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It’s two careers

For Gordon and Sonia Decker, the key to success is to make their roles on the farm into rich, rewarding careers

Farming demands great decision making. Solid takes on agronomy, machinery, commodity markets and finance are just the price of admission these days. To thrive, farmers must deploy all that knowledge both for long-term goal-setting and also to make countless moment-by-moment decisions in the field and in the office, often under enormous pressure.

They must also make those decisions in a new kind of agriculture. Although today’s farms are still family farms, the typical farm management team today can include not only a husband and wife but also parents, siblings, grandchildren and, increasingly, aunts, uncles and cousins as well.

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To function as a high-performance team, all these family members somehow need complementary skills.

But how do you get there?

It turns out that the secret on many farms is to look at the challenge from the opposite end.

These farms ask: how do we make sure every member of our team is able to carve out a challenging and meaningful career for themselves?

This is the new question that elevates farming in the new millennium.

These farms find a way to balance the needs of the farm with the needs of the family in a way that makes both prosper.

Country Guide asked me to meet one such farming family to talk in detail about how they’ve done it.

A day in the life

I caught up with Gordon and Sonia Decker in early June. They’d just finished seeding and were into spraying. The day we chatted, they were planning to take their kids, Courtney and Colby, to a Garth Brooks concert in Saskatoon. It had been a busy week for the Deckers, as they juggled family activities with farm work. But in that sense it was also a typical week for them.

With Colby and Courtney, the Deckers focus on a balance of career and family.
With Colby and Courtney, the Deckers focus on a balance of career and family. photo: En Vogue Photography

The Deckers have allocated the production and financial/marketing work on their farm into separate roles.

Gordon takes the lead on production while Sonia heads up marketing and finances, although both contribute to each area.

So what does a day in the life look like on their East Mount Farms near Strasbourg, an hour north of Regina?

On a typical day during the growing season, Gordon is doing field work bright and early, anything from doing a pre-burn to picking rocks.

But he makes a point to come in for breakfast.

“We like to have breakfast together just because we don’t always have supper together,” says Sonia. During breakfast, the family talks about after-school activities so they know where people are going. After the kids head to school, Gordon and Sonia usually talk about their goals for the day, whether they’re in the hectic spring season or the winter.

Typically, during seeding, Sonia runs the drill until she needs to make supper. Courtney and Colby help out with meals and field work as well. If the kids need to be picked up from after-school activities, Sonia leaves the field and runs into town.

Gordon and Sonia appreciate all the after-school activities offered by their rural school — it’s important to their family, Sonia says. They also decided they wouldn’t sacrifice the kids’ chance to participate in extra-curricular activities because of the busy pace of the farm.

“Our farm is important to us but our family is more important,” says Sonia.

Yet finding that balanced routine has been a journey for the Deckers.

Gordon started farming shortly after finishing high school in the early ’90s. Today, he and Sonia farm the same land that the Decker family homesteaded in 1904. Since the turn of the 20th century, the farm has grown to just under 4,000 acres.

Initially, Gordon farmed with his brother and father. When he and Sonia married in 1998, she worked off the farm as a dental assistant.

But, as so often happens in life, things changed. Gordon’s brother left the farm to pursue other opportunities. Gordon’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2004, and by 2005, Gordon and Sonia had bought the rest of the farm.

By then Sonia had left her off-farm job. She started out in the farm office, but before long she was helping in the field, too.

But Gordon needed more help on the farm, and Sonia was busy with the kids as well. Their oldest, Courtney, was just starting school, while their youngest, Colby, was barely into his toddler years.

So Sonia turned to the International Rural Exchange, which places young adults on Canadian farms so they can learn about agriculture and expand their cultural horizons. That year the exchange had more farms looking for help than applicants, but they did have a young German woman named Dorothy who wanted to work as a nanny.

Gordon suggested they host Dorothy so Sonia could work in the field. It was her first harvest in the field full-time. For four months, Dorothy took the children on hikes and taught them German nursery songs while Sonia and Gordon farmed.

Harvest always has its share of issues, whether it’s weather or machinery break-downs or just the long hours, and that year was no exception. “But it was easy because I didn’t have to worry about my family,” says Sonia.

Making time for professional development

Professional development is big on both Gordon and Sonia’s to-do lists. Gordon is a fan of the conference Agri-Trend holds in Saskatoon every December.

“They’re very forward-thinking. And if there’s something new coming into the agronomy side or the production side of farming, you’ll see it at Agri-Trend,” he says.

But it was CTEAM (Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management) that introduced the Deckers to the nitty-gritty of farm management. The intense program, run by Agri-Food Management Excellence, covered everything from business planning to futures and options.

x photo: En Vogue Photography

Even the personality tests helped Gordon and Sonia better understand each other’s communication styles, something that’s served them well both in their marriage and their farm partnership, Sonia says. Those communication styles are apparent through my interview with them. Gordon is quieter, but they both build on each other’s thoughts throughout the conversation.

The Deckers have kept in touch with CTEAM farmers by attending organized alumni events and communicating in between. In fact, they rate their CTEAM cohort as one of the program’s strengths. Participants ran a range of farm and agri-businesses across the country, but they had similar thought processes about everything from production to human resources.

“There’s a lot of learning that goes on inside the classroom at CTEAM, but there’s a lot of learning that goes on outside of the classroom,” says Sonia. It’s one of those things, the Deckers say, that you have to experience to fully appreciate.

Time, time, time

The biggest challenge they’ve faced on the farm has been to create balance, which involves another tough challenge, time management. But professional development has helped them with that.

“With the courses we’ve done, we’ve learned a lot of things about how to be more efficient in time management. But sometimes making mistakes and learning from them helps too,” says Gordon.

Talking to other farm families about how they manage is also very helpful, Sonia adds. She says they don’t think they’ve done anything far beyond what other farm families have done, and are humbled that Country Guide contacted them for an interview.

Of course, professional development takes time, too. Even in the winter, finding that time isn’t easy. Child care was a challenge when the kids were younger. Besides the one blissful summer with Dorothy, they’d also had the kids in day care with a neighbour, then in town.

Family has been a big help, too. Both grandmothers have taken the kids when Gordon and Sonia have been away from home for professional development. Gordon’s mother, Bev Decker, lives in nearby Strasbourg and so is called upon more often.

x photo: En Vogue Photography

Sometimes the kids trump professional development, though. Courtney and Colby are older now, 15 and nearly 12, respectively, which means the Deckers don’t have too many years left with both kids at home, so they want to spend time with them. Lately that meant forgoing Crop Production Week for a family ski trip.

And keeping the household in orbit is the number one priority for the Deckers. CTEAM organized a two-week trip to Brazil — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But the Deckers decided to step back because the kids were quite busy.

“Two weeks is a long time to ask Grandma to stay with the kids and run them around,” says Sonia.

But they haven’t forgone professional development entirely. Gordon and Sonia have a divide-and-conquer strategy when it comes to conferences these days. They look at the content of the conference and decide which one of them is best suited to take it in. The other person stays home to run the household.

In some ways, easing up a little on professional development has been the right choice professionally as well. It’s been good to take the time to apply what they’ve learned to the farm, Sonia says. For example, the business plan they developed with CTEAM is a living document to be reviewed regularly.

Once they have more time, Sonia and Gordon plan to attend more CTEAM alumni events. Crop Production Week is on their wish list, too.

Sonia would also like to take more ag economic courses through the University of Saskatchewan’s distance learning program, something she did years ago. And she hopes to hit Farm Management Canada’s Agricultural Excellence conferences regularly in the future.

Farm publications and courses at the local agricultural college also offer learning opportunities that don’t require time away from home.

Gordon too is always looking for ways to improve, whether it’s something he can do himself or has to leave the farm for. “If we do see something, and we have time, we take advantage of it and do it,” he says.

The ultimate goal with the farm is to have a viable business the kids can step into — but only if they want to.

It’s a tough, ever-changing job. But even with all the advancements in technology and financial management, farming still comes down to putting the seed in the soil and smelling the dust at harvest, says Sonia.

“That’s the part of it we just love,” she says.

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