Some people look at conventional farming and organic production and they see oil and water. The two just were not made to mix. Not only are their production methods about as different as they can be, so too are their markets.
Fiete Suhr assures anyone who holds that outlook that not only is it possible to combine the two, he’s been doing it successfully for nearly 15 years.
What makes this story even more remarkable, however, is that on the conventional side, he’s been doing it all with custom operators. He doesn’t own any of his own equipment.
Suhr farms on different parcels of land in Bruce County, with his home farm located between Port Elgin and Paisley, Ont. along the Saugeen River. It’s a parcel of 100 acres that he purchased in 2000 after the farming operation he worked for went into receivership.
“For what we were looking for, it had everything,” says Suhr, who grew up on a farm in Germany and then emigrated to Canada in 1983. “It had water, a bush and beautiful cropland, and we found it with a nice house on it. So we bought that as a starting point.”
At first, Suhr and his wife, Irene Kollmann considered starting a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, where shares in the operation could be sold and crops would be grown to meet the preferences of the shareholders. For a small farm, Suhr says, a CSA approach can be a good fit, but it’s also a lot of work requiring a lot of organization.
Almost immediately, however, an opportunity came up to rent 4,000 acres of land through some investors Suhr had worked with from Europe. So instead of developing a CSA, they headed into 2001 with a decision to start cash cropping.
Through the years, he’s had a lot of help from Irene, who acts as Suhr’s sounding board and counsel on the crucial decisions pertaining to the farm. Irene studied agriculture in Vienna, Austria, and finished with her doctorate, so she’s usually the first person he turns to for advice. During peak times in the growing season, she also helps with the day-to-day operations.
“With my previous job, I had a lot of connections to custom operators who could farm it for me, because I didn’t want to invest millions of dollars in capital without being sure that I’d have the land long term,” says Suhr, adding that he is now at 7,200 acres of rented land and 700 acres of land that is owned and dedicated to organic production.
And on the conventional side of the operation, the only equipment he owns is his pickup truck, and his phone.
As for soil types, Suhr says three-quarters of the land he works is clay-loam, with the rest being silt-loam or sandy-loam. About 30 per cent of the land in total is systematically tiled, and that can raise some challenges from year to year.
In terms of cropping, Suhr’s mainstays on the conventional side are corn, wheat and soybeans — all grown under identity-preserved (IP) conditions, so he plants no genetically modified hybrids or varieties. Occasionally he’ll also plant edible beans — usually white but he’s also tried black beans and adzukis in the past. And he’s grown spring and winter canola as well as spring wheat.
“On the organic side, it’s a little different: I grow corn, soybeans, spelt, oats, sunflower, peas, some flax and hay and as much as I can, utilize cover crops, as well,” says Suhr, adding that from a machinery perspective in the organic side of the operation, he owns his tillage and weed management equipment. “And I do have a small sheep flock with about 100 ewes.”
He’s trying to match the livestock component to the acreage for the organic production, adding that he may need to expand in order to meet those nutrient needs. He’s also purchasing organic compost until he has the flock built up.
Farming on its own is enough to create some rather imposing challenges. But mixing conventional production with organic — and then adding a reliance on custom operators to that combination — would seem to risk a nightmare of complications.
Yet Suhr takes these in stride, crediting his experience as a farm manager on an operation which was also based on custom operators.
“I’ve built that relationship over 20 years,” Suhr says, adding that he deals almost exclusively with one custom operator. “I have a long-term relationship with them that’s built on friendship and trust, and they’ve built up to meet my needs, so it’s a win for both of us.”
From an organizational perspective, Suhr doesn’t believe relying on custom work to be any more difficult than buying the equipment and hiring the staff he would need to operate it for him. He suggests it might even be a little easier, as long as you can create a relationship with a custom operator who is reliable.
If he owned half of his acreage and knew the long-term outlook, Suhr says he would definitely have his own equipment. But such decisions have to be carefully calculated.
There’s the potential disadvantage that if he supplied his own machinery, he could be building equity, rather than simply writing cheques. For now, though, he’s content to maintain his current business model.
“The main challenge is the co-ordinating — that’s No. 1,” says Suhr. “It’s the same with the big cash croppers.”
Looking forward, marketing is another potential issue, “especially since there’s more uncertainty in the market now than there was maybe 20 years ago,” Suhr says. “The fluctuations are higher, the demand is changing so much quicker — with China coming on so strong — and the uncertainty is increasing.”
Suhr sees opportunity in those marketing and organizational challenges. In fact, he sees it as a core management trait to search for the opportunity side of situations as they evolve, and then to adapt production and marketing to take advantage.
For Suhr, you might think this would be more difficult because of his reliance on custom work. After all, if he is paying custom for much of the work he needs, then he has some limits on his ability to totally manage his cost of production. (Of course, Suhr might respond that no one has absolute freedom. If you are leasing, or if you have title to the machinery, you still need to make the payments.)
But the bigger point may be this. From his point of view, Suhr’s management system enables him to diversify his cropping between organic and conventional, which in turn spreads his risks and creates new opportunities to be proactive.
“It’s opportunity, that’s the biggest challenge,” says Suhr. “The organic gives me some risk management — a second leg to stand on. It acts differently than the conventional market, and it gives me some flexibility and risk protection.”
One of the strengths required for production of this type, he adds, is patience, especially working with custom operators. There will be the odd day, he says, when he really wants to get the crop harvested, yet the combine might not show up on schedule because the custom operator is a field or two behind. That means it’ll be there the next day, and Suhr needs the patience to work with that.
“I can be patient because I know these people who are working with me are doing their best to accommodate me, and it’s a great relationship that has been grown,” says Suhr. “I am patient with them and they are patient with me — it’s a give and take.”
The other unique quality that Suhr brings to his farming operation is this one-of-a-kind business blend. With his experience in both conventional and organic production, he’s impossible to pigeon-hole as one or the other, because he’s both.
“I learn a lot — I go to all of these conferences as much as possible, and I go to the same on the organic side, as much as possible,” he says, noting it’s not a matter of one or the other; there has to be room for both. “There are strengths on both sides, and it’s a synergy that helps me, and I think it’s better because you get some of the good of the conventional and some of the good of the organic.”
On a personal note, Suhr views the organic system as a better plan to follow, in the long term. At the same time, he’s not judgmental about that perspective. The future will tell farmers which way is the best, he says, and the voice of the consumer telling growers what they want will create a sense of direction.
Whether it’s a consumer base that demands an end to gestation crates in sow barns or the end of neonicotinoid insecticides in corn and soybean production, farmers need to be more open to whatever kind of production practices consumers demand, Suhr says. The only stipulation is that farmers must be paid for that value-added management.
“As a consumer, if you want to have an impact on agriculture, buy or ask for what you believe in,” says Suhr. “Don’t just complain and still buy what’s provided.”
Should other farmers go this way?
Asked if he advocates other farmers trying his approach, Suhr responds that success lies not only in diligence and attitude, but in your own skillset.
His background is in economics, so he likes working with numbers. But other farmers have their own individual strengths, and those strengths have to be woven into their business planning.
Above all, says Suhr, there has to be a drive to succeed that creates an attitude that success is achievable, if not inevitable.
“You sit down, you make your business plan, and see what works for you,” says Suhr. “The key is you have to believe in what you’re doing. As long as you believe in it and the numbers work out, that’s the way you should go.”
“You need a strategy,” Suhr says. “Then follow it and do it, and you will be more successful, as long as you do it and do it with passion.”
This article was originally published as “Who needs equipment?” in the Feb. 17, 2015 issue of Country Guide