The return of farm diversification

On this farm, widening the base of operations helps achieve crucial management goals

When Anthony Nabuurs talks about agriculture, he looks beyond growing crops and selling what he harvests. Expanding his operation beyond planting, spraying and combining has become a necessity for his farm and for those who work with him, partly because of economics, and also because it helps overcome some of the challenges of farming on Prince Edward Island.

The stereotype is that P.E.I. farmers all grow potatoes, and lots of them. But Nabuurs is a second-generation producer who farms near Montague, about 40 minutes east of Charlottetown. He breaks with convention, renting or trading on most of the 3,000 acres he works along with his son Paul and four full-time and two part-time employees, two of whom are his brothers and retired school teachers. And he very much credits his wife Anna for the support she’s always provided, even though she’s not directly involved with the farming operations.

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Trading acres comes primarily with potato farmers looking to rotate out of their primary crop, or working acres that belong to others who own land yet are from off-Island. In total, the acres that Nabuurs works stretch across most of King’s County, the eastern part of P.E.I.

“You’d be surprised how much variation there is in the soils from one end of the county to the other,” he says, noting that in most cases, the closer to water, the sandier the soil. “But I have more sandy conditions inland than some of my land closer to water, so the rule doesn’t always hold.”

The Nabuurses follow either a three- or four-year rotation, with potatoes followed by soybeans, then corn and wheat. In the three-year rotation, they’ll drop either wheat or corn. They’ve also started growing alternative crops billed as “soil-building” options, including mustard, buckwheat and sorghum. Depending on available premiums, they’ll grow IP soybeans or opt to plant genetically modified varieties. They also have grown seed barley and seed wheat.

As for further diversification efforts, Nabuurs points to the 1,000 acres of custom work they do, along with a grain dryer, a roaster for soybeans and their trucking firm, ARP Trucking, with as many as six vehicles. On their own, the roaster or the trucking company may not be super profitable, yet they complement the overall farm very nicely.

“We need to do that even though there’s not a lot of money in that part of the business,” says Nabuurs, referring specifically to the trucking operation. “It keeps employees working year-round and you can’t always get trucks to get your product off the field in the fall, so it’s been working fairly well.”

The Nabuurs’ farm has diversified to spread their risk, adding a soybean roasting and trucking firm to the operation.
photo: Courtesy Anthony Nabuurs

Actually, the biggest challenge for Nabuurs and growers across P.E.I. has been managing through periods of drought for the past five years, often at the wrong period of time for crop production. He worries about conditions being too dry and accepts that he’ll take a 10 per cent loss — or more — on his yield potential due to drought alone. In 2019, they had to battle drought and then a hurricane that lodged his corn and dropped the quality of his harvest. Those conditions have convinced Naaburs to alter some of his practices.

“One thing I’ve decided to do is not to plant corn any later than the 25th of May,” he says. “We were much too late because of the weather, but we’ve got everything in this year and we’re going to make an effort to try to get things in as quickly as possible. Early seems to win it here.”

Another aspect on their on-farm diversification methods comes with their soybean roasting facility, which Naaburs installed when they were still hog producers. In addition to meeting their own feed needs at the time, they were also roasting soybeans for others on the island. Today, it’s not quite as busy but definitely helped with their transition from hogs to grains.

“But we also have a fairly big grain dryer and we do all of our own crops that need to be dried, plus we do quite a bit of custom work with that,” says Nabuurs. “The more we put through that dryer, the cheaper our overhead costs are, so we try to keep that pretty busy.”

Learning to get along

As other producers across Canada frequently note, the agri-food, farm-to-fork landscape has changed considerably in the past decade. The one benefit of farming in such a relatively small geographical area is that things are close by: if Nabuurs or someone with the operation needs a piece of hardware, they’re right next door to Montague. And for larger items, Charlottetown is within an hour.

He has also tried to be a good neighbour, keeping the family farm clean and orderly, and when he needs to spray, he communicates that intent with those nearest to the fields. Yet for all he does to keep those conversations going, Nabuurs concedes the disconnect between urban and rural is troubling.

“Sometimes people will come to the farm and you’ll show them what you do, and they’re really in awe because they have no idea,” he notes. “I’m not blaming anybody for that, but that’s the reality that the world has created, where farms have become larger and more complex.”

Yes, farmers use sprays but the technology that exists today has minimized the dangers of previous generations, says Nabuurs. The technology means overlaps or over-application of products have been reduced and products come with better research and development protocols behind them, meaning better targeting of weeds, insects or diseases.

“People don’t understand that — you could go out with a sprayer full of water and they’d be afraid of it, and for me, that’s hard to deal with the odd time it’s become a problem” says Nabuurs. Communication has always been vital, particularly when he was raising hogs, and he’s stepped up his efforts since. “We try to spray when the wind is the right speed and we calibrate our sprayers so we’re putting on the right amounts with no overlaps. That’s better for the crop and it’s better for the environment.”

Wheat is one of the crops Nabuurs grows in rotation with potatoes, corn and soybeans.
photo: Courtesy Anthony Nabuurs

There are also efforts to bridge the knowledge gap between urban and rural populations, with a P.E.I. “Farm Day,” including a list of participating farms where people can visit and learn. The provincial government has also enacted programs to adopt newer technologies and Nabuurs is thankful for that. His brother Ted has been a huge asset, given his experience as a teacher working with computers, and he’s parlayed that into the adoption of newer technologies for the farm.

As for closing the gap between what he, his son and his employees do, that’s an uphill climb.

“As a whole, until we start going back to smaller farms with more people directly involved, I don’t know how you can do that,” says Nabuurs. “How do you show a whole city of people where their food comes from?”

How much?

Nabuurs is just as confounded by the impact of rising land prices and related issues. As land becomes an investment tool for business interests, it’s harder for farmers to find a commodity that can make them enough money to justify the price against offers that can run four or five times what an acre of land is worth. The seller has every right to get the best price possible, and Nabuurs agrees that should be the case. Yet he wonders if the rules surrounding land use need to be changed.

“I think we need to take a good look at who owns the land and what the regulations are with it,” says Nabuurs. “It’s a very complex problem because there’s a buyer and a seller, and the highest price always comes to play — and it should be that way. I just don’t know how farmers can still afford to use this land and make a dollar on it.”

For Nabuurs, the land-use issue and its growing value are important reasons why diversifying the family’s operation pays off. The distance to markets might spell a greater need for competition, yet he maintains much of the opposite applies for P.E.I. growers. It’s a relatively small sector provincially, but there are more advantages to growing collaboratively.

“We’re small and we can’t produce very much, and most markets want quantity,” says Nabuurs. “The best thing to do is to produce what we’re producing and do it all the same way to get the highest quality possible. It’ll be easier to market than if we don’t.”

It also helps to have a friendly competition without it affecting a united approach. Nabuurs admits he likes his fields looking better than others in the area, but he’s also comfortable with asking a neighbour what they might have done differently to get their fields looking that way.

“That’s what makes the world turn — you have to share information,” he says, adding that a sense of humour also helps with the day-to-day operations. “You have to be able to laugh at what’s going on because you can’t do anything else.”

With the diversity of the family operation, Nabuurs also has to rely heavily on a sense of trust. The relationships with the staff are key to continued success. Everyone works well together, even if there are some differences of opinion.

“You have to build trust with the people you’re dealing with — your customers, the people who are providing you with capital — they have to feel as though they can trust you,” says Nabuurs. “And if the people you work with aren’t happy, then that doesn’t work well either.”

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Ralph Pearce

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