By Trevor Bacque
When Giles Norek thinks about where the family farm was 50 years ago compared to today, he pauses and draws a long, measured breath. The farmer from Gerald, Sask., is well aware of the value of hard work and has made a professional habit of never getting too comfortable.
“As you go through the trials and tribulations of life, you have to reassess quite often, always aware of where you’re at,” says the 68-year-old.
For Giles, his life has always been an epitome of toil, underscored by his Czech father, Jaroslav (Gerry) Mirko Norek. The elder Norek was born on a farm near Plunkett, Sask., in 1917. In 1935, he took a job as a hired hand in Gerald, where the family farm is still situated to this day.
The farm was originally homesteaded by another Czech family who, after unsuccessfully farming in Mitchell, South Dakota, decided they may have a better go of it in Saskatchewan.
Nine years into his stint as a farmhand, Gerry married Mary Glazer. As a wedding present, Gerry’s employer gifted him the worst of his six quarter sections of land. Gerry was ecstatic and knew this was a result of unrequited labour and dedication to his boss.
Over the next 15 years, Gerry began to rent more land from his employer, eventually buying out the entire farm in 1959. He and Mary also had four children during that time, including Giles, born in 1951.
For Giles, his earliest memories were standing in a field or near a pen, observing his father farm and manage cattle. By the time Giles was an older teen, he was eager and physically able to contribute in a meaningful way. However, there was as much agony as there were advances for Giles as there was for his father decades prior.
“We thought that land was easily attainable and we wanted to farm bigger and better,” he says. “Of course, we had lots of growing pains and issues.”
One of those issues was expanding from 11 quarters in 1966 to 68 quarters in 1968, purchasing three, all-new IHC 915 self-propelled combines from Rocanville for $21,500 a piece. As they left, a farmer had watched the entire transaction play out and told Gerry and Giles they were out of their minds.
“I just kind of smiled and thought, ‘well, we hope we’re not,’” says Giles.
Then there were the animals. Gerry’s bovine infatuation was something Giles first embraced, then tolerated and finally, by the end, loathed.
“My father still wanted to maintain a 500-cow operation until the end of 1978, but at that point, I had had enough,” says Giles, who plainly states that he “took a few fists in the face” for his decision to send the cows out to pasture for good. Just like his father, he too had ideas of how an efficient farm should run.
With the sole focus turning to grain farming, Giles, his father and his new brother-in-law Douglas Lomenda, who married Giles’ sister Laura, continued a rapid expansion of the farm throughout the 1970s.
In addition to Douglas, his six brothers also worked on the farm in the early years. The farm was able to greatly expand, and many hands made light work with six additional brothers offering tremendous effort alongside Giles and Douglas at various stages.
They were helped in part by better canola varieties as well as new and improved crop protection products. However, they simply couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, so they did what they knew: work.
“We kept ourselves loaded in debt buying as much of the land as we were renting … I never ever thought I had it made well enough to think it was ever easy,” says Giles. “We were so close to insolvency so many times, it was a scary situation.”
As the decade drew to a close, the trio had chipped away long enough and hard enough at their seven-figure debt to hit $0.
They could hardly believe it. The same time they hit zero, canola hit $8 per bushel.
“We grew a tremendous crop,” he says. “It was the first time we grew a good crop at a good price and sold 110 car loads of canola in one year. Fifty car loads were in storage from three previous cropping years.”
However, the men’s new-found wealth also came with a lack of financial understanding since they only understood debt. They were hit with just under $1 million income tax and began to once again drown in red-inked balance sheets.
The other shoe dropped once the ’80s hit, along with 18 per cent interest rates on farm loans and 24 per cent on overdraft loans.
“We came out of debt with very bad management and went right back into debt which damn near sunk us in the early ’80s,” says Giles, who vowed never to quit, despite the massive setback.
“I wouldn’t allow myself to fail. I couldn’t have handled the option of turning tail and quitting on something that wasn’t working. Keep adjusting until you make it work, but make it work. I’m just as stubborn as a Czech could be. I never ever thought of giving up.”
Douglas’ son Clayton began farming in 1990, and three years later, Gerry was officially bought out as the farm grew to more than 10,000 acres. Gerry spent his remaining years between the farm and Czech Republic before passing away in 1999. With his death, Giles, Douglas and his son Clayton were left to their own devices.
By 2000, Giles’ son Dallas and his wife Audra returned to the farm and joined the fray.
However, unlike his cousin Clayton, who has farmed full time since 16, Dallas needed to pressure test his agricultural intentions. He studied agronomy at the University of Saskatchewan before working four-and-a-half years as a grain merchant in Saskatoon.
While he says the book work “was fine,” he learned more outside the classroom than inside.
“I poured my heart into the socializing and seeing how other people farmed, what systems they had and how they evolved their farm,” says Dallas. “It’s not so much the book smarts, but the connections you make.”
With Dallas back, the four joined forces and farmed dutifully together for a dozen years until 2012.
That year, Douglas, one of the farm’s driving forces, passed away after a four-year battle with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy.
It was a difficult day for each family member in their own way. For Giles, who had been through some of the highest highs and lowest lows of his entire life with his brother-in-law, he casts his gaze away as his eyes become glassy.
“He was the best partner one could ever wish for,” he says.
With Dallas and Clayton young and brimming with ideas, they were excited to take the farm to the next level just like their fathers.
The farm employed too many good people who simply weren’t being given full-time hours, so, after thinking long and hard, Norenda Construction began in 2007.
“We had to create another company whereby we could provide meaningful work and full-time employment for several key players in our operation,” says Giles. “We couldn’t have them in at a part-time capacity farming. Because it’s so erratic with the way you deliver grain and move fertilizer … it’s go like hell, then, in two weeks, there’s nothing happening.”
Their 35 full-time workers spread their responsibilities between typical farm activities half the year and perform a host of activities under the Norenda Construction banner the rest of the time.
The family established gravel pits and supplied rural municipalities, SaskTel, SaskEnergy and private farms for projects. They’ve cleaned up derailments, custom hauled commodities, installed rig matting, custom snowplow, gravel stemming seismic holes and a host of other jobs. Their 10 super-Bs and 10 delivery trucks keep operations running seven days a week.
Today, they’ve settled into a preferred niche of being a subcontractor to contractors, not holding all the risk and capital costs, yet still providing service and expertise.
“We’re not bidding against people, we’re just supporting people,” says Dallas. “As we back away from the bidding, people will essentially embrace you a little more, knowing that … we’re getting asked to help on jobs rather than bidding on the jobs themselves.”
In addition to having the construction side sorted out under Dallas’ control, the rest of the Norenda Farms brand is carved up neatly, too. Giles manages all land purchases and renting and equipment trading, while Clayton is the farm manager, making all agronomic decisions and plans for what will be grown. All the marketing decisions are also done as a team.
However, they’re all quick to deflect credit away from themselves and onto the hands and hearts that help Norenda Farms beat each day.
“It’s not three men running the show,” says Dallas. “We have amazing men who take leadership and know what has to be done. They just amaze us every day with their work ethic. If you find the right people, you can do anything.”
CONTINUED FARM GROWTH AND TRANSITION
With the unwritten philosophy of never stop working and don’t get too comfortable with what you have, the farm has continued rapid expansion. A recent purchase and rental of more than 50 quarters in 2014 has made the farm’s footprint more than 44,000 acres, according to Giles. Between 10,000-11,000 of those acres are left as natural bush land, wetland and valley land and acres for wildlife.
“I thought that we would have worked hard and made a living, but I never envisioned or believed we would have owned more than a township and rented almost as much as a township,” he says.
Another development in recent years has been the industry trend of greater on-farm storage capacity. Norenda Farms is no different. The farm has approximately four million bushels of storage and they have been a custom store for Louis Dreyfus Commodities, as well.
“It gave us a little bit of profit out of our bins rather than just grain storage,” says Giles. “It was the ability to make an investment into the storage.”
Part of the bin storage includes eight 300,000-bushel Westeel bins from Wall Grain. All bins have full aeration, integrate into a leg system with drag elevators on top and a large central leg. Everything is automated and self-unloading while all bins are outfitted with individual augers and are temperature and moisture controlled.
The farm setup was initially Norek–Lomenda at 50-50, and today the agreement is still half Norek shareholders and half Lomenda shareholders. Just like the farm name, the first four letters are from the name Norek and the final four letters are from Lomenda, with the ‘e’ overlapping both.
With Giles and his wife Carol spending more time in Arizona throughout the winter, there is less responsibility, but he is still as involved, just with different aspects of the farm.
Dallas and Audra have four children and Clayton and his wife Kristin have three children, with many demonstrating an active interest in the farm.
“I’m open to any amount of the grandchildren taking an active role in the farming, girls and boys,” says Giles. “I have no doubt the farm will flow into the fourth generation.”
For Giles, 51 years into farming full time, he can still hear the words of wisdom from his regimented father, Gerry, saying, “If we rent lots of lands, and work hard, there will be lots for everybody.”
It’s true, Giles believes, but he’s still not ready to hang up his hat, despite logging more than 900 hours in the tractor last year.
“I’m not pulling wrenches and changing cultivator shovels … but I haven’t even thought of retiring,” he says.