By Trevor Bacque
Kevin Serfas is a man with many titles: husband, father, brother, son, boss, coach, president and board director. But it’s the simple moniker of farmer he most prefers. After all, it is what the 45-year-old Turin, Alta., man does almost every single day of the year.
Since 1994, Serfas has been working full time on his family farm, which has roots dating back to the early 1950s when his grandparents Adam and Elsie immigrated from Germany. Back then, Adam worked a piecemeal collection of rented lands for years in southern Alberta. By the 1970s, the Serfas’s managed to purchase a few of those rented acres. In 1973, Serfas’ father Herb diversified the farm to include a feed yard beginning in the late ‘70s with 1,000 feeder cattle. This continued on through the late ‘80s before a sell off in 1988. However, Serfas wanted to rebuild the cattle and in 1992 it was he and brother Mark who began construction a new feed yard. After 10 years, it had been built up to 6,000 head.
While the cattle had been building up steadily for years, the brothers had a desire to expand the farm, knowing that in his highly competitive area, smaller farms unable to offer a niche product were likely not long for the world. Quickly, Serfas began to secure rental agreements on as many acres as he could. A risky play, but the only logical one he saw in his mind at the time.
back, the price of land was extremely reasonable, but back then it was
extremely expensive,” he says. “At that time, you could try to make a go of it
without a whole bunch of cash. We kept picking away at it. Opportunities came
up and we’d go after them not necessarily knowing how we could pay for it.
We learned a lot of lessons along the way on how to scale up.”
What began as 1,800 acres of irrigated land when be began in the mid-‘90s, Serfas Farms has now settled into a usual crop production system with 55,000 to 60,000 under dryland and irrigated production. Not every acre is under irrigated production as the cost of a single pivots can be anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000, plus the cost of irrigation rights, making the decision a calculated one.
Primarily he grows barley, canola and silage corn, which may seem unusual, given that Serfas resides in one of the most desirable climates for growing virtually any crop, including seed alfalfa, pumpkins, mint, sugar beet, hemp and more. The crop options are all thanks to the country’s most robust irrigation network which criss-crosses all of southern Alberta.
“It’s always been competitive and red hot, but it doesn’t seem to want to stop. The reason being is the water. You have lots of people immigrating from wherever because there’s water,” he says of the region. “The irrigation is a different beast and it’s only going to get more and more competitive. We are irrigating off snowpack. There will always be water, that’s why you are seeing more potatoes grown here, dry beans and seed canola.”
Serfas explains that other considerations such as never worrying about Mother Nature to fill dugouts or if there will be a plentiful water source for the cows are weights lifted off his shoulders, too.
Knowing that, he continues with a tried-and-true program that works well for his farm.
“We can bale and feed a lot of our grain,” he says, adding that canola is still a nice cash crop. Surprisingly, Serfas is not even interested to try and produce spring wheat anymore, and for good reason.
Being located in an area aptly known as feedlot alley, Serfas’ cereal of choice always has been, and likely will continue to be, feed barley.
“Because we are at the heart of the cattle feeding industry, we are at market,” he says. “Every year I try to pencil out wheat and it makes about the same amount of sense as barley, but there’s no risk with barley. $16 canola? $7 barley? It’s just insane.”
He is just as passionate about growing his silage corn, as well.
“It’s the same thing. We grow it for silage. We cut it and we like the feed that it makes. It returns reasonably well for us,” he says. “Everybody does things differently. If it works, great. Run with it.”
With strong relationships with landowners, Serfas has been fortunate to purchase some of the acres he has dutifully rented for the last 20-plus years. However, it’s not a fast process. He lives in an area where one dryland acre comes with a $4,000 is normal, only becoming more expensive the closer you journey to Lethbridge proper where numbers hover around $10,000. He decided to purchase rented land farther afield with the notion to purchase costlier lands in the future.
“We thought if we are going to get into ownership side to a bigger extent, that was where we were going to have to end up,” he explains of the now-owned land 35 to 50 kilometres north of the main yard. “With so many feedlots in that Turin area, it was getting hard to buy land. We went where there was less demand.”
Alongside recent land acquisitions, Serfas began to re-examine the potential for a feed yard expansion. No stranger to cattle feeding, he thought that a bigger herd will generate more market opportunities and spread risk out through diversified agrifood products.
He says “it had never crossed our mind” to the question of building a feedlot, but as his simple calculator projections kept looking rosier and rosier over the years, he took a longer look at the idea.
“We started looking at numbers and the way things were working out, I thought, ‘let’s see if we can get a permit put through,” he explains.
By December 2019, he had put in for that permit. Optimistic he would be approved, the wait was on. Approvals for such permits take about six months. The application was accepted and Serfas immediately began work on the expansion.
The new yard features what Serfas terms, “probably one of the bigger mills that has been put up in the south,” which features raw storage of 4,000 tonnes and a rolled capacity of 600 tonnes. “Did we overbuild? Maybe a little, but it allows room for any kind of expansion that we could ever think about doing.”
He is excited for the new yard, which has a total capacity of 40,000-head and is already partially stocked. The yard has been designed with convenience in mind and features easy access so a truck can pull up, unload and drive away within 15 minutes, Serfas says.
He says the reception has gone over pretty well as the newest feed yard in the area, especially because Serfas regularly purchases straw and other feed stocks.
“For the most part, it’s a good thing. Others view it as somebody else that’s competitive for land if they want to sell to another buyer.”
Once the new yard is running full time, Serfas hopes to add a total of 40 employees to his staff. He says he is hopeful to employ people in the local community, but has also sourced help from international destinations such as Mexico and South Africa in the past, two countries with established feeding industries and the skilled workers to match.
This will be the first year Serfas experiments with the Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) process for seeking additional talent at his feed yard. Serfas says it’s necessary to search abroad, saying that Canadians are just not interested in these types of jobs. “It’s too bad,” he says. “It can be real money and a reasonable job, but guys don’t want to do it.”
On the farming side, however, it has been easier to find workers. Serfas says that despite the downturn in Alberta’s economy has proven to be at least a small consolation for his farm workers.
Beyond the farm, Serfas is never at a loss of how to be kept busy. A father of five, he is actively involved in farmer boards and minor hockey.
Currently in his second-to-last year with the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, Serfas feels fortunate to have served on its board, and is currently its vice-chair. In addition, he is the ACPC’s representative for the national Canola Council of Canada.
“It is definitely eye-opening,” says Serfas of the board work.
“I think it’s important to always continuously learn.”
Serfas most enjoys his time on governance and grower relations committees, adding that all the work done by provincial crop commissions is beneficial for all its farmer members.
Arguably his biggest non-farming love, though, is hockey.
A former player himself, he now finds himself behind the bench and serving as a chauffer to three of his children currently playing. He first became involved when one daughter began to play out of nearby Picture Butte, Alta., in 2009. Initially, the plan was to watch and cheer. However, Serfas’ big heart eventually landed him a spot on the local association’s board of directors, which lasted a decade, including the final three as its president. Serfas believes that without committed parents, hockey simply does not happen, and that was not something he could live with.
“There’s a lot of people that like to bitch and moan and do nothing about it and not a lot who want to step up and be involved to take care of some of the associations,” he says. “I tell people I have a hard time saying ‘no.’ Once you say ‘yes,’ people always come looking. If it’s not for volunteers, none of this stuff works. Nobody gets paid to get yelled at.”
Today, Serfas is the current president of the Golden Suns Athletic Association (GSAA) out of Taber, Alta., as well as its current U-13 peewee coach. He loves watching kids develop and mature on and off the ice, knowing that hockey is something different and special for each one of them. After seeing and contributing to a young teen’s development, it often makes moving on that much harder.
“That last game, it’s always tough,” he says. “You know that some of the kids will never play together again. I spend 500 hours a winter with these kids, that’s more time with that team than with my family. They kind of become a family of their own.”
Serfas says it’s hard for both him and the kids knowing that this year’s season was cancelled due to COVID-19. He is confident GSAA will be back as soon as restrictions are lifted and a great team will take to the ice yet again.
In the meantime, though, Serfas will be busy in the field and pens. He hopes to have his new feed yard fully operational and stocked by the fall.
“As for the future of the business, every day is a new day,” he says. “You don’t know what opportunities will present themselves when you wake up in the morning. The future is exciting and we look forward to whatever gets thrown our way. As for the future of the region, the competitiveness is not going to stop. Water is the root of life and it will continue to attract people and business.”