Over the past 25 years, Paul Adriaansen has focused on making his farm operation at Wellwood, Manitoba, as self-sufficient as possible. Having to rely on outside custom operators in the past taught him that having control of processes in-house saves time, money and means that jobs are completed the way he wants them done.

“It becomes your priority as to what gets done,” he says. “Whether it’s the pilot for the sprayer plane, or the sprayer operators, you get a lot better job done because you can take them out to the field, show them what to do and have those conversations about how it should be done. There is almost nothing that leaves the farm and we find that we are doing a lot better job now in all aspects of the operation.”

Two decades of growth

The year that Paul Adriaansen was born, his dad, Tony, began growing potatoes to supply the new Simplot processing facility that had just been built in Carberry, Manitoba. Adriaansen was raised on the farm along with his seven siblings, working alongside five of them and his dad until splitting off on his own. Leaving in 1999 with 800 acres, he set up his base four kilometres from the home farm.

Adriaansen’s Spud Plains Farms is still based in Wellwood, but today encompasses 20,000 acres spread out over three different areas of the Westman region of Carberry and Rivers, and south of Shilo. On average, the farm grows around 6,400 acres of potatoes (including seed potatoes), 3,500 acres of corn, 2,500 acres of rye, 3,000 acres of wheat, 4,000 canola acres and around 600 acres of green feed mustard each year.

Currently, the farm employs around 50 full-time, year-round staff, a number that can go as high as 120 or more during the growing season. The conglomerate includes an in-house agronomist, pilot for the aerial spray plane, operators for all the equipment (including ground sprayers and Valmar spreaders), full-time mechanics, electricians and a carpenter who handles all on-farm building construction and maintenance work. As potato seed growers, they also bring on an additional 20 employees in the spring just to handle the 400,000 bags of potato seed that all need cutting, treating and grading.

“The biggest change on our farm was when I stopped doing everything myself and started empowering managers and agronomy teams,” Adriaansen says. “Everything was getting done right, in a timely manner, and I was not just relying on what I knew. For example, our agronomy team talks to other agronomy teams and we know what’s going on in the industry. They are bringing a wealth of information with them. We also have good quality staff because we can keep them busy year-round instead of just seasonally.”

Adding other enterprises

The farm even stores and blends its own fertilizer on-site, having purchased an old Cargill facility for that purpose about seven kilometres south from the main yard. 

“We purchase bulk fertilizer, liquid and dry, and do all the mixing and spreading ourselves,” Adriaansen says. “We have enough storage capacity to handle a full year so we can pre-buy. Typically, we’re buying our fertilizer for the next year in July and that way we can control the price and buy when it’s cheaper, but we had to be able to take it home in those big volumes to make it all work.”

Adriaansen also operates a custom land development business from the farm that has contributed significant income over the years. It began, like most of the more diverse enterprises, out of necessity.

“When I started farming, there was very little land available, so we started buying marginal land and turning it into cropland,” he says. “We have done that to at least 10,000 acres of our land. That helped us to expand.”

Although Adriaansen doesn’t use custom operators much anymore, he has done his share of custom work over the years from combining to building construction, but these sidelines always started because of a need on the farm. 

“We started doing buildings largely to increase our buying power. We do everything for our operation first, and then justify the investment by doing some custom work,” he says. “We don’t do buildings for people anymore because we don’t have time for it, but in the beginning, we brought a lot of income to the farm with custom work, so that also helped us grow.”

With an eye to the future, and well aware of the challenges of recruiting employees to rural areas, Spud Plains Farms also supports employees to get their journeyman certification. It currently has two mechanics and an electrician in training on the farm.

A few growing pains

Growing a farm to the size of Spud Plains hasn’t come without some challenges along the way, but Adriaansen has never been afraid to invest in technology, even if the learning curve has been steep at times.

“You have to embrace it, not get frustrated and want to walk away,” he says. “You have to see the value in it.”

Ultimately, technology has helped the farm be more efficient and facilitated its expansion.

“Initially there was a lot of work on our end to get equipment working and steering properly, to get variable rate mapping right, using the sprayer technology and so on,” Adriaansen says. “Now we rely on all the record keeping from the tractors, combines and other equipment; and just the fact that everybody’s got a cellphone in their pocket saves a lot of miles.”

Advances in irrigation systems have also been crucial to the farm’s success. 

“Irrigation has changed the world,” he says. “Getting the irrigation right and quitting growing on the dryland corners; we didn’t realize how much money we were spending in those corners for nothing, so it has improved the economics.”

That doesn’t mean that Adriaansen plunges into every new venture that comes along. He weighs every decision and everything has to justify the price tag.

“I have to see how it’s going to earn its keep,” he says. “I’m looking at land prices and interest rates now, and I was going to build a potato storage this year, but I walked away from the idea. It did not make sense anymore.”

Keeping a close eye on the numbers and not overstretching resources has always been Adriaansen’s mantra.

“If you spend a lot of money on something, and you can do it cheaper, then it just becomes an anchor around your neck,” he says. “Then you’re not able to take advantage of the next opportunity if you’ve already spread yourself too thin.”

And Adriaansen believes there are always opportunities presenting themselves, especially in agriculture.

“There’s always new opportunities,” he says. “There’s no reason you can’t build businesses that also complement the farm. But you have to do things well. I’ve always based how this farm is doing by how good a job we do of actually getting harvest done in a timely manner, how the crops we’re pulling in compare to the neighbours, the quality, grower profile, etc. And of course, debt management is important.” 

Preparing for the next generation … and the next

Adriaansen and his wife, Kim, have three daughters, Johanna (28), Teal (26) and Victoria (24), who have all graduated from post-secondary education. Their son, Griffin (20), is currently completing his agriculture diploma at the University of Manitoba. All except Johanna are already working, and plan to stay on the farm.

Currently, they are busy learning how to do all the various farm jobs from planting potatoes, harvesting and running equipment to working with the agronomist or in the shop welding and maintaining equipment. It’s part of the process of preparing them for eventual management roles and allows them to figure out what areas they are most interested and comfortable in. 

“Our children who are staying on the farm are treated the same as any other employee. Their status, wages and everything is based on their capabilities and dedication. If they want it, they have to work for it,” he says. “They have lots of opportunities and are well paid. What’s the rush to make them shareholders or whatever? I see the farm as generational wealth; not just for them. Hopefully, their kids can work on the farm and this can be a security blanket for generations to come. And they don’t necessarily have to work on the farm, it can support the off-farm children as well. I try to treat the kids as equal as I can whether they farm or not.”

Adriaansen’s primary goal for the short term is to aggressively pay down debt and consolidate. 

“We’ll still add pieces of land if it fits into the operation, but we are focusing on upgrading equipment and storage now,” he says. “We are always open to new crops, and new ways of farming. What people don’t understand is farmers have always looked for sustainable ways in agriculture. Almost all farmers I know are in it for the next generation and want to leave the land in a more productive and healthier state. We want to get better cropping systems, put more back into the land than we’re taking from it, and make the whole operation more efficient by filling all the gaps.”