John Burns had spent eight years getting a PhD in chemistry and two years working at the Department of National Defence in Kingston, Ont., but his Saskatchewan farm roots began to beckon and he jumped at the chance to get out of the lab and do some off-campus teaching, which led him to the area near Wynyard, Sask., where he and wife Linda decided they would establish their own family farm in 1975.
Their daughter Kim was just one year old when Linda and John put down their new farming roots. Sons Dustin, Joel and Tyler were yet to be born, but it was out of the couple’s concern for their children’s future, and in their belief that they could create a sort of culture where everyone could find a purpose and a place if they wanted it, that they shaped their farm.
“The farm evolved out of my own personal philosophy. It was a place to experiment with the way we did agronomy. I felt there were better ways to manage the land and create better opportunities,” says John, who was an early adopter of no-till farming in the area. “The farm was always for family, sort of a roots thing, a reference point as to who they are, and where they belong, a place to come back to even if they weren’t necessarily involved in the farm.”
John and Linda started with two quarters of land, but they had a vision to grow into a sizable operation that would offer benefits in terms of efficiencies. But with no family support to back them up, they were also trying to create an element of safety, evocative of an era when neighbours helped each other out.
“Any land purchases or lease arrangements were with other neighbours who had a similar philosophy,” says John. “There’s a benefit to working together from a safety and confidence aspect, because you’ve got some collegiality. Somebody knows where you are if you need a hand. You’re not trying to pull a tractor out by yourself.”
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A vision fulfilled
Windy Poplars Farm has pretty much fulfilled the vision the couple had 40 years ago. It has evolved into a group of four farms, all co-operating with each other and working towards the same goals and purpose. John and Linda still live on the original farm site.
In 2002, their oldest son Dustin left his engineering job and established Four Winds Farm with wife Kristi and their five children.
In 2008, youngest son Tyler and his wife Janelle joined the group and developed Wayward Wind Acres.
The fourth owner/operator of the group is not related, but neighbour Doug Reeve grew up with Dustin and helped out on the farm and is almost like a brother. Doug left his engineering job in 2003 to farm full time with his wife Bonita and children at Windy Ridge Acres.
Each partner owns their own land but they jointly own all other assets, such as buildings and machinery, and they make management decisions collectively.
“Each of us has a percentage of ownership, so we’re not worried about whose crop is getting harvested when, or who yielded what,” says Dustin. “We tackle the whole operation as a single entity when we’re making plans and decisions around what to plant and timing of harvest and those kinds of things.”
Flexibility and strong communication have been key components of the group’s fluid evolution and are helping them to transition to the next generation.
“It’s a loose arrangement where we become aware of what is needed and then react to fill those roles,” says John. “Over time, everyone finds what they feel comfortable with and are best at. We have well-educated people, who know how to problem solve and we generally do that as a group. We all believe it’s important that everyone is comfortable with the risk that each member is willing to take because farming is all about managing risk, and there are so many variables.”
Communication is another crucial component of the management process, because flexibility isn’t possible without everyone being aware of what’s going on, and it’s also a vital part of the transition process itself, says Kristi.
“We’ve been having weekly meetings when we’re not seeding and harvesting, and I continue to be really impressed at how that has brought a level of comfort to the next generation,” she says. “On a weekly basis, we’re being exposed to all of the different sides of management, and we’re talking about them and taking on different roles. That continued exposure, and setting time aside as a management team to look at all aspects of the operation, and allow everyone to vote and have input has made a big difference for us and is building confidence for our ability to carry the farm forward.”
A multi-dimensional family
The Burns family is as multi-dimensional as their farm. Joel and Kim, two of John and Linda’s children, have off-farm careers, although Kim does assist with the bookkeeping. As for the farming children, maybe it’s the differences in their educational backgrounds and interests that allow them to work so well together. It certainly can’t be a dull conversation around the kitchen table.
Dustin took an engineering degree at the University of Saskatchewan and worked for four years as a design engineer for a farm equipment manufacturer in Saskatoon before deciding that he pretty much shared his parents’ philosophy about farming and wanted to farm fulltime.
Kristi had no farming background, and studied theatre and English literature in university, but took a master’s degree in martial arts, which she teaches locally, as well as home-schooling the couple’s five children and handling a lot of the human resources work on the farm.
“I married an engineer but it turns out he was a farmer,” Kristi says. “When we moved back to the farm, we just decided to embrace it, and for us it makes so much sense for the both of us to be working towards a common goal.”
Tyler took and an arts and science degree at the University of Saskatchewan, and wasn’t always sure that he’d come back to farm. “My education didn’t necessarily reflect an interest in coming back but there was probably only one summer I didn’t come home to help out,” he says. “Once I’d gone through a four-year degree in a six-year term, I just found myself coming back for good.”
Trust is the twine
But trust is the twine binding the group together. “The key to me is trust and respect. Everybody is important, and everybody’s ideas are important and everybody’s involved or invested,” says John. “Whether that’s owner/operators, family members, employees and even people we deal with in the input, financing and the marketing aspects, everybody has an interest in the success of the farm.”
Windy Poplars Farm grew out of a vision that the next generation shares, which has a long-term focus with sustainability of the farm top of mind, says John. “When we started the farm, the thought was that the land belongs not to us but to generations, the opportunity comes through the land and hopefully you have the type of culture that respects land, people and individuals’ needs and interests.”