In agriculture, diversification thrives when it’s encouraged and nurtured. It not only helps spread risk, it can open the door to new directions and to new ventures that supplement the conventional or create new opportunities.
Adam Garniss understands this about as well as anyone. A grower and entrepreneur, he oversees a diversified operation on the family farm near Wingham, Ont., with a rotation of corn, soybeans, white beans and winter wheat, a crop plan he maintains regardless of commodity pricing. In addition to working 500 to 1,000 acres of loam and sandy-loam soils, Garniss and wife Cheryl also finish 240 head of cattle between September and April and are seed dealers for Dekalb. They have begun to incorporate the Climate FieldView technology on their farms, too, and are slowly adopting it while encouraging others to consider it as well.
The couple have been farming for 13 years and Garniss is the third generation on the farm. His father helps out and owns half of the combine — a move Garniss says keeps him working and in the seat — and his parents own three farms which he and Cheryl rent and work. They have one other employee — a local farmer who works full-time during the harvest and part-time when things slow down.
Adam and Cheryl worked in sales and agronomy with Cargill and have used that experience and the contacts to build their seed dealership with Dekalb. They’ve enjoyed the opportunity to make the farm their primary occupation and have added custom spraying and combining services on roughly 4,000 acres in their area. That guarantees a lot of work through the summer but this is the accepted cost of diversification.
“Our biggest challenge is always managing the balance of growth, cash flow and time,” says Garniss. “Being in our early 40s, we’re in a growth stage of the business. But we need to be conscious of our debt-to-equity ratio and servicing of that debt. Time management is difficult because we don’t have enough regular work for a full-time employee, but there are many days when we don’t have enough hours to do all of our work and also explore growth opportunities.”
Garniss has also started using Climate Corporation’s FieldView technology platform. The pace is slow, but that’s similar to most other precision ag systems. The first thing he’s doing is learning its capabilities on his own operation, then trying to take that next step as a dealer.
“We use it for collecting yield monitor information, weather histories and some scouting features for marking locations,” he says. “We aren’t using it to its full potential because we don’t have new enough equipment. It takes a combination of compatible equipment and interest in data to make it useful. If you have that combination, the potential’s great.”
Innovation — on the farm and in the industry
That’s another of the challenges he faces, just like other producers. It’s the need to innovate. Garniss has auto-steering systems on the farm’s tractors; the sprayers have similar systems along with boom shut-off and height controls. The planter is due for an update but Garniss is waiting for the right time and conditions to make that purchase. In the midst of the hype to “grow big or go home,” Garniss concedes that some of the strategies they’ve used weren’t necessarily innovative — in keeping with the current trend of modernization.
“We started out in 2007 with nothing and had to think hard about the decisions we made to get here,” he says. “We expend a lot of energy making decisions on how to grow because cash flow is king. But ultimately, farming is inherently risky, so at some point you make your decision, throw away the calculator and jump in with both feet.”
In 2014, the Garniss family was part of the “Faces of Farming” calendar. Among the notes in the small write-up was the mention that they had planted 70 trees on their property; again, a tip of the hat to generating greater diversity on the farm. Yet for Garniss, it’s also a reflection of the number of entrepreneurs in the industry.
“Everyone has a different vision and there’s a huge range in equity from one farm to the next,” he says, noting that blanket statements about agriculture’s needs don’t apply. “Of course agriculture needs to incorporate technology and pay attention to the fundamentals, but not everybody needs to do both. What we really need in agriculture is to make sure we’re attracting the best, most-talented people and problem-solvers to work in our industry.”
That’s actually Garniss’s take on the biggest challenge facing agriculture: attracting the best people. In his view, there are lots of barriers within agriculture that make working in it unappealing to many of the people needed in the industry. And that has to change.
Another adjustment within the industry that Garniss applies is in networking and sharing experiences with others. It’s the opportunity to learn and benefit from the expertise of different people that he finds enticing — a greater cross-section with differing levels of expertise. At the same time, Garniss concedes he can be a bit of an open book when it comes to sharing his experiences.
“Day-to-day, it’s about being focused on tasks at hand and getting the job done,” he adds. “But the business overall is built on being candid and honest.”
Farming never ceases to present a full slate of activities and demands on a person, and can often entice a grower in different directions and challenge that drive for diversity. Yet as busy and as hectic as life on the farm can and has been for Garniss, he takes great satisfaction from being able to take that daily lunch break with Cheryl and their girls.
“It doesn’t necessarily happen when field work is happening, but working in your own backyard gives you that opportunity,” he says. Summer work doesn’t allow for lengthy getaways but the recent installation of a pool has helped a lot. “When the kids are in school, Cheryl and I may have lunch on the couch and watch a half-hour comedy show together. In the summer it’s really great to have lunch by the pool with the family: 45 minutes to an hour break with a swim is always a highlight of a long summer work day.”