Value-added businesses on farms are found all across the Prairies. The primary venture of farming is often directly tied into the secondary operation. This is true for the Pitura family at Domain, Man., who run a successful pedigreed seed farm along with their processing, handling and treating facility.
What began more than 100 years ago from humble Eastern European immigrants has grown today into a thriving 4,000-acre pedigreed seed farm and the site of Canada’s largest family-owned seed and processing facility in Western Canada.
Paul and Sophie Pitura began the family farm in 1918 with 480 acres after their arrival from Poland. One of their sons, Carl, took over the farm in the late 1940s and began cleaning grain just a few years later. Carl’s son Calvin began to farm in the 1970s alongside his wife Barb Strath-Pitura. It was at this time that Calvin and Barb put in a concerted effort to expand and offer a range of services, such as treating, bagging and storage. They were also one of the very first families in Manitoba to begin growing soybeans about 20 years ago. Their 1,200-acre operation grew to more than triple its original size to 4,000 acres by 2010.
However, Calvin started to wonder about the future of the business and wasn’t sure where things were headed. With their seed processing business becoming increasingly popular with area farmers and customers across Western Canada, a decision needed to be reached. Calvin reached out to his future son-in-law, Tom Greaves, who was dating his daughter Sheena at the time. Greaves, from a family farm at Miami, Man., was working in the industry for a local food manufacturer and knew relatively little about the seed business.
“When he told me to come join him, to be honest, seed did not sound very exciting,” says Greaves with a laugh. “That said, I did some research about what was going on in the seed business and I was blown away with where the industry was going.
“It was a bit of a leap of faith on my behalf to go from a decent working job out to the family farm, but it was what I always wanted to do. The ‘ag’ never leaves a person and it was calling me home.”
Before a new era of farm management began though, Calvin and Barb began farm transition talks. With Tom and Sheena now married and committed to coming back to the farm, the conversations began in earnest in 2011.
“I really credit my in-laws for everything,” he says. “They were really good about using business planners, walking through the process from top to bottom so we really understood what we were getting into—what happens if it works? What happens if it doesn’t? It was such a positive transaction, I can’t credit them enough.”
At the same time all this was happening, Connor Pitura was also becoming interested in farming full time. The timing for them was perfect, too. Both Greaves and the younger Pitura took over the two respective businesses, Pitura Seed Service and Pitura Seed Farms.
Greaves and Pitura both started working full time in the businesses in 2013. In 2017, Greaves took the role of president of Pitura Seed Service and Pitura became president of Pitura Seed Farms. Calvin is now chairman of the board and remains on as a mentor and agronomic advisor.
To bring about even more confidence with customers, Pitura and Greaves hired Laird Lampertz 2015. Today, Lampertz is the company’s head agronomist and leads a team of agronomic experts. Between his team, Calvin and Pitura, they have an abundance of agronomic wisdom for their customers. Pitura is growing varieties three to five years before customers see it, with certain varieties coming to market while others fizzle out. No matter what the outcome, he is glad he can give customers the trust and satisfaction of saying he tried it out and has experienced the variety for himself.
“We sell what we grow on our farm. If we can’t trust a variety to be successful for our farm, we aren’t going to sell it to a customer,” says Greaves.
Overall, the farm has seen its own agronomics improve recently as plant breeders continue to create improved varieties.
“We have seen significant gains in yield over the years,” says Pitura. “We attribute this to new stronger varieties along with improved technology and an overall focus on agronomy. We are always learning how to improve.”
Currently, the farm produces seed wheat, barley, oats, soybeans and peas. Beyond their 4,000 acres of pedigreed seed production, their business contracts out more than 35,000 acres of seed production to various growers across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. All of their growers are strategically selected due to best management practices and geography to minimize adverse weather events that could ruin a crop. Similarly, soil zones make a difference, as well. Their farm has Red River clay and its signature water-holding capacity, which makes crop selection important. Other areas have more options, so Greaves sees it as a best management practice to spread other crops to different regions.
“When planning seed production, we try to spread out our production throughout the province to allow for risk mitigation,” says Greaves. “We see significant differences in weather patterns across the province, and this helps to ensure that we do not lose production due to a weather event or other environmental factors.”
For the family, being 30 minutes south of Winnipeg, Man., is a huge benefit given the city is such a vital hub of agriculture for processing, logistics and food manufacturing.
Seed business acceleration
When Greaves began in the driver’s seat of the seed business, it was a far cry from the world of food manufacturing where the company had 100-plus employees and he sat in a corner office. The seed business stood at six, including himself, and there was little division of labour.
Greaves took his skills learned working in the industry for 12 years and began to apply them slowly but surely to the seed world. What he lacked in seed-related knowledge, he was able to backfill with other general business acumen.
“There were opportunities to serve our community more which was exciting, our larger base in the area and partnerships with other companies out in industry,” he says. “That’s what we’ve been able to do over the last few years with quality and professionalism.”
The seed and farm businesses are still family run, but Greaves says both are now run like professional businesses which maintain family values.
That mindset shift seems to have paid off, as well. Today the two businesses now have 20 total employees, who Greaves says are the backbone of the entire business.
“We have an amazing team here,” he says. “I couldn’t do any of this without them … it’s really a team effort here. They are what drives our organization.”
The hard work by the employees have opened doors to let the family operation partner with more than 100 different seed growers. Some of those partnerships include multinational companies. Today, they also have ownership stakes in or distribution agreements with many different seed organizations, including Canterra Seeds, NorthStar Genetics, FP Genetics, SeCan, Alliance, Seed Depot, SeedNet and BrettYoung.
The decision was made to partner with many outside organizations because of what it could do to raise the profile of the seed and farm businesses.
“There’s a lot of value that the seed industry partners bring to our organization,” he says. “With access to different varieties, we grow, test and touch these varieties inside and out, long before they get to commercial markets. That lets us have access to a lot of data from trials and plots, as well. We are trying to put the time into the right varieties that will be good fits for the growers.”
Greaves says every variety they grow must be a “triple win” for suppliers, themselves and farmers.
With all those wins piling up, though, it became clear there was a major change on the horizon. Within the number of years, Pitura Seed has earned sizable contracts that required the infrastructure to match. Their existing plant was operating 24 hours a day at only 400 bu/hr just to keep up. Soon they would have to start turning away prospective clients or expand operations. It ended up being an easy call.
In 2018, they began construction on a brand new 10,000-square-foot building made entirely of 12-inch precast concrete walls with an R28 insulation rating and in-floor heating. Walls have epoxy coating to make cleaning grain dust a breeze and helped contribute to its HACCP food safety certification.
The facility officially opened in early 2019, with a special emphasis on cleaning and processing all kinds of seed, but specifically pulses, which are very delicate. The plant is able to give anyone in the value chain full traceability of product back to its original field of origin. It operates with a capacity of anywhere between 1,000 to 1,500 bu/hr, depending on crop type.
“The way we got our extra capacity, we doubled up most of the equipment in our line,” explains Greaves. “It is fully automated which is critical when running these volumes.”
The new facility has not only attracted new clients but it has added peace of mind to existing ones as well, according to Greaves.
To keep up with it all, Greaves has begun to school himself and certainly grabs professional development opportunities to sharpen and grow his skillset.
He is part of TEC Canada, which is a CEO growth organization, where he interacts with other like-minded executives to discuss goals for personal and professional growth in a confidential setting. He is also able to talk through problems and find tenable solutions for different issues he may face.
“I like the idea that it was people that outside of my industry,” he says of TEC. “Lots of attributes carry across in business, but at the same time I want to make sure I am not thinking the status quo. I want to think about things differently if possible and I get a bit of an advantage out of that group because of it.”
He says the enterprise and risk management are not necessarily easy things to manage, but they must be taken care of nonetheless. Greaves believes this line of work—farming and a seed business—cannot be viewed as just a job or it will simply fail.
“It is daunting; it’s not an easy task,” he says plainly. “We do it because we love it. We go back to that entrepreneurial spirit. You have to have passion about what you’re doing or else you wouldn’t be doing it.”
The family is currently working through a new strategic plan of what they anticipate being another major growth phase over the next three to five years, which includes a branding refresh to ensure they are maintaining core values and focusing on the needs of their partners and potential clients.
The farm looks very different than it did 100 years ago, but a few things have not changed: a family-first mindset but with a 21st century professionalism to make their farm and value-added business thrive throughout Canada.