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Small farms can be profitable too

Staying small has benefits in the farming world: less costs, more time and greater agility

It’s not the size of your farm that counts, it’s what you do with it.

“It comes down to attitude,” said Kevin Hursh, a Saskatoon-based farm consultant. “Sometimes I think we feel inferior to the guys who are 5,000, or 10,000 or 15,000 acres, and running all the brand new equipment with the best technology, but we just need to look at the numbers and ask, are we happy with what we’re making? Is it profitable and can it be sustainable?”

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Speaking at the first annual CropConnect conference in Winnipeg last week, Hursh told producers that farm size isn’t necessarily indicative of productivity or profit, and yet many producers get caught in a keeping up with the Joneses scenario.

“There’s no reason for that, to hell with what everyone else thinks, as long as we’re making a good living,” he said.

The desire to link success to farm size may be rooted in the question that all producers have been asked countless times.

“We’re a funny society, you meet another farmer or even someone from the city and you tell them you’re a farmer, and the first thing they ask is, ‘oh, how many acres do you plant?’” Hursh said. “Well, I wouldn’t go up to someone in the city and ask them how much money do you make, or how big is your house? But it seems fair game to ask how many acres do you grow.”

And while he understands why people are curious, Hursh would like to see greater emphasis on the benefits moderately sized farming operations can provide.

Smaller operations often provide a more manageable work and life balance he said, and can make finding equipment easier and cheaper, because the newest and largest implements won’t be as necessary.

“Your equipment costs can be competitive and maybe even lower on a per-acres basis, and that’s a big part of being able to compete,” he said. “I think you’re also probably a little more nimble to try other crops, and identity preserve crops that might take a little more time and effort.”

That’s not to say smaller producers don’t face challenges. Hursh notes that discounts for high-volume purchases may be out of reach, and that small farms aren’t generally offered the kinds of demonstration equipment that larger farms might get.

But because smaller producers tend not to be as throughput oriented, those drawbacks don’t always matter in the day-to-day operations of a farm.

“They’re not worried about getting 400 acres seeded a day,” he said. “I can get 160 seeded, but seeded right and do the things I need to do.”

And while large farms are often renting land and financing the purchase of additional acres, Hursh points out that most operators in the 1,000- to 2,000-acre range own all of the land they farm, which further reduces expenditures.

Smaller operations are also less likely to be spread out over large distances, cutting transportation costs and travel time. Being closer to your land can mean being more familiar with its characteristics as well, allowing for targeted land management practices.

“Small can be profitable,” Hursh said.

But he added it’s every bit as important to track farm profits and expenses regardless of farm scale.

“Probably the best way of looking at it is as gross return per acre. I would say to have a farm operation in the grain industry… and to actually have the majority of your family income come from the farm, I would think you’d have to be at least $250,000 a year gross,” he said. “But you can do that with a 1,000-acre grain farm.”

Communication is also key. If the vision is to keep a farming operation small or moderately sized, all parties need to be on the same page, including spouses, business partners and any children planning to return to the farm.

However, staying small doesn’t mean becoming stagnant.

“You’ve got to do your numbers and you’ve got to manage, you’ve got to figure out what is realistic from your land base and the crops you’re suited to grow… But then look for new opportunities, look for things you’re willing to do that maybe the larger-scale operators are not willing to do,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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