By Natalie Noble
With all the challenges facing Canadian agriculture today, more and more farmers are expanding business to improve stability and security. Grant and Colleen Dyck of Artel Farms near Niverville, Man., showcase this trend for thinking outside the box with their knack for diversification, genuine commitment to the people in their community, and their constant appreciation for their blessings, apparent through their philanthropy.
The ability to pull their many priorities together comes largely from the couple’s faith. They are reminded of this daily through their farm’s spectacular Prairie views. “Part of the beauty of living somewhere so flat is the incredible horizon and the view it affords you. The sunsets here are incredible,” says Colleen.
“We can’t talk about our lives without sharing our faith, and everything we do belongs to God,” says Grant. “We are humbled by the occupation we are in, the faith and trust that it takes to grow a crop and the fact that most of our issues are First-World problems.”
Farming 15,000 acres of mixed cropland and raising four children, Grant and Colleen have ventured into a grain storage, drying and handling facility; the development and sales of their unique T-REX Ditcher; a small heavy-equipment arm; an energy bar brand that has gone international; and various charitable pursuits close to their hearts.
Where it all Began
The story of Grant and Colleen began in Niverville. While she was born and raised in the Ottawa Valley, both sets of Colleen’s grandparents farmed in Manitoba. Spending summers on the farm up until her parents moved home, Colleen finished high school in Niverville and then moved to Edmonton, vowing to never marry a farmer.
Backing up just a little to the 1960s, Grant’s father, Jake Dyck, purchased and farmed the land on which Artel Farms sits today. With his sudden passing in the year 2000, Grant and his sister, Rachel, stepped up and bought the farm, including all remaining shares from his mother. They partnered together and ran the farm for about five years until Rachel and her husband, Jared, made the decision to move on.
By 2001, Colleen had returned home and married a farmer. Together they continued to operate Artel Farms, growing oats, ryegrass, wheat, soybeans, corn, sunflowers and canola with their core group of nine employees and around 12 seasonal employees toward their common goals. “Artel, by definition, is a group of people working together for a common goal. It’s our ethos and our culture,” says Grant.
Fifteen thousand acres of farmland produces a massive amount of crop to be put in the bin every year. Artel Farms runs two 1890 air seeders and two DB 60 planters with an arrangement to bring in more power if necessary. “Traditionally we’ve run 48 S680 combines. Our windows are short, and we recognize this isn’t a great logistics match for carts and trucks, but it keeps the wheel turning,” says Grant. “We’re moving more into running two teams and having the ability to bring in more horsepower when necessary.”
Artel Farms direct markets wherever possible, utilizing the rail at their old elevator. When markets and currency allow, they ship stateside as well due to proximity to the 49th parallel. “The main focus is to aggressively move product in October, November, December and play options for the remainder of the year,” says Grant. “Granted this is in theory and not always practiced.”
Asked about their biggest challenge in taking over the farm operation, Grant says lack of experience proved to be a roadblock at times. In identifying this, he and Colleen have been able to come through it in large part because of the people around them.
“We’re really big on surrounding ourselves with good people who are quite considerably more accomplished than us in many respects, filling the gaps where we need it,” says Grant. “My theory in agriculture is people first, land second, steel third. It’s important to us never to be in the position where we have to lay people off. So, we’ve diversified into other arms of the business where we’re able to provide employment.”
Variety is the Spice of Life
Grant and Colleen have diversified their business in numerous ways, including off-farm ventures. One major branch is Artel Inland, the Dyck family’s grain drying, handling and storage operation.
“Artel Inland was, by design, over capacity so we could have a high enough capacity dryer and space to serve our needs and those of the local area. Second to that is not having infrastructure limiting how many acres of corn we plant” says Grant.
Fifteen years ago, Grant and his partner, Uli Gehrer, also began manufacturing the first T-REX Ditcher, with T-REX standing for terra excavator. “My partner invented the first T-REX, and we’ve been running them going on 16 years,” he says. “We released the self-contained unit three years ago when we finally found a driveline that could handle the torque and clutching of a 300-to-500-hp tractor. Now we’ve essentially got the biggest rotary drainage unit on the market. Some of the things that sets it apart are that it can be used in wet conditions, its high speed, durability and the lack of cleanup required as it throws 200 feet.”
Clearly Grant had been tirelessly diversifying the farm since the new millennium, but, not to be outdone by her husband, Colleen had been cooking up something of her own. While breaking her promise and marrying that farmer, she had returned to the farm with an interest in entrepreneurship after studying business in college. “It’s pretty funny how things came full circle, and I’m so grateful it turned out that way,” she says.
What she was cooking up though, didn’t go from concept to customer overnight.
After working in the aerospace field, she found herself craving the outdoors. “I had thought I wanted a corporate life with a corner office, but turned out to be totally wrong,” she says. “I decided I was going to take a year off and work somewhere where I didn’t care how much they paid me, but it had to be connected to my passions.”
Landing a position at the first Mountain Equipment Co-op store in Winnipeg in 2002, Colleen spent that year surrounded by canoes, kayaks and all the things that reminded her of what she loved: the great outdoors. This led her to train for triathlon, and on her frequent commute from the city’s swim practices at the Pan Am Pool to her home in the country, she began using energy bars to combat her post-swim hunger and energy needs.
“What I found on the market didn’t really strike me as quality,” she says. “Because of my connection to farming and knowing that we grow some of the best superfoods on the planet here, I thought, ‘surely I can do better.’
“After doing a ton of research in my kitchen, I came up with my own bar. It was a by-necessity evolution. I had no intention to start a food business, no background in nutrition, just a passion for research, food and fuel,” says Colleen.
A throwback to a time before our society and culture made food so complicated, Colleen chose the name GORP, an acronym from the 1960s for ‘good old raisins and peanuts.’ “It’s simple energy food. Throw some peanuts, raisins and seeds in a ziplock bag and it always tastes better on the mountain top, lake or trail,” she says. “It’s also to remind people to get outside and remember that the best things in life truly are free – your community and the outdoors.”
And when her friends and family started sharing their feedback, her idea for the GORP bar business was born. “I thought, ‘I’m taking this to the next level, taking over the world with my energy bar in the next two years,’” she recalls. “It didn’t happen that way. I found out very quickly that food science is really complicated, and it took us a good six or seven years of research and development to get a shelf-life test so it would last without preservatives.”
Colleen worked with staff at the provincial government’s Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie on real-time shelf-life testing over six-month periods per test on her formulations until she found the breakthrough formula.
Despite working persistently to perfect the GORP recipe and logistics to boot, Colleen has also managed to devote her time to raise their four children, Georgia, 14, Oskar, 12, Leo, 10 and Moses, 7. Amazingly, she still has time left at the end of a week to get out to the lake with her family now and again.
“Through her tenacity, Colleen has been a terrific example for a lot of young women who work with her and those who see what she’s doing,” says Grant. “Between juggling the kids and only working a few days a week when we first started up, to the full-time extent she’s at now, she still maintains her work-life balance all the way through.”
Fuelling Up on GORP
This June, GORP will enter its sixth year on the market, sold in approximately 2,000 stores and counting. They recently added Bulk Barn and Loblaws to their list of retailers.
“Being in the food business after the first five years means you’re in the 10 per cent margin because 90 per cent of food companies fail during that time. This was a big year for us to get through,” says Colleen.
Throughout the evolution of GORP, she has remained adamant in her commitment to staying customer-centric.
“I didn’t ever compromise on the recipe or the cost of production. We put good doses of high-quality ingredients into these bars. We’re not just sprinkling them in for the sake of the labels, despite pressure along the line,” she says. “I never compromised on the quality of the bar and I think that’s why we have such a passionate following of loyal people.”
Colleen makes it a priority to honour her customers in small ways that often become bigger deals. For example, GORP’s re-sealable packaging brings advantages such as not breaking open and making a mess in bags and helping consumers to make healthy portion decisions. Then there is the larger issue of reducing food waste. “It’s good for our planet, and our budgets, to reduce the amount of food that is thrown away half-eaten,” she says.
Committed to the Causes They Care About
As a farmer and a food manufacturer, Colleen worries about the use of fear in food marketing. While she is sympathetic to legitimate food sensitivities and allergies, she worries about groups who treat such issues as health claims. “We’re very careful to never use fear in any of our marketing, and also not to purport something as a health claim when it’s not.”
The Dycks strongly believe that farmers need to stand up for the way they operate in Canada, and GORP products serve as a platform to educate and drive conversation in the general public.
“I’m passionate about talking about the things that are good in our food, keeping our eyes open and having honest meaningful conversations. When we know better, we do better,” says Colleen. “As marketers, producers and growers, we have a burden of responsibility on us to realize we have a huge impact on the way people feel about food. That’s a powerful relationship.”
Another priority for the couple is their rural community. By designing her production shifts around school-bus schedules, Colleen found she could add some local value. Stay-at-home moms could then work flexibly and get out of the house during school hours and still be there for their children.
Creating jobs in the community is a point of pride for the Dycks. “We recognize how blessed we are and we’re fortunate in that we’ve never had to place a hiring ad for the farm,” says Grant. “And our branding represents our culture here. We have a lot of diversity on our teams from all backgrounds. We have a 16 to 80 years age gap. Unless you count seven-year-old Moses because our kids are involved, too.”
“To be able to employ people in our community feels really good for both of us,” agrees Colleen.
The Dycks also have a strong involvement in their church. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) is also an important cause to them. The CFGB partners with farmers across the country and is matched by the Canadian government to end hunger around the world. Colleen sits on the board for the local youth drop-in centre. “It takes a village and I strongly believe that we have to be there in our community for families who need others once in a while when they’re going through tough times,” she says.
The Dycks share a passion for ending the need around the world when it comes to food. In fact, it is so important to them that for three years in a row, Grant has set aside hundreds of acres of Artel’s land for sponsorship at $300 per acre with proceeds donated to the Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) CFGB account. Titled Grow Hope, last year the proceeds of this initiative totalled $1,000,000.
Grow Hope is hoping to hit 500 acres of donated land on Artel Farms combined with other grow partners this year, and Grant is also hoping to see the project scale up across the country. “We have partners now outside Manitoba and it’s really starting to get some good momentum,” he says. “We’ve tripled the project over three years, and it’s opening up to the point where we’re looking for more farmers to participate in the contribution area and make this into a Prairie-wide effort.”
As a team, the Dycks are always looking to the future and they have ambitious goals for all their projects. For one, Grant aims to reach his self-imposed target by selling 22 more T-REX Ditchers this year. “We’d be happy to ship them out West,” he says.
A recently-renovated old machine shed on the farm became the new home to GORP production in April, a welcome relief to Colleen and her team as they worked elbow to elbow in her basement while they rolled out GORP bars by hand, an army of women and their rolling pins.
“We’re also concentrating on some really neat export partnerships, getting into the U.S. and developing a line of breakfast oatmeal for a company in China as well,” says Colleen.
Grant will continue to stay proactive in advancing Canadian agriculture for the next generation. “I think the next 35 years are going to be the biggest agriculture’s ever seen, but we’re really going to have to exercise black-belt management and stay proactive. We can’t just ‘zombie farm,’ sit back, grow and hope for prices and production to rise. These are going to be challenging years coming up, but I’m still optimistic in the long run,” he says.