It’s a familiar story. Almost 50 years ago, when Lynn and Ute Thacker started farming with Lynn’s brothers in Bow Island, Alta., their “office,” if you could call it that, was their kitchen table, and their filing system was a cardboard box.
They were producing spearmint and then added dill and finally dry leaf and catnip oil, becoming the only such operation in Canada. Catnip is a highly specialized crop and Lynn Thacker Ag Corp. became a major supplier for North America.
So, as their farm grew, they added an office to one of the farm workshops.
Soon, that lone office was not enough. In 2000, the Thackers built a stand-alone two-level office building on the farm. Its cottage-style, finished brick exterior was meant to signal a substantive future for the business. Upstairs, the office had a well-lit reception area, a boardroom and offices, with a lab in the basement.
These days, Lynn’s brother Dale runs a separate operation and Lynn and Ute run LTAC with their son Clint and daughter-in-law Robin.
Outside, the busy summer months, most of their time is spent in the office.
Upstairs, Clint handles marketing and Robin keeps the books. Downstairs, Ute, a chemist, uses the lab to store samples and evaluate essential oil compounds with gas chromatography. Because of the lab, the Thackers can custom combine oils based on customer requirements and deliver bulk orders without sending samples to outside labs for evaluation first, which has given the business a massive edge over the competition.
“As a result, we’re a premier supplier of dill oil,” says Thacker.
Shawn Hass, vice-president and portfolio manager for RBC Dominion Securities in Lethbridge, Alta., told Country Guide earlier this winter that while a majority of farmers still work from the kitchen table, a growing number of his future-oriented farm clients have offices.
It turns out there are multiple reasons why these farmers have outfitted their own offices, and they get multiple benefits from them.
In fact, it can seem each office story has its own unique elements, but each office also shares some commonalities too, like increased efficiency, more professionalism, and real business rewards.
Specialized operations like the Thackers’ often have requirements that can only be met by formalizing an office space, Hass finds, or they may require equipment that can’t sit in the shop. But then, farmers who direct-market products to end-users also need offices to meet clients. One client who is a hybrid canola seed producer needs space to keep track of breeding lines. That business is built on the integrity of lines and samples, says Hass, which means space to safely store materials is essential.
Increasingly, however, the reasons why the farm needs its own office are primarily internal. Simply put, the farm is getting too complex to manage without a centralized office system. Operations that involve more than one family need a middle ground, for instance, and it sends a very positive signal when this gives them a place to meet that evokes joint ownership.
And big operations need landing spaces for staff, says Hass: “It’s more than just the nuclear family,” he says. “You see it as farms become quasi-corporate businesses.”
Beyond the purely pragmatic, a formal office space can boost both farmers’ productivity and the farm’s professional image.
Hass sees an office as crucial to mindset. “I think it makes you a more strategic thinker because not only have you carved off time to plan and think about your business, but you now have a formal space to go to for those activities,” he says.
“A lot of farmers will tell you personal life and farming blend in together. But it helps to change the seat that you’re sitting in and get out of the house and truly get into that strategic thinking mode.”
‘A business, not a way of life’
Mark Klatt runs Diamond Acre Farms in Foremost, Alta., with his wife Janice and sons Carson and Braden.
When Klatt built his stand-alone farm office a few years ago, he had been running a vehicle export business called 4×4 Farms Inc. with his brother since 1998. The joint operation required a big office space and the building they constructed was 2,000 square feet with four offices, a boardroom, coffee room and even a gym space with a weight machine.
Now, the brothers farm separately and Klatt and his sons Carson and Braden run the farm and trucking businesses, but the space is still essential.
“We treat our farm as a business, not a way of life,” he says. “We have four full-time employees and we come to work five days a week. They come in for coffee and a morning meeting and decide what to do for the day. The year-to-year books are stored upstairs on the end of the boardroom. Not one part of my operation is in my house,” he says.
When Klatt built the office the goal was to create space to concentrate on the businesses as well as to host meetings. Recently, the boardroom came in handy for a succession planning meeting with Klatt’s family, including his daughter Logan, who is not involved in the farm business. He believes the office helps facilitate better business relationships.
But the full value of the space only became clear once it was built.
Klatt’s structure cost around $175,000 to build and takes roughly $1,000 a month to maintain, but Klatt says it’s been worth every penny.
“It’s so much added value that you don’t see it until you have it,” he says.
Thacker also believes the value of his business has been boosted by adding the farm office. “Image is important to farm businesses — you can measure companies somewhat by how they conduct themselves,” he says. “Our space demonstrates to our bankers and to our customers that we’re in it for the long haul and are set up to do it correctly. It’s been a good investment.”
The Klatts’ office, says Mark Klatt, is “overkill” size-wise but “as much of an attribute as the shop itself” to the family business.
Everyone has their own office: Carson is in charge of the sprayers and the trucks hauling the grain at harvest, and Braden manages the drills in the spring and co-ordinates the combines at harvest. Everyone can be working on separate projects, he says, without getting in anyone else’s hair. That’s the biggest reason why the office works for the Klatts: it gives everyone space to work. In the end, it’s about respect.
“Good fences make good neighbours,” he laughs.
For now, the space might feel too big, but Klatt knows his sons need room to grow the business. “They can build it how they want,” he says.