By Trevor Bacque
Independence is nothing new in farming. Most children keen to take over the operation often dream of the day when they are in charge. It’s a common thought among those with an entrepreneurial spirit and a proclivity to blaze their own trail. For Lynn Dargis, this has always been the case.
The second eldest of five girls, Dargis and her sisters were given egalitarian status on their St. Vincent, Alta., family farm from an early age. Daily chores didn’t discriminate against gender and each girl was given a choice: Do your chores now or do your chores later. Either way, they would be done.
“If you had a beating heart you were good enough for the job, didn’t matter if you were a girl or not,” says Dargis, 33, with a nostalgic laugh. “We were involved in every aspect of the farm, animal welfare, taking care of the crops and everything in between.”
Her parents, Jean and Joanne, started the farm in 1980 with 50 cows and a couple quarter-sections of land. Over the years, the farm grew to more than 6,000 acres and a 3,000-head feedlot. The pair were quick to teach their daughters everything they knew and Dargis, a self-described ‘right-hand man’ of her folks, was perhaps the most determined of all the sisters to be the farm’s next boss. She got her chances early.
One year, when Dargis was just 17, the family acquired a new John Deere air drill. With Jean in the driver’s seat, Dargis climbed in beside him and away they went. After running the outer lap of the field and teaching his daughter a few primary buttons, Jean abruptly stopped.
“Then he jumped out and said, ‘here you go,’” says Dargis, realizing she had to finish seeding the field. “He really pushed that we think for ourselves. You just have to have that creative mind. That has always stayed with us growing up. If you’re in a situation or unsure or uncomfortable—that happens all the time—think to your parents pushing you one step further.”
Little did the girls know their parents’ constant push towards independence would be so critical so soon.
The farm went quiet
In the summer of 2007, Dargis’ cousin Lindsay Gropp was graduating from high school in Spirit River. The entire family travelled to convocation except Dargis, who stayed back to manage the farm. Her sisters and grandparents all drove while her parents flew. Jean had acquired his pilot’s licence six years prior and had developed a penchant for taking to the skies whenever time permitted. Excited for his niece’s graduation, he was even more enthusiastic at the idea of travelling there in his recently acquired single-engine Cirrus SR22, the world’s top-selling general aviation aircraft on the market. He shut down work early and everyone headed east for the weekend.
The entire family minus Dargis had a fun and lively time celebrating Gropp’s achievement. By supper time Sunday it was time to head home. The girls left first to make the six-hour drive before dark. The parents left later since it was only a two-hour flight. On short notice, Jean’s mother Anita decided to fly home with them instead of driving with her husband. Halfway through the two-hour flight, Joanne phoned home and inquired about the weather.
“I looked outside, it was a beautiful evening with not that much wind and just a few clouds,” says Dargis. “I said, ‘it looks good, you’re good to go.’ [Mom] said, ‘I love you. Bye.’”
Those were the final words she ever heard her mother speak.
The family had an airstrip near the main farmyard, and it was easy to spot the plane from a good distance away. One hour went by. Then two. Then three. Her sisters arrived home, but no sign of the plane.
Dargis knew something was wrong but didn’t know what. Her parents were not answering their worried daughter’s calls. Dargis called her uncle Gerry Boucher, also a pilot, hoping for re-assurance, or, really, anything.
“You’re hoping for the best, but the next thing you know the cops are standing at your doorsteps the next morning,” she says.
According to the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, Jean’s plane crashed into a muskeg-laden area in the vicinity of the House Mountain communication tower, 25 nautical miles southwest of Slave Lake. Interviewed by local media at the time, Richard Dargis said his brother likely encountered fog and then hit the radio tower’s wires, which ultimately brought the plane down. Jean, 46, Joanne, 45, and his mother Anita, 75, died Aug. 12, 2007. Dargis, about to turn 21, was left alone with her four sisters, their lives forever changed.
Rebuilding one day at a time
Everyone deals with death in their own way. For Dargis, she did what she knew best, work. Harvest was rapidly approaching, and a promising crop of oats, canola and feed barley demanded attention.
“The next few months, even year, feels like a blur,” she says. “I immersed myself in farm work. That’s kind of how I dealt with it.”
She and her oldest sister Leona spent the next three years raising their three younger sisters until the last had graduated from high school and all were off to university. However, amid chaos and mourning, the farm still needed to be managed and Dargis knew this was her moment, albeit sooner than she anticipated.
The family had never truly talked succession and her parents’ will was outdated, yet the estate needed decisions, and soon. After speaking with her uncle Joe and grandfather Pierre, Dargis felt there was one logical conclusion if the farm was going to continue.
“That’s when I spoke up and said I want to figure out a way to take this on,” she says.
In 2008, she secured two loans, one from Farm Credit Canada and another from TD Canada Trust. Her grandfather lent her a sum of operating capital, as well. Now, locked in financially and mentally, Dargis put her head down and hit the field.
“I was determined,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to take over the farm. No one was going to stop me. I was going to do what it takes. I was willing to risk it all.”
She did not go into the operation completely blind, either. In 2006, she graduated Olds College with an agriculture production and management diploma and was firmly integrated in the farm’s daily business well before the crash.
Due to the farm’s overall size, Dargis had to make difficult choices right away. She didn’t renew 2,000 rented acres and then sold off the cow herd, opting instead to custom feed for the community.
She made certain to surround herself with other talented individuals, though. One key member of the team Dargis held onto was Richard Cadrin. Described by Dargis as a surrogate father, he was a primary employee of her parents since 1986. In addition, she hired her own accountants, bankers, lawyers and seasonal workers.
“I built a team of people that I could trust and give me really good advice along the way,” she says. “There’s no way to know it all. I found those people that believed in me. They came to know me.”
After farming on her own for two years, she met Ryan Schappert in 2010. An oilfield consultant that operated out of Whitecourt. He knew nothing about farms other than that he was surrounded by them. A romance was struck and the two were married the next year. Today, they have a trio of kids between three and seven, all eager to pitch in and learn about rural life.
After refining the farm’s operation’s, Dargis and Schappert farm 4,400 acres together full time. They primarily grow canola, wheat and barley, suitable crops for their grey-wooded and clay-loam soil mixture. They also background 2,000 feeder cattle.
Over the years, she has learned the hard way how to draw up equitable cattle contracts. Too often she accepted substantial risk and made poor choices. However, those choices gave her hard-earned business education and daily she takes those lessons into farm management.
“After all the lessons I’ve been through I was more empowered,” she says. “I could make my own contract and do it on these conditions. I’ve learned so much throughout the years owning my own cattle.”
Rarely enthused to settle for second place, the straight-talking Dargis is neither the type of person keen to try a better method nor afraid to admit and adopt it when there is a superior way. Although, in the absence of a better method, she didn’t necessarily think she’d create the solution.
Build a better mousetrap
In early 2018, she sat on a load of No. 1 CWRS, waiting for a fair number. She locked in a target price agreement with a nearby elevator and continued to wait. One day, while killing time between chores, she hopped onto a competitor’s website and scoured its prices. To her good fortune, the company just shored up its basis by 30 cents and hit Dargis’ price. She called her initial buyer, cancelled her TPA and took the new offer.
However, she was infuriated that by chance she found her desired price and there was no means to alert her otherwise.
“Had I not looked at that website on that particular day I would have missed an opportunity to sell,” she says. “I wanted to find those pricing opportunities in a more easy and efficient way. Farmers don’t have time to search every day.”
True to Dargis’ nature, her frustration boiled over, and she began to create a practical solution for grain marketing woes.
“Do you think I knew anything about building apps? No. but I was determined,” she says.
Dargis began racking up the minutes, logging phone call after phone call with c-suite grain company executives across the country, and plainly asked if they were interested to fundamentally change the way farmers, herself included, access grain prices.
To everyone’s surprise except Dargis’, four companies came on board. ADM, GrainsConnect, Providence Grain and Viterra all supported her goal and became leading industry partners of her brand-new company: Farmbucks. Receiving a yes from such major players so early deepened her resolve.
“That’s what definitely motivated me to continue and forge on,” she says. “It was a big confidence boost just knowing that we’re on the edge of transforming the industry. It definitely solidified that this idea has the potential to change the industry.
“It’s kind of tricky. You’re building a two-sided marketplace. Buyers don’t want to come on unless there’s farmers and farmers don’t want to come on unless there’s options. Farmers have the ability to make the change happen and hold the grain companies accountable for giving us that information we need.”
Identical to how she hired a good team of people to help farm, Dargis followed the same blueprint with Farmbucks and has learned a tremendous amount from web and app developers and computer programmers.
Farmbucks is indicative of a 2020 world where consumers price-shop and openly assess all competition in milliseconds. Likened as an agricultural Expedia, it compares grain prices across buyers, helping farmers find the best deal amidst a myriad of customized parameters.
Here’s how it works: A farmer signs up or utilizes a 30-day free trial. They enter their location and a search radius. After selecting the crop type and punching in its characteristics, results pop up that meet the criteria. Dargis and her team developed an essential and sophisticated back-end algorithm that will even convert basis rates for a level playing field when evaluating numbers.
“We don’t just show bids, we calculate market premiums and discounts for different protein levels, so you can actually compare apples to apples,” she says.
Farmbucks isn’t even 18 months old, but that hasn’t stopped just under 2,000 farmers from signing up, which tells Dargis many believe this has potential.
The platform also offers free canola bids 24/7 regardless of whether you subscribe.
For Dargis and the millennial cohort rich in buying power, even grain marketing has become about more than money.
“You have to bring other value other than just price,” she says. “You can have a good price, but if no one likes dealing there…”
As she continues to angle more industry players to participate in Farmbucks, she isn’t surprised by hesitation or all-out resistance. After all, this is the way things have been done for generations.
“They say they’re for the farmer and I’m trying to help them connect … and they’re saying no,” she says of uninterested grain companies. “There’s some old paradigms to break. It just takes time for the industry to wrap their heads around it and how they can play that for their benefit. I think that’s how they’re going to bring their additional value to their own customers.”
Peer approval, industry altruism
While building up Farmbucks, running a mixed operation and parenting alongside her husband, the stalwart Albertan has been turning heads in several different realms through a slew of recent accolades.
In July 2019, Dargis entered the Telus Pitch contest in Toronto, Ont., a nationwide pursuit for young entrepreneurs with a top prize of $100,000. Farmbucks was named the most promising startup and Dargis received a few prizes, including a $5,000 Facebook advertising budget.
Months later, she was at Agri-Trade in Red Deer, Alta., talking to farmers about her business. She also happened to enter the show’s innovation awards. Voted upon by attendees, Dargis won the Farmers’ Choice Award and $5,000, a testament that the people who would use Farmbucks saw the value.
Brightened by her successes at both Pitch and Agri-Trade, she took Farmbucks to the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE), a Vancouver, B.C.-based charity focused on empowering Canadian businesswomen. Her idea was a hit during early competition and she advanced to the final. For being accepted to decisive round, all contestants were paired with mentors. Dargis linked up with businessman and angel investor Manny Padda of New Avenue Capital, a global investment firm, to help her further develop Farmbucks.
Off to Vancouver she flew in February 2020 where she once again presented, this time to an audience of more than 750 business leaders. Dargis confidently explained the current state of grain pricing and how Farmbucks is poised to be a market disruptor through its transparent approach. She also joked that without farmers the world would be hungry, naked and sober. Farmbucks’ message hit the bull’s-eye and the crowd, who collectively voted for the winner, crowned Dargis victorious. She received the $25,000 grand prize for her business.
She has quickly reinvested the money and continues to work with experts to help push her business forward, just like she did at the family farm more than a decade before. Dargis is confident Farmbucks will continue to grow and be a benefit for who else? Farmers.
“I feel like there’s always this burning thing inside me that always wants to help others, that wants to do something for others,” she says. “This was just a great way to do that. It’s almost like I’ve found my purpose and I have that passion to keep going.
It’s been a long road to success for a farm girl from St. Vincent, one she was forced to walk alone at a tender age.
“Looking back, I kind of think I was crazy,” she says. “A 20-year-old girl to take over the size of business that I did is pretty remarkable. At the time, you don’t really think about it, it was normal. I didn’t think anything of it, I was so focused on getting what I needed done.”