Cliff Suntjens enjoys telling the story. One swelteringly hot day, I was out soil testing with Valery, a Russian agrologist, and our driver, Suntjens tells me. We d been out for hours and were all tired and sweaty when Valery suggested a swim. He directed our driver to cut across country to a large reservoir that sat in the middle of nowhere. We all jumped out of the truck, shed our clothes, and leapt into the water for one of the most refreshing swims of my life.
Then Valery led us to a berry patch nearby where we gorged on juicy blackberries, continues Suntjen, a 64-year-old retired farmer born and raised on his parents Coronation, Alta. ranch. It was a wonderful, spontaneous time that brought back memories of my childhood during the Prairie summers.
If we’re technical, swimming and blackberry eating aren t really the reasons why Winnipeg-based precision ag company Farmers Edge had sent Suntjens to Russia. But then, they weren t exactly not why they sent him there either.
Farmers Edge has hit on a strategy of hiring retired Canadian farmers to help Russian farmers bring both their management skills and their technology up to cutting-edge standards.
It s an adventure for the Canadians, but it s also a chance for them to make a difference for farm families half way around the world. And it turns out it s a very effective way of helping farmers there make management changes that can help them rapidly climb the technology ladder.
Back in 2005, co-founders Wade Barnes and Curtis Mackinnon launched Farmers Edge in Pilot Mound, Man. with a mission that revolved around The Four R s of precision agriculture the right product, at the right amount, in the right place, at the right time.
Barnes and Mackinnon had both been working on the retail side of agriculture and shared an interest in precision agriculture and variable-rate technology. Their venture rapidly grew, and today Farmers Edge is ranked 11th by PROFIT magazine in its list of Canada s 200 fastest-growing companies, aided by a customer base of tech-savvy Canadian farmers eager to boost their yields while managing costs.
Now, the company is looking to expand its model overseas. Farmers Edge has grown domestically and across all three Prairie Provinces, says Kolby Nichol, Farmers Edge international business manager. Today, there are about 50 reps in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta focusing on precision agriculture.
Nichol and his team deliver a unique range of professional farm-management services to farms around the world, including Eastern Europe, the United States, South America, and Australia.
The challenge in Russia is to foster the uptake of cutting-edge technology in an agriculture that by international standards has languished for decades.
From a Canadian perspective, it s a whole career s worth of innovation that the Russians need to integrate in the space of just a few growing seasons. So, who better to show them how to do it than the Canadian farmers who lived through and embraced all those changes?
Even better is when you put experienced Canadian farmers in front of eager-to-learn Russians who have years of farming ahead of them. We ve found what works best is matching up younger guys with retirement-aged (Canadian) farmers looking for a transition from the farm, says Nichol.
There are lots of farmers in that demographic here looking for a transition into something different, Nichol says. There aren t a lot of younger guys with families looking to go overseas for the growing season or six months at a time. Retired farmers have fewer ties here and are able to do this sort of thing.
Starting in 2009, Farmers Edge sent farmer consultants to work on a massive 500,000-acre farm. There, they found exceptional production conditions, including deep soils with two feet and sometimes more of top soil, plus a range of rainfall and temperatures similar to Western Canada.
Still, the farmers there hadn t begun their transi- tion to zero tillage. Nor did they find that Russia s farmers gave the same priority to constantly searching out and incorporating new technology that the Canadians were used to at home. And the technology they do have, such as sprayers, often isn t managed for peak accuracy or efficiency.
In Russian culture, risk-taking isn t really rewarded, so it can be hard to interest the farmers there to try something different, says Nichol. Using these long-time farmers as consultants is a big help.
We look for guys who like to travel and see something different within agriculture, as well as being able to go overseas and really immerse themselves in another culture, Nichol adds. You re more than just a tourist. You get to see the real Russia.
In fact, not only do the Canadians get to see that Russia, they need to work closely within it because, when there are so many areas of potential improvement, it can take solid planning to prioritize which changes need to get pushed to the top of the line.
Cliff Suntjen in Russia
Cliff Suntjen shares the twin passions that drive most of Farmers Edge s farm consultants. He loves farming, but he wants to make a difference beyond his farm too.
Suntjens is similar to other farmers too in how he looks at himself. I now find myself humbler than in my youth, he says. I realize that in this ever-changing field I m not an expert in any area, but a layman with a great deal of valuable experience.
In 2008, Suntjens applied for a job with Farmers Edge. In April 2009, he and his wife Willa went to Russia to work with a large entrepreneurial Russian farm company encouraging no-till farming and alternative dryland crops.
It was like coming home, said Suntjens. The climate, the land, and the crops were similar to those of Canada s Prairies. However, the culture, the farmers experiences, and the infrastructure were a world apart. I was often frustrated, but I loved it.
Part of the reason the frustration turned to satisfaction was a change in attitude by the Russians. At first, he admits, he found them very standoffish, but after they got to know me they became very friendly, accepting, and fun. Seeing and feeling this change was particularly gratifying.
And, he adds, Knowing a bit about hockey went a long way.
Wallace Orr s story
With 35 years of farm management and grain trading experience, Manitoba farmer Wallace Orr (53) also does Farmers Edge consulting, including eight months in Russia in 2010.
Like other consultants, Orr is careful to not downplay the challenges. The Russians may not have invented bureaucracy, but they have perfected it, says Orr. At times the paperwork involved in trying to get things done can be very frustrating. Something that would take 15 minutes to do in Canada can take half a day in Russia.
Still, he also points to gratifying progress. The people there who we worked with were generally good a bit sceptical at first but warmed up in time. Generally, people are the same wherever you go. Everyone wants a big TV, a nice car, and a nice house. Everyone s looking for the middle class lifetime.
The biggest challenge Orr encountered consulting in Russia last year was the heat and drought (with temperatures of 42 degrees and 90 per cent humidity). They don t have a lot of irrigation in Russia, he says. They could probably have more.
Another hurdle Orr experienced in Russia was the traffic, which, he says, is just nuts. Canada has nothing on Russia. The roads are all packed with people driving like they re in Formula One.
On the upside, Orr said, Exploring the country, the land, in Russia was definitely a highlight. The infrastructure is pretty good too. The Moscow subway system is incredible. The rivers are amazing, and there are lots of trees.
To do overseas consulting work, Orr says, You need to be flexible, have a positive attitude, be patient, have a sense of adventure, enjoy trying new things (especially on the farm level), and be willing to step out of your comfort zone.
You only live once, and to get the opportunity to see and learn a different culture is incredible and an opportunity not a lot of people get.
George Thomas Wady
Of the 31 years that George Thomas Wady (54) actively farmed, 24 of them were in no-till, so in 2009, Farmers Edge asked him to work as a consultant for them in Russia. Wady at first said no because the overlap of seasons would keep him away from his home farm at critical times.
Approached again after retiring, Wady began working for Farmers Edge in Russia in 2011.
The biggest highlight in Wady s Russian adventure was seeing areas of Russia that are very far off the beaten path and meeting Russian individuals in those areas. Contrary to the stereotype, once you re introduced, most of the people have a great sense of humour, and are interested in your impressions of Russia, and in what farming is like in Canada.
Like Orr and Suntjens, Wady agrees that effective consultants need good communication skills, some computer skills, the ability to work in a team environment, curiosity about and an interest in experiencing a different culture, accepting the challenge and adventure of living and working in a foreign country, and a sense of humour in dealing with the challenges.
The Russian farm staff need to be open to new ideas, have an interest in technology, weigh the benefits of these ideas and technologies, and accept the limitations of working through a translator.
That s the kind of thinking that experienced Canadian farmers excel at, Nichols says.
We re very flexible with time for our consultants. We can rotate guys in and out with breaks in between. All of them have brought their wives with them for at least some of the time. Together, they ll take a week or two of holidays at a time and go travelling in Western Europe or beyond.
We send two people there at a time, staying in the same apartment. They stay in a larger centre (not a small village) so they have amenities and the ability to have more of a social and cultural life something to do outside of work. We cover food, accommodations, and expenses (cell phone, Internet, etc.), and travel expenses.
All Farmers Edge consultants are accompanied by interpreters. Although some Russian farmers do speak English, having interpreters aids in effective communication.
In terms of growing our program, our limiting factor is getting good people over there, said Nichol. The demand is huge. The project will grow as fast as we can staff it.
Suntjens sees growth ahead too. Once infrastructure improves and credit becomes more available, Russian farmers will certainly be an international agricultural force. CG