Shannon VanRaes

When Jarrod Kuhn looks out onto his main farmyard near Acadia Valley, Alta., he doesn’t see 13 50-thousand-bushel bins—he sees his savings account.

“I look at our bin system like a bank account, because my money is sitting in those bins. So we call it our little bank,” says Kuhn. “And we watch them closely.”

With 40,000 acres in production, storage is key to managing the multigeneration grain farm and its auxiliary enterprises, including an agronomy business and aerial spraying start-up. Beyond the 650,000 bushels of storage in the main yard, an additional 240,000 bushels of grain storage is scattered throughout Kuhn Farms, complimented by the use of grain bags for infield storage as needed.

“At harvest, when you’re busy with nine or 10 combines, you sometimes just can’t physically keep up to get it back to the bin, so we put bags in the fields,” he says. “And then this time of year, we try to sell out of our bins and then get our grain bags home to the bins.”

The continually evolving system is a far cry from the mixed cattle and grain farm his grandfather started in 1946, but Kuhn says the operation’s founding patriarch wouldn’t be surprised by the scope of today’s operation.

“You know what my grandpa told me when I was still a little guy?” says a reminiscing Kuhn. “He goes, ‘what I’ve seen in my life on the farm, from horse and plow, to tractors and cab combines? You’re going to see that again but maybe even more. And I have. He was right, he’d seen the vision and he knew that the farm was going to grow.”

Kuhn’s father Irwin took the farm over with the help of his brother Carl sometime in the 1960s. By 1978 the cattle had been sold off and the farm was focused solely on grain production.

“They didn’t have a big enough herd and it wasn’t really feasible. It also tied up their winters,” he explains. But as it turned out, the freedom the brothers gained by selling the herd left them a little bored and looking for something else to fill their time with.

Irwin solved their dilemma by purchasing a couple of old loaders so they could bury rock piles for themselves and their neighbours, but the initiative soon became so successful that it simply took on a life of its own. In 1984, what began with some used equipment was officially incorporated into an oilfield construction company.

“We were building sites and working in the oil patch, we had CATs and hoes and graders, and reclamation equipment,” says Kuhn. “It just kept growing along with the oilfield activity in the area.”

Before long, IW Kuhn Environmental was employing 120 people on job sites across Western Canada and Kuhn was at the helm as president. But even though the balance was a delicate one, he never turned his back on his long-term plan to grow the family farm.

“I’ve been farming since I was a kid, I bought my first land when I was 25 years old, that was in 1991. So in 1991 the three of us, my uncle, my dad and me, we were farming about 4,000 acres of grainland,” says Kuhn. “After ‘98 I went strictly to managing the oil patch, but my wife Carolyn and I still kept growing our farm, and in the evenings and the early mornings I would still work on the farm … then I’d go to work at the oil fields from 7 till 5 and dad would be on the farm full-time.”

That changed when Irwin died in 2010.

“We were at about 24,000 acres in 2010 when dad passed away, he was a young 66 years old … I had to come back to the farm full time,” he explains.

Kuhn stepped down as president and in 2012 IW Kuhn Environmental was sold to a larger oilfield company, although his brother Jordan and other relatives remain involved in the business. However, Kuhn’s entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t dampened by the sale and he turned his attention to the farm, which continued to grow.

Today, Kuhn farms with his wife and their two sons, Ashton and Tyrel, while his brother and mother continue to own a small stake in the operation. The farm also has eight full-time employees, in addition to seasonal workers.

“At seeding time and harvest time we have about three or four young guys that work on the rigs and they come work for us … because it’s breakup in the oilfield,” he says. 

In good years, Kuhn Farms produces as much as 1.5 million bushels of grain. That means storage is integral to the farm, as is technology, holistic management and vertical integration.

“Both the bin system and the grain management system are huge on our farm,” he says. “All of our big bins have moisture sensors, temperature sensors and they are all linked back to my office though Wi-Fi … if there’s a problem or something starts going on with the heating, the GrainMax system, it’s called, will kick a fan on to either cool it down or dry it down.”

The system also allows Kuhn to rehydrate grain when it’s advantageous.

“Say your grain is 10 per cent moisture, you’re allowed to haul 14 to the elevator, well for a month before that, if you have some high humidity days you can actually put moisture back to the grain using the conditions outside with your fans,” he explains. “So if you take a 50,000-bushel bin and add two per cent to it, well that’s a thousand bushels and a thousand bushels of weight at $7 or whatever, so our bin system is very important.”

Having the ability to dry grain down also allows the farm to harvest crops, even when conditions aren’t optimal.

“With a system like that we can go where … farmers that don’t have aeration systems can’t go,” says Kuhn. “I can go and get it at 20 per cent [moisture], so it allows me to get my grain in the bin with some quality, instead of letting it go through two more rainstorms. It’s all about efficiencies and getting it off as quick as we can. We have to pay a little more after to dry it, we’re running in that 20-some-cents-a-bushel to dry it, but at least I know what’s in the bin.”

But that’s not where it ends, Kuhn has started also started constructing a seed cleaning plant.  

“Because we need so much of our own seed, it just made it more sense for us to clean our own grain. And this way we can do it on our time,” says Kuhn. It’s also a way to keep employees consistently busy, he adds. 

The seed plant will also provide Kuhn Farms with a way to take advantage of new management practices and possibly lower their reliance on herbicides.

“We will be able to clean dockage out of our own grain,” says Kuhn. “And the future of farming looks like intercropping could be big, say, growing flax and chickpeas together then cleaning them out … different things like that, that’s going to be part of the future of farming, so we’re going to be looking at doing different things like that.”

Until now, a neighbour has cleaned Kuhn’s grain, but with continued expansion, Kuhn says that’s no longer a viable option.

Similar to many entrepreneurial farmers in Western Canada, he says it was the next logical step as the farm explores the possibility of selling its grain directly to international buyers.

“I want to be part of the value-added food chain of farming,” he says. “If I can take my lentils and husk them and split them, and put them in a bag and send them into the world, well, I want to be part of that.”

In the meantime, two other auxiliary agricultural businesses have also sprouted under Kuhn’s auspices—41-9 Agro Limited and 41-9 Aerial Limited.

“About five years ago we hired an agronomist full-time on our farm … and I think within the first year we decided, why don’t we offer an agronomy service to our neighbours?” says Kuhn. “So he does soil samples for them, he watches their crops, he checks for diseases, anything that an agronomist does, so we do it at a custom rate for the neighbours.”

The farm has also purchased a helicopter and hired a pilot to allow for custom spraying and greater input efficiency.

“We started learning how to spray some of our crops to minimize damage to our pulse crops and some of our oilseed crops,” says Kuhn. “The day after a rain I can be out there with my chopper, versus waiting two or three days with a high clearance sprayer.” 

But despite the farm’s focus on expansion and vertical integration, Kuhn is adamant that agribusinesses can only thrive when they hold onto the basics of good people, strong community and healthy soil.

“Really, where does the whole process start? It starts at your soil, and your soil needs to stay healthy,” he says, noting much of the soil in Western Canada has seen a century of use and abuse. “I think we need focus as farmers, that we need to get soil health back, we need to get the earth worms going, we need to get our microbes, whatever we can to get our soils back to healthy … if you don’t have good healthy soil, you don’t have anything.”

A healthy work environment is also key, says Kuhn, noting all of the family’s business ventures over the years have succeeded because of the commitment of their staff.

“Always surround yourself with good people,” he says, adding that keeping his employees busy and valued year-round is important. “We have six full-time men and two full-time ladies that work in the office …. these ladies are my right arm, it’s amazing what they do for me.”

“From managers in the oil patch to great people on the farm … we had a very strong core of good people in both businesses,” says Kuhn.

He notes that his employees are also important members of the local community who volunteer with the local fire department and help keep the amenities like the local recreation club up-and-running. But he acknowledges that rural communities are changing as farm businesses change.

“It’s kinda sad in a way … but farming to me, right now, is big business,” he says. “It’s not just about go out, work hard, cut a crop and you’ll feed your family. Now it’s about managing your grain and managing your cash flow. It’s business decisions that are made on a farm every day.”