By Angela Lovell

Chantelle Rivers Photography

Kristjan Hebert admits he is addicted to the game of farming, and it’s definitely one of the reasons that his farming operation, Hebert Grain Ventures, has grown from 5,500 to 30,000 acres over the past 15 years. 

“Nobody paid me to play hockey when I was little. I got up at 6:30 on a Saturday to go to a hockey tournament for free. That’s how we build the farm,” he says. “If you’re addicted to the game of what you do, it’s like playing sports when you’re young, but the outcome is you do a better job and you make more money.”

Hebert rented his first 500 acres from his parents, Louis and Karen, when he was 16. After attending university and working for Meyers Norris Penny as a CPA during the winter months, he and his wife, Theresa, moved back full time to the family farm in Moosomin, Saskatchewan. Their return precipitated some changes.

“Mom and dad had to work hard in the years it took to go from 320 acres to 3,000, but it got to the point where dad at times called it a monster because he couldn’t get away from it,” Hebert says. “He still loved the farm, but at times it became all-consuming. It wasn’t quite big enough for two or three full-time people and keeping one person around was tough because they didn’t have much of a job description other than ‘you do what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it.’”

Making changes

Hebert believed the best way to keep growing was to develop a team that would allow them to grow out of having to do everything themselves, but as the farm expanded, he and his dad didn’t always share the decision-making easily.

“Dad and I are both leaders and stubborn, so our most awkward time in succession was when we were at 8,000 acres.” Hebert was 28 at the time and his dad was only 50. “But we went really fast from 8,000 to 16,000 acres and at that point, we just had to trust each other. I’m good at the numbers, the financial statements and purchasing, and dad’s good at projects, improving land and being out in the field. There was so much work, we couldn’t be double-checking on each other or be worried about each other’s decisions; we just had to do our jobs.”

The Heberts also split off the cattle side of the operation to be overseen by Hebert’s brother, Kyle, as a separate entity, although they still collaborate and help each other out.

“I love business and grain and don’t like cows, and my brother doesn’t like grain and loves cows. As one business, it probably wasn’t going to work, so we split it into two parts,” Hebert says. “We’re eight miles apart. I seed his land for feed and he’s a welder, so if I need him, he comes. We work well together, and I think it has made our relationship stronger.”

The importance of people

When Hebert left MNP, he had the goal of growing the farm to around 8,000 acres. Today, he doesn’t care how many acres he farms because he has realized that growth is less about the land base and more about the people involved.

“I don’t care if I farm 8,000 or 100,000 acres,” he says. “If I have good people, we can do a better job because people buy into the idea and there’s always ways to grow within your position because the farm’s growing. You might be an air seeder, sprayer and combine driver, but it’s way different doing it when there’s one machine in the field versus six or 10. If there’s growth in your job all the time, it gets exciting.”

When Hebert finds somebody he thinks could be useful to the farm, he brings them on and then worries about what they are going to do.

“The struggles we had early on with how much we were working is what led to our growth strategy,” he says. “A lot of people think the bigger you get, the more people you have, the more difficult it is, but I’ve always thought the other way. Every time we had the chance to hire a good person, we hired them.”

Hebert does add that he says all of this with a smile; early in the growth stages, he hired Jeff Warkentin as COO, who is also a junior partner in the farm. “Jeff is significantly better than me at the people part of the business. His skill set complements my vision extremely well,” he says.

That business model has also opened up opportunities and led to new enterprises that are complementary to the farm operation.

Although Hebert is a CPA and enjoys the financial side of the business, the operation had grown to where he needed to hire a chief financial officer (CFO), but didn’t need one full time. So, when he hired Evan Shout for the role, they partnered to start Maverick Ag (a risk and financial consulting company) and then Farmer Coach (a farm coaching consultancy), with Shout spending half his time helping other farmers. 

“We found the industry was craving this knowledge and didn’t know where to get it,” Hebert says. “Maverick Ag and Farmer Coach grew out of that need. It is about trying to help the industry by sharing some of the education and processes we have built so they can build their own operation with a similar mindset and values. Over time, that creates collaboration when it comes to negotiation on policy or working together on projects and things like that.”

Living a legacy

It’s something that ties into the farm’s legacy statement that hangs on the wall behind Hebert’s desk as a reminder to everyone of why they do what they do.

“Our definition of success for our operation is that the land, the financial statements, the community and the industry are in a better position generation after generation,” Hebert says. “That led us to look at what we are good at. We’re not just good at growing grain or financials; we enjoy solving agriculture’s puzzles, which means we’re never done; we are always finding new pieces.”

It’s not always easy to live up to such a tall order because large farm operations often get thrown under the bus and accused of exactly the opposite.

“We often hear comments that we’re a big farm and we ruin small communities,” Hebert says. “I have 10 to 15 people who work for me who all live in the local communities. We had 40 kids under the age 15 at our Christmas party and virtually everyone on my team coaches their kid’s hockey or ball, so we are focused on trying to keep these services available in our small towns so people actually want to live here.”

The legacy is built on the farm’s four values, the first of which is win/win. 

“Every deal you make, you should walk away being more excited about the next deal than the one you just made,” Hebert says.
“I see people make deals and they’re not happy unless they feel they won and someone lost. I don’t believe that’s the way to move the industry forward.”

Hebert also believes that ‘can’t’ is not an option. “We are going to succeed. Whether it’s tenacity or grit, or we’re just too stupid to give up, we’re going to find a way,” he says.

The third value is to innovate and optimize, as the team uses data to learn and improve operations towards the success of value number four, a continuous growth mentality. 

“We are going to grow, but that doesn’t mean in acres. It might be in people, execution, consulting, partnerships; it might be in whole bunch of different ways,” Hebert says.

Farmers make good business partners

One of Hebert’s greatest strengths is in developing collaborations and partnerships with others, like serving on a research advisory board at Olds College, working with John Deere and Pattison Agriculture to continuously improve technology on the farm, and his advisory board work with Global Ag Risk Solutions. 

Hebert says more farmers need to see themselves as potential business partners because they have a lot to offer.

“A business is a three-legged stool, with the legs being time, brains and money. In a lot of cases, a young person has lots of time and brains and farmers could fill the role of being the money; maybe put a quarter up as leverage, and they have a lot of knowledge about how to deal with change and inconsistency and not knowing the future,” Hebert says. “We don’t spend a lot of time trying to get those two groups together because farmers are always thought of as farmers, not entrepreneurs, although some of the best entrepreneurs I know are farmers.”

When asked what’s holding more farmers back from reaching out and making these kinds of connections, Hebert says it is simply acceptance and mindset.

“If you are a salesman in the U.S., you had better pull up to somebody’s yard in the nicest Range Rover because they won’t buy from you if they don’t think you’re successful,” Hebert says. “But the mentality in Canada is, you better pull up in an old F-150 because if you’re too successful, I won’t buy from you. I believe that pushes agriculture worse than anything. It’s not an industry where we’re super proud of the operations that are successful. I think that marketing and PR is important in the world of agriculture. We don’t need to do it to sell our grain but to educate consumers and communities, to find new team members and to find businesses that are looking for operations like ours to partner with.”

The small things matter

Growth is not without its challenges and Hebert admits there were times when he and his wife were stretched too thin, especially as the business grew by 350 per cent at the same time they had started their family. Staying on course and selecting the right people to build an effective team to lighten the load is likely the biggest take-home message he can offer to other farmers who are diversifying and expanding.

“It’s hiring people with a variety of different skill sets that I think we do differently,” Hebert says. “When you interview somebody, your favourite person is going to be the person with the skills and personality closest to yourself, and that’s the last person you should hire.”

The other important piece is to never stop learning and listening to all and any ideas to help improve the business no matter how small they might seem. As an example, during seeding, Hebert’s wife and mother would spend hours driving around taking meals to the field for the workers, until they suggested switching to freezer meals and putting food warmers in every tractor. It made their lives easier and the crews more productive.

Another huge time saver for the farm has been a simple, free app called Voxer that everyone uses to communicate with each other via their phones. When they started coordinating carpooling last year during harvest, it ended up saving a lot of time and improving everyone’s mood.

“We’ve got six or seven combines running, and we might move five times in a day and the trucks might be 10 miles from where we started, so one person could spend three hours moving vehicles,” Hebert says. “Just having people carpool, getting 30 minutes together on the way to work, and 30 minutes on the way home to talk about the day, and having less vehicles to move, the number one feedback from our crew was that carpooling made harvest better. We often look for big things and it’s often the little things that make the difference.”