The margin between good, great and outstanding in farming is not wide. In fact, it’s quite small, but it does make a difference, and their strategy of maximizing those gains has propelled Dallas Vert and Natasha Pospisil to the podium as Alberta’s Outstanding Young Farmers for 2019.
The Kirriemuir, Alta. couple crops 11,300 acres of pulses, corn, spring and winter wheat, canola and hay, and they do it with a magic number in mind: five.
Or, more precisely, five PER CENT.
“I’m looking to cut overall inputs by five per cent,” says Vert, 35. “I’m looking for 30 cents a bushel, not $1.”
Vert explains how they target minor adjustments year-over-year, such as adding five per cent to sales, while dropping inputs by the same number, so that a lot of good things start to fall into place.
“It’s not hard for these five per cent gains,” Vert says. “If you do that in two to three areas of your farm, you’ve just doubled your income.”
It takes tight cost control. More, it also takes a commitment to monitoring and assessing their performance, but Vert has seen the results, and he doesn’t mind pushing a pencil to make his farm profitable. He knows the value both of hard work, and of facing up to adversity.
Operational change and farm growth
In 2003, Vert returned home from Olds College with an agriculture business diploma under his belt. One of his steps was to establish a custom spraying business. This was closely followed by convincing his father to sell their cow herd after losing 20 calves on 500 cows in one year. It was evidence that the latter was simply too much and wouldn’t work in the family’s renewed crop focus plan.
“I didn’t have the same love for the livestock that Dad did, and I give him credit for saying, ‘Okay, let’s change, our loss ratio was way too high,’” says Vert.
Shortly after, they began snapping up farmland contracts and within eight years they had gone from 3,000 acres to 8,000. At that same time, Vert purchased a fertilizer plant, Dryland Agro Services Ltd., from his uncle Jim. By then, his custom spraying was a little too successful and he had to scale back, something he didn’t mind.
“You always look back in life and see the stepping stones,” he says. “The spraying led the way into owning the fertilizer plant. There’s always these segues and open doors, and I think that’s why the farm is where it is today. The knowledge I’ve learned today with reps, meetings, new ideas — I don’t think I would have had that solely from farming alone.”
Just as life was clicking along and the couple were thinking about family planning, they were forced to talk about a very different type of arrangement. Vert’s father Steve was diagnosed with the rare progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) disease, which bears characteristics of both the Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s family. The disease slowly robbed Steve of life and he passed away at 62 in 2017 after a six-year battle. It forced Vert to not only rally emotionally, but also to get on with farming.
Pospisil says that the farm chores became, at times, a welcome distraction from the emotional trauma that would often result from a visit to the long-term care facility. Seeing Steve communicate through an iPad because his voice disappeared was difficult for all.
“I am grateful that my parents trusted me to make decisions for them and believed in me, despite my being the new leader,” says Vert. “I still needed their support to make the abrupt transition work successfully.”
The speedy changeover worked because of their strong family and their faith in one another.
“Nothing is possible without the support of others around me,” Vert says. “Without hesitation, Natasha manages the demands of our family so I don’t have to worry about that. (Also), close family are there listening and advising when I have a tough decision to make, or for a simple visit on a rough day.”
Risk and reward
Through an accelerated succession plan, Vert and Pospisil purchased 22 additional quarter-sections to expand their landbase to the size it is today.
His plant supplies nine different types of fertilizer annually to numerous farmers and they have two full-time agronomists on staff to work with customers. Like his spraying or the fertilizer plant, Vert is able and willing to try anything at least once.
“If you’re not changing… you’re going backwards,” he says. “I’m very willing to try something that will better the farm even though it might be different than what my dad did or grandfather did.”
For every good on-farm product, Vert says, there are three to four that aren’t much more useful on his farm than snake oil, but he is still willing to try them so he knows for himself — and for his customers.
“That’s where the fertilizer plant comes in. If we get new product, I try it on my farm before I even start trying to sell it to other farmers,” he says. “If it doesn’t work for my farmers and isn’t making them more money in two to three years, they are wasting their money.”
Vert places himself at the front of the technology curve, never afraid to give a product or an innovative idea a chance, and is just as quick to embrace or move away from it depending on the result.
“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, you can’t fault me for that,” he says. “I just put my entire farm on (digital agriculture platform) FieldView and it’s another tool in the toolshed. It’s an opportunity you can use and expand on.”
As far as those technological advances, Vert is most excited about incoming automation, whether remote-controlled drone sprayers or autonomous air seeders.
“The opportunity, as always, is to do more with less. I think we’re going to see a lot of technology changed.”
It’s this same pragmatic approach to opportunity which led Vert to sit down one day in 2014 with Grant Kosior, the founder of Global Ag Risk Solutions, or GARS, a private insurance provider that has slowly but surely picked up steam as an alternative to the provincial offerings. By the time the two finished their chinwag, Vert was sold, and today he is selling GARS’ insurance to farmers interested in another way of insuring their crops.
Alberta’s primary option, the Agricultural Financial Services Corp., doles out insurance based on production, whereas GARS is based on gross margins. Vert’s example of wheat insured at 40 bu./ac., but a farmer yields 41 and gets downgraded to feed is a nightmare scenario, but that’s the way the game is played through typical insurance providers.
“You’re losing money big time because it’s $3, where it should be $7,” he says. “We ensure 20 to 30 per cent more on a dollars-and-cents return versus what a government agency can do.”
One of the criteria any potential OYF winner is measured against is community involvement and what keeps them busy beyond the farm gate. For the family in Kirriemuir, you practically cannot enter the hamlet without them knowing. That’s because the couple own and run the general store, which Pospisil took off life support through a hard-earned grant from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada thanks to her Metis heritage. The great risk paid off and she revels in being the de facto face of the community.
With Pospisil behind the store’s till, you’ll find their two children Reese and Tegan filling up the pop cooler, making coffee or chatting with customers. Pospisil herself knew that, just like a farm, she had to diversify the store. Today, she is a dealer for NAPA and Westward Parts, a hail agent for Palliser Insurance, a postmaster, a commissioner of oaths, and manages and consults as a land agent for nearby land owners through Section 25 Management: Oil & Gas Asset Management.
“It very much is a second house,” she says. “We spend more time there than at the real house. I remain passionate about the store and how it ties the community together.”
The family is intimately involved in all the goings-on within the broader area, which encompasses nearby Compeer and Altario to form the KAC. Vert is a 15-year member of the local Lions Club board, including six as its president. As well, he’s a member of the local ag society and was instrumental in the management of a $180,000, 100-foot truck sale in Kirriemuir through grants and donations in 2015. He also advises the Altario school to develop its agricultural curriculum.
Not to be outdone, Pospisil manages the local community hall, is a parent council member and involved volunteer at their private kindergarten. She recently hosted an Indigenous event day for the school including teepee raising, bannock cooking and fish frying as well as a visit from a Cree elder who shared traditional stories, and education for national Aboriginal Awareness Day.
Pospisil likens their life to a braid with three thick strands. The first is she and Vert, the second is opportunity and hard work, and the third is family and community.
“We’ve woven these three elements together, felt the force of that support, weathered hard times and celebrated success collectively,” she says.
The couple was one of four hard-working husband-and-wife duos to be short-listed for the 2019 Alberta OYF honour.
They spent two days in Red Deer with fellow Alberta OYF alumni and were instantly welcomed by past winners, including Patrick and Cherylynn Bos, Ryan and Annette Mercer and others.
“We were quite nervous the first day meeting everybody,” says Vert. “Then, we were talking and said, ‘We just need to be ourselves… and not put a façade on.’” Vert says they were told on the opening night, “‘You guys are always welcome here, welcome to the family.’ It meant a lot even if we didn’t win.”
The couple went through two rounds of sit-down interviews with three judges, answering questions about their farm, business model and community life, and they also gave a public presentation on their farm to all alumni and invited guests.
By Friday afternoon, the judges had deliberated and reached a decision. Vert and Pospisil were crowned victorious and a culmination of hard work, perseverance and commitment to agriculture paid off with the Alberta OYF trophy and peer recognition. The honour hasn’t moved far, either.
The 2018 winners, Craig and Jinel Ference, are also Kirriemuir residents.
“It’s overwhelming because other people are seeing something in you that you don’t necessarily see in yourselves,” says Pospisil. “I’m usually just the girl with the bad hair and the kids running around the store, trying to do the bookwork and get through the day.”
For Vert, he continues to embrace life one day at a time, and believes positivity and open-mindedness are what makes he and Pospisil succeed.
“I have learned that to be a leader you have to have strength, but you also need good support behind you so that you grow and strengthen together,” he says. “If you see a roadblock in life, think, ‘We can do that.’ It’s just like corn. Guys said we can’t grow corn up here and now there’s 18,000 acres of corn.”
The couple will now compete against the six other regional winners at the national competition, held December 4-8, 2019, in Fredericton, New Brunswick.