hours in the field more efficient. We’re using less chemical. We’re putting chemical where it belongs, rather than overspray. We’re able to spray at night – other than dicamba – when timing might be right. We’re able to stretch our hours longer. So I would say that’s the most cost-efficient technology we have purchased. On the other side of it, once you’re in that game, then it’s the next program, and the next program, that everybody’s trying to sell you. And it’s easy to be convinced that those things are going to make you money, but you really need to do your research to know what and why you’re adopting some of these technologies.

DL: If I could just add to that – all these trials, all this information – the more plots you can do on your own farm, with your own conditions, the better data you have for yourself. Every company is trying to promote that you’re going to get “this many more per cent” and “this much more profitability and ROI” on all of these products, but sometimes you think, “if we use them all, either we’ll be broke or we’ll be gazillionaires.”

SVA: How have your ag retailers assisted you with the implementation of technology on your farm? Or, if they haven’t, how could they assist in that?

DL: I think it’s a pretty tough chore to figure out how to fit into multiple farmers’ programs. We do some variable rate fertilizer, but we don’t have the equipment to apply it, so I have to depend on my local company to do that for me. But, when you have such a diverse mix of farmers you’re working with, from the half section farmer to the 30,000 acre farmer, how do you have the people and the services to be able to look after such a diverse group? I know that’s pretty tough for most of you, especially when there’s so many other little companies popping up, promising to do all these really technological things. So, I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you guys.

CC: When it comes to retailers, I love the independence of them; how they can go through the data independently and give you their recommendation of whether they think it might work or might not, and, really, they have no skin in it. But in the grand scheme of things, they definitely want to see me be profitable. Because if I’m not profitable, I won’t be buying as much through them in the end. 

DP: The one thing ag retailers have the expertise to do, but have been lacking in, is being able to decipher some of the information that’s coming at us. Ag retailers tend to lean on and support certain technology-based companies to try and gain more business. In my opinion, that’s the wrong way to go about it. I think ag retailers, especially a group like this, together have the capability to decide whether that information or that technology-based company is going to be beneficial to their customer base within their region.

The one thing ag retailers have the expertise to do, but have been lacking in, is being able to decipher some of the information that’s coming at us.
Danny Penner

CC: If there are ten companies coming to us in a month, it would be great if the retailers could sift through the weeds for us and narrow it down to the one or two that they feel would make a difference.

DL: know I certainly depend on the agronomists that we work with to sift through all of that information, because I know the reps are talking to them on a daily, weekly, sometimes hourly basis to promote their products. Being able to trust their decision on what might work best for my operation is of huge value to me.

Being able to trust (my retailer’s) decision on what might work best for my operation is a huge value to me.
Dwayne Leslie

SVA: You have each talked about dissemination of information and how it is important to get it down to the farm level. What are some other things, beyond price, that are important to you when considering an ag retailer?

DL: I think the word I’ll come back to again is trust. Being able to trust the people I’m working with on my farm. I don’t own a sprayer, so I have to trust that not only are they giving me the best agronomy advice, but I have to trust that they’re going to do the job for me; that I’m going to get looked after and in a timely manner. That’s certainly one thing that I very much depend on from my agronomists, and it allows that relationship to continue – hopefully for a long, long time.

CC: I like seeing retailers invest back into their local communities. I deal more with the independent retailers who are mainly owned by maybe three or four people who may or may not live in the area. But, if they put some of their profits back into the community and show that they care about more than just money, that’s important to me.

DP: What’s important to us when choosing ag retailers is that the ag retailer understands their customer. I know we’re all vastly different in what we do and where we do it; whether we’re neighbours or whether we’re twenty, fifty or a hundred miles apart. There are certain customers that require a certain level of support – I’m sure you all know who costs you a lot more money to deal with than others. I think it’s very important to learn your customers so you can tailor your business towards those different levels of customer.

SVA: Dwayne has talked about trust. A question for each of our panelists: Who are the trusted advisers for your farm and how do you decide who goes into the trusted adviser category?

DL: I think it’s a lot easier to remove someone from the trusted category than it is to add them. I’m very loyal to the people I work with, and as long as I’m happy there, they’re happy with me. You know, they can fire me too, but certainly loyalty is a big part of it.

CC: I absolutely agree with loyalty and I’ll add honesty. I don’t like it when someone sugarcoats something. Either tell me straight up whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. I will bounce ideas off my local agronomist and my different retailers because, in the end, I only see so many acres in a year and they see twenty times or a hundred times as many. They see the things that I don’t and they see things on another scale.

DP: The trusted advisers are the ones that give you an honest answer of how a product has responded to specific situations at certain times, and what it’s going to do to your re-cropping restrictions and all of those things that you may not have thought about because you were thinking about twenty five things that morning. There’s also some chemical company reps that I find trustworthy, and they’re the type of people that may not just sell you their company’s product; they may say to you how it might work in synergy with some other company’s products. In other words, honesty. Those are the trusted advisers.

CC: With the system of rebates and blackbox payments, it’s really going to change this year on the chemical side because of the different mergers and acquisitions. A lot of times you think, “Well, Chemical A would probably be best, but Chemical B would fit into my program and maybe increase my payment back in the end.” That’s where a good, trusted retailer or agronomist can tell you, in the end, what the differences might be.

SVA: Colin, you mentioned mergers and acquisitions. I would like your perspective as a farmer. What are your thoughts about consolidation within the industry?

CC: The only thing that seems to stay the same is that everything keeps changing. Companies always want growth. All of you, you want growth. As long as you can continue to do a good a job or even a better job for your customers, your customers will go along with it. In the farm equipment industry, we’ve had acquisitions of dealerships, and we find that if it’s the same people in the building, I’m still loyal to that business.

The only thing that seems to stay the same is that everything keeps changing.
Colin Crockatt

DL: Mergers and acquisitions in the industry really don’t bother me at all. As you said, as long as the guys I’m dealing with are still in the building and just have changed their shirts, it really doesn’t matter to me. It’s when mergers happen and you start seeing massive housecleaning, you definitely think twice about dealing with that company – because you start wondering what their actual priorities are, where they’ll be in the future and whether you still align with them.

DP: Acquisitions can be a large benefit to our industry. There may be certain products that were the brainchild of some smaller companies that couldn’t afford to bring them to the market. But, when large companies pick them up and bring them to the market, they can be a real benefit to us.

On the other side, I’m going to agree with you guys completely. Ultimately, we all have to remember we’re people and we’re dealing with people, and as long as those people are going to be there, they’re the ones that are putting the face to the industry and the business. The brand of the company, to me, means nothing.

CC: How many people here have had a parent who’s bought their vehicle from the same dealership; year after year after year, from the same salesperson? You don’t go back because it’s a GM or because it is a Birchwood vehicle or Murray vehicle. You go back because Roger sells you the car and you enjoy the experience.

SVA: I have reached the end of my questions. I’ll give you an opportunity for final thoughts, and then I’ll open the floor to questions.

DL: There’s a lot more vertical integration happening. Even on the farmers’ side, we see larger and larger companies trying to get the whole package, saying, “If you buy your seed from us, you can sell your seed through us and we’ll give you a premium.” I think that’s going to be happening more in the future and more producers will be looking at that model because it may make more sense at the end of the day.

DP: We’re getting to the point on our farms where there’s so much money involved, it’s ridiculous. When I started farming, land was worth $600 an acre and now it’s $6,000, yet the bottom lines haven’t really changed. Our money’s worth less money now – that’s the only thing that’s made it look nicer in the bank. There’s maybe a touch more of it, but you can’t buy anything with it. It would be really nice if we could have a little support to stretch some of this stuff out. Yeah, we’re going to buy seed in November or December – let’s pay for it in May or June. Maybe you could push your suppliers to hold some of this cash throughout the year, rather than us dealing with all of the cash from January first onward.

SVA: Are there any questions from the floor?

Audience Question: As your farm has evolved, how important is quality of life on the farm? Is it now a much higher priority for you and for the next generation coming onto the farm?

DL: I think it’s a great lifestyle; it’s a great business. My wife and I are in a very narrow window right now where we have no children at home and both of our parents are in good health, so we don’t need to be anywhere at any one particular time. We’ve been doing a lot of traveling in the winter; trying to take advantage of the opportunities that our lifestyle and the way we run our businesses allow us to. You certainly want to enjoy it, because life is short.

CC: Quality of life is getting better on the farm. Looking at my friends who are farming, I doubt their parents went on snowmobile trips to Riding Mountain National Park in the winter for two weeks at a time. I get a bit of pushback on this, but I look at the older generation who is trying to retire now and not many have hobbies. It puts added pressure on my generation that’s taking over because we have to balance our work/life, but we also have to find something for them to do. At the end of the day, someone who’s retiring needs to feel wanted and have something to do. It’s a mental health issue.

DP: We bought a cottage and we need that to get away from the farm because our farm is constant. It’s important for us to have that and we’re so fortunate that our kids want to do things with us and spend time with us off the farm. It’s wonderful. I would encourage ag retailers to make sure they do the same thing. It gets to the point where you are working every farmer’s hours – that’s exhausting.

Working my hours can be tiresome, but I can stop mine. If you’re working every farmer’s hours, it’s almost impossible. I’ve seen it in the retailers that we deal with – they’re open Sundays and they’ll go there at midnight on a Saturday to bring someone some product that they forgot to get for the next morning. Well, forget that. I mean, people know how to manage their own farms. Surely, if I’m going to be spraying on Sunday, I can make sure I have the product at home to get myself going. And if I can’t? Well, shame on me. So, I would encourage you guys to take time for yourselves and your families. That’s really important because I see what’s coming and I see what it’s done mentally to some of my friends – it’s really given them a struggle. We’re professionals. We can take care of ourselves for a couple of days. Take some time.

DL: Anyone who has to deal with farmers on a daily basis has my utmost respect, because you have to be there for the early riser who’s there for fertilizer at 6:00 in the morning, and you’re there for the other farmer who likes to work all night and wants to be there at 10:00 p.m. But you need to set some boundaries. You have to have a life as well.

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Editor’s Note: This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

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