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A young farmer’s business acumen wows Toronto judges

Brett Sheffield didn’t think farming was in his future, but five years ago he made an abrupt U-turn and came home to start with 160 acres.

The 26-year-old has since expanded his land base to 1,700 acres, and is nearly finished a two-year agricultural diploma program at the University of Manitoba.

He also became owner of the local fitness centre in town last year.

Buoyed about the prospects of being a full-time farmer and running the in-town business, he’s as comfortable calling himself a businessman as farmer. Taking a business approach has helped him see the huge opportunities in agriculture, he says.

“As a business person you’re always looking for opportunities, rather than threats,” he said. “I’m always looking for the opportunities.”

That outlook, aptitude and his skills for business recently earned him a prestigious award.

He was named the 2012 Student Entrepreneur champion for Manitoba and Central Canada in the Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship Program, a 25-year-old national charitable organization dedicated to teaching and igniting young Canadians to create brighter futures for themselves and their communities.

Sheffield so impressed a panel of 30 judges in Toronto, he beat out four other student entrepreneurs possessing MBAs from Ontario and Quebec. He’ll be in Calgary later this month to compete for a national title.

Good preparation

He credits the agriculture diploma program for preparing and training him to take an entrepreneurial approach to farming. He really benefited from being able to run ideas and questions past instructors, he said.

“Scott Corbett (School of Agriculture instructor) was my mentor and he was great through the whole process, helping me with any questions I had and he always made time for me,” he said. “That was almost more valuable than anything else.”

He and his father, with whom he shares farm equipment, are now contemplating merging the 1,700 acres they each have to create one farm. Sheffield is also developing a value-added venture, but not divulging details just yet.

“Next fall I can let you know what I’m up to,” he says with a sly smile.

This is the first time one of the school’s students has been nominated for the ACE, said Michelle Rogalsky, director of University of Manitoba’s School of Agriculture, noting she is pleased to see him getting this recognition.

Sheffield is not only farming full time, but going to school and taking over a business in his hometown at the same time.

“He’s an extraordinary young man,” said Rogalsky. “He has a passion for agriculture. He cares about Pilot Mound. And he cares about Manitoba and the future of farming.”

Rogalsky said Sheffield’s ACE recognition sends an important message about complexity of skills farmers must now have.

“You need to be an extraordinary manager,” she said, adding the diploma program is all about creating these kinds of managers. The ACE judging process is actually similar to what they put their students through, she added.

“Students put together a management plan that they have to present, and they go through all the steps, doing the budgeting, financial projected statements, analysis of risk, analysis of their marketing. And they have to defend how they came up with those choices,” she said. “That’s what Brett did when he went to Toronto.”

Sheffield said several judges told him afterward they really don’t know much about agriculture or the farm business, and that he’d painted a whole new picture of Prairie agriculture for them.

Not just a way of life

He said he hopes talking about this award helps more recognize the kind of business farming actually is, and why hard-working, smart people are attracted to it, he said.

“People aren’t doing it just as a way of life,” he said. “It’s big business and a very high-risk business.”

But this young farm owner is no pinstriped suit either.

The ball-capped 26-year-old is rooted in his home community. Waiting to get back to seeding barley last week, Sheffield said the other key influence on him, besides school, has been family and growing up in a rural community.

“I grew up playing on all sorts of teams in the area. And my parents are very involved in volunteering so I try to help out where I can,” he said, adding that’s taught him the value of helping others, not merely looking after No. 1.

“Growing up in Pilot Mound has definitely helped me have sound roots and a sense of community. I think that’s helped me along the way to grow and be a better business person.”

He bought the Stay Fit Health Club not just because it presented a good business opportunity. “It was important for our community. We didn’t want to lose that.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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