Never Stop Learning

It wasn’t very long ago that the word “farmer” conjured up an image of an older gentleman in denim overalls riding on an old, cabless green tractor, dragging a single plow across his little field by a red barn full of chickens, pigs, cows and horses. This is the image we are raised with; the expectation most children had when or if they ever visited a farm. Technology? For farmers? No way.

The reality is far different. Today, our farm, like most others, utilizes technology beyond the wildest dreams of farmers a mere 20 years ago. Advanced GPS automatically steers our equipment within 2-4 inch accuracy up and down the fields. A combine automatically Monitors Quadtraccontrols the height of its header to cut just the right amount of straw, and can even control its speed to keep feeding the crop in at a consistent rate. Our sprayer wirelessly sends application data to a cloud program called JDLink, where we can view our field maps from anywhere in the world. We use sophisticated computer software to analyse maps from satellites, electrical conductivity maps and harvest data to generate variable-rate fertilizer and chemical applications to our crops. And all of this is really just scratching the surface; it is really just the beginning.

The fact is that agriculture is riding a technology boom unprecedented in history, greater even than the industrial revolution. The changes don’t stop there, however. As many older farmers DSC_0002exit the industry without anyone to take over their operation, more and more land comes available. So, naturally, the farms that do survive to the next generation continue to grow. Farms that were only 1,000 acres 20 years ago are now ten or twenty times that size. Men and women that were once looking after two or three crops on a couple of sections of land are now managing multi-million dollar businesses with various employees, crops and equipment lines.

How do farmers keep up with these changing trends? How do they stay ahead of the technology curve, and somehow stay fluid and profitable at the same time? The key is really rather simple: farmers never stop learning.

Every winter, farmers spend countless hours attending meetings and conventions, pouring through magazines and literature, participating in online forums, and talking to neighbours and colleagues to gather as much information as possible. Most young people returning to farms today have some level of formal education, from ag management diplomas to agronomy degrees, and some even have masters degrees in business.

My experience has been like many young farmers: I acquired a degree specializing in Agronomy with a minor in AgBusiness, and I worked off the farm for many years to gather more experience and industry knowledge. Every year, I spend a great deal of my time reading, from magazines and newspapers like Grainews and The Western Producer to research papers from places like the Indian Head Research Farm and the University of Saskatchewan.

Interestingly, some of the best learning experiences I ever received are due to chemical companies. In the fall of 2013, Bayer CropScience hosted an “Agronomy Summit” at Banff that Grower Universitywas a haven of agronomic knowledge, and certainly one of the most valuable conferences I have ever attended. Later that winter, Syngenta hosted Grower University I at the Richard Ivey School of Business. It was like a master’s degree in business in four days, and the follow-up this past winter in Minnetonka, Minnesota (Grower UII) was fantastic as well. Farmers rarely get the chance to learn the business skills they need in any kind of a formal manner, so kudos to Syngenta for providing this program.

In businesses like agriculture, where everything changes so fast, you can never learn too much. Smartphones and the Internet really changed how farmers go about their day-to-day lives. Twitter is a fantastic place to gather information on insect outbreaks, marketing trends, and thousands of different business ideas from thousands of different farmers.

As agriculture moves into the digital age, we have so much more to learn about, from drones to robotics to mass data collection. It is hard to foresee what the future holds ten or twenty years from now. Some futurists claim we will have artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, both of which, despite their inherent dangers, could be a revolution in agriculture.

Whatever the future may hold, it looks amazingly bright and exciting; we farmers will have to continuously learn as we go forward to try and keep up. It will be a great ride.

Follow Your Dreams

Have you ever had a dream?

I don’t mean a dream as in the one you see in your sleep and soon forget. I mean something that inspired you, or moved you, or gave you a goal to strive for. Perhaps it was to build something, invent something; whether just a childhood Lego creation or a skyscraper. Maybe it was to fly a plane, or to go to space, or to find the cure for Alzheimer’s. 

Did you pursue it? Did you make it a part of your life? Or did you let it fall away, accepting that it was impossible or impractical? Sometimes life hits you harder than you can withstand, and your dream falls away from your consciousness. 

My dream is something I do every day. My dream is growth.

The excitement I feel each and every spring is because once again I have an opportunity to continue my dream. Planting fragile seeds into a harsh, dangerous and unforgiving soil, full of parasites and predators, with little more than hope to work with, is a major risk. Mother Nature doesn’t have to be kind. She can be a bitch. But somehow, I still go out and risk my future every spring on the hope that maybe, just maybe, she will be generous. 

Farming is more than just laying seeds on the ground and hoping that they will grow. Growing the crops is only one part of the dream of growth. I also dream of growing the farm, seeding more acres and having more crops to discover and learn about. Growing the business is the other half of my dream. Creating a secure operation with money to spare to invest in new opportunities and new ventures is what I dream of every day. Sometimes, Mother Nature smites these dreams with a punishing torrent of rain, or hail, or a crushing frost, or a devastating drought. Yet I push on, because this business, this life, is the dream all we farmers endeavour for. Some have no dream of expansion, while others want to farm the world. But as long as we can survive, as long as we can go into the next year and plant another crop, our dreams continue.

Some people may respond with a callous “so what? Farmers have it easy. They are born into their dreams, I have to search for mine!” True enough, maybe. Let me share my experience with you on this.

I graduated high school in June of 2006. At that time, farming was not my intention. In this part of the world, farming was tough- very tough. We had had a rough go for the last few years: 2003 was a drought, 2004 was a devastating early frost, and prices were so low in those years  that despite a good crop in 2005, we still lost money. The world had lots of food, and farmers were largely ignored, if not forgotten. I could not foresee how I could ever make a living farming. So I considered other options, such as engineering, but ended up going into agriculture with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. I don’t know to this day what my father thought of this. I do know he was close to calling it quits after 2005. But then something happened- something fundamentally changed in the world of agriculture, something that had not happened in 30 years.

The world ran out of grain. Between farmers leaving the industry, a couple years of lower production and the advent of using grains for fuel, stocks had suddenly become low. In late 2007, prices exploded for all types of commodities, creating unprecedented returns. Suddenly, agriculture was front page news on business magazines and talked about on major news stations on television. Farmers found themselves in the spotlight. It was in late 2006 to early 2007 that I decided not to become a vet and to farm instead. And that has been my course ever since. It hasn’t been easy. Indeed, if you were to read some of my blog posts from spring you would see that even with high prices, 2010-2011 were tough years for us. But we press on, pushing to become better at what we do, to grow our business and become more sustainable. Life is like a boxing match against an unbeatable opponent; at some point, you will lose the fight. But you can give it one hell of a fight before you go down. Persistence and ambition, the drive to reach your dreams, no matter how impossible they may seem, is the way I have chosen to live my life.

Maybe this is all too hardcore, talking about drive and ambition and dreams. This is a part of who I am, and how I think, and it will always be a part of my blog. I think within all of us is the power to do anything. It is us who limit ourselves. Perhaps I limit myself too, sometimes, putting too much focus on the farm and missing other opportunities. I don’t know what path life has laid out for me. All I know is that if I work hard and think things through carefully, opportunities will come. I feel that farming is a great analogy to anyone struggling to accomplish their dreams, because sometimes things happen that are out of your control. Sometimes, simple bad luck can knock you on your face. But you have to get up and keep going. 

My dream is growth. Growth of my crops, my business, and my relationships with the ones I hold most dear. What is yours? And, are you fighting for it?