By Natalie Noble

Not so long ago, self-driving tractors and technology allowing one person to remotely operate multiple machines might have seemed a futuristic science fiction film. It’s becoming the norm at Carlson Ag today. 

“Just as our early adoption of zero till practices in the 1990s allowed us to leverage our machinery, cover more acres, enable better utilization and expand our farm, I believe the autonomous movement has the same potential,” says owner Jeff Carlson. “We choose to be an early adopter because it enables us to utilize technological advances in a smarter way and apply that to broader acres in the economical business sense.” 

The fifth-generation operation founded near Trochu, Alta. in 1904 has continuously expanded to 11,000 acres, as well as across the border into Saskatchewan with a second 7,000-acre farm near Carnduff established in 2011. The newest partnership sees the forward-focused family working with Olds College Smart Farm in Olds, Alberta and Craik, Sask., a great fit as the Carlsons enthusiastically embrace new technology, even in its experimental phases. 

At a time where many farmers face either a lack of interest in their next generation or more children wanting to stay on than the operation can sustain, Jeff is proud to have his entire family living on family land all within half an hour of the original home base. 

“Although, not everyone works on the farm. We have lawyers, engineers, accountants, teachers and construction project managers in our immediate family with some still developing careers,” says Jeff. “All my family have turned out to be exceptional people, excelling in their careers and passionate about what they’re doing.” 

Actively running the farm, growing canola, malt barley, wheat and peas, are Jeff and wife Arlene, their sons Joshua with wife Carmen and Carter with wife Sidney. As a group, they’re big on heritage, stewardship and progress. “We’re just so proud to work with them and we’re having a lot of fun working together,” says Jeff.

One has to wonder what Oscar Carlson, Jeff’s great grandfather who immigrated from Sweden to start the farm, would think if he could see autonomous machines traveling across those fields where he grew grain and raised large working horses. “He was 16 at the time he arrived and I don’t think he ever went back,” says Jeff.

But Jeff and the family recently visited their roots in Sweden, experiencing a full-circle moment. “We all drove in a bus all the way across the country,” says Jeff. “I would say that there’s no land we saw in Sweden that’s better than the land we have here. So, he made a great decision for our family.”

After World War II, Jeff’s grandfather Robert took the reins from Oscar, growing the farm to 2,000 acres. In the late ‘60s, his parents, Doug and Bonnie began to spend time on the farm and started farming full time in 1972, more than doubling the farm’s size to 4,200 acres. 

Doug was an early adopter of continuous cropping in the 1970s. At the same time, he set up a fertilizer business, growing it out of local demand for increased fertility products. With multi-locations, it remains one of Alberta’s oldest independent dealerships, having grown under the skilled management of family partners, Lawrence and Bobbie Bauer. “My father is still active in it,” says Jeff. “I have been involved in an advisory role which helps in the timing of farm inputs and keeping up with changes in fertilizer and chemical products.”

Since Jeff and Arlene joined in 1992, Carlson Ag has grown to over 18,000 acres and counting across the three locations. Jeff credits much of that success to excellent leadership skills passed down by his father that he, in turn, is now passing on to his sons. “As a multi-generational farm, we have learned to be proactive in cross training and transitioning roles to allow for the growth of new young talent and ideas. It’s a stewardship model and perspective that gives all involved a chance to succeed,” says Jeff. “My dad did an exceptional job in managing the farm’s transition to Arlene and me. He was proactive and had discussions with me even earlier than anticipated.”

Jeff believes gradually letting go sooner is important. “It enables the youth a different skill set to rise up and benefit the farm. This is both from a continuity and a growth perspective,” he says, adding that his dad took a unique management approach. “That model of waiting for one generation to move off the land that supports them so the second generation can move on is cannibalistic because you’re both having to derive your income from the same land base.”

Instead, Doug encouraged Jeff to go out on his own first. “My father supported me by allowing me to use machinery and rent land, he certainly helped me in buying some of our first land together,” says Jeff. “But, as far as the overall growth, his attitude was that I should go get, and rent, my own land and build my own farm, not just take over his land.” 

At the same time, Jeff prioritized his education as is the case with his own kids. He earned both his Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws degrees from the University of Calgary. “The combination of business and law have opened doors to invest and move forward in exciting circles including land development, hotel ownership, oil and gas production and service operation experience,” says Jeff. “This education changed my approach to farming. On one hand it introduced a range of other opportunities but it also helped cement the lifestyle Arlene and I wanted, which was to farm.” 

That decision not just to farm, but to grow the business, soon saw Jeff look east across the border and expand into southeast Saskatchewan. When provincial laws there opened up to allow for interprovincial ownership of Saskatchewan land, pulling the trigger on the Carnduff expansion made good economic sense. “The land was undervalued from a productive value compared to the Alberta land. That, along with the ability to find and put together a large package more easily than we could do here made that decision clear to see,” says Jeff.  

So, they broke 39 pastures of hay land, removed fencing and improved dilapidated structures across the parcel to convert it to more valuable cropland. Meanwhile, the Olds College collaboration to the north in Craik is in its first year.  

The Carlsons aim to continue the farm’s tradition of continuous growth in acres, as well as upping their production value by venturing into new crops. “We’re starting to look at alternative crops even as a broad acre farm,” says Jeff. “Carter’s been talking with an individual looking to try some newer crops like potatoes here that would require different machinery and be destined for a different end-use.”

How do they plan to achieve these goals? With the latest in technology, of course. “We continue to work on refining systems in the field and sharing information from our own research and experience,” says Jeff.  

It’s a legacy the family’s long believed in, including that early implementation of zero-till seeding in the 1990s. “That was an exact example of the right time for one generation to take their hands off the wheel and allow a new generation to take hold,” says Jeff. “My father’s realization and support in this enabled me to take over the farm.”

Next, in the 2000s, it was variable rate fertility and auto steering technologies the Carlson’s welcomed. “We continue to try out and monitor other technological advances that bring value to large broadacre farming,” says Jeff. “We are currently using satellite imagery to scout crops, determine yields and control equipment.”

Today, Joshua and Carter join that tradition as the family works closely with Olds College in the adoption of autonomous farming. “We’ve been working alongside OMNI and Raven for years now,” says Joshua. “We have seen the original concepts through to the initial creation and prototypes, field tests and then continued further development with that autonomous equipment. We can see there’s a lot of potential, and still a lot to figure out before people can run and trust it at full capacity in fields on its own.”

Already, the Carlsons are realizing great potential in these advances in the ability for the farmer to simultaneously oversee multiple pieces of equipment, a major time saver. Aligned in their vision with Olds College, partnering up just made sense. “They have an autonomous seeder, sprayer and spreader we’ve used on our land,” says Joshua. “Over the last three years we’ve brought them out and used our acres to provide Olds College more testing acres to continue ironing out the wrinkles and the college has been exceptional to work with.”

As these products have now entered the commercial market to be sold, Joshua says the return on investment is already clear to see, especially in valuable time savings. “There’s a quantifiable improvement you can see, especially with the sprayer and the spreader. We can put them in the field, essentially press play, and return in a few hours,” he says.

That knack for exploration is important to facilitating progress for all of Canadian agriculture. “The research and development people and the inventors of these technologies, we’re thankful for them, but they spend an awful lot of money figuring things out,” says Jeff. “So, we like to be the ones who are the first to adopt just after it’s been figured out. We have to implement each new technology we’re bringing on and then systematize it over larger acres.”

It’s that strategic growth of their acreage that supports such innovation. “I have always said our land base has been really good because over five generations, we’ve been able to trade our way into a really good land package and have had the support of amazing landlords who have trusted us to steward their land over 25 years,” says Jeff. “Even though you can leverage all these advancing technologies, it’s still always better to start off with good land. If you’re starting with marginal land, everything is compromised.”

It also takes the right people who care for the land the same way. “Our farm has always been reliant on good people to help build and maintain it over the years,” says Jeff. “I’ve had the same person working for me who just went into retirement after nearly 30 years. Most of our managers and long-term employees stay with us for a decade or longer. We really appreciate the value and continuity provided by reliable people who choose to spend their career with us.” 

Central to that team have been farm manager Earl Silinski and his family. Silinski brings farm management and agronomic training along with a mechanical skill set that serves the operation well. As the new generation is transitioning in, Joshua brings an engineering education and Carmen offers business training with supply chain experience. Carter’s business and accounting training round out the necessary expertise for the growing business. 

“We are in the initial stages of adopting some of these skill sets, learning to work together as a team, and refining everyone’s strengths so people can be in the areas where they’re most comfortable, and bring the most value,” says Jeff. “We’re working to make communication the biggest priority within our group. As you work together as a family, it’s really important to have those tough discussions when you need to and for everyone to really be honest with each other. We can say, there’s a lot more smiles than frowns so far.” 

As each growing season wraps safely and successfully, the entire Carlson Ag team, including spouses, takes a break and enjoys a harvest dinner. “That end of harvest happens in any imaginable weather pattern. We’ve had snow the minute all the combines rolled in. We’ll open up the shop, sit around with some cold drinks and breathe a big sigh of relief,” says Jeff. “Once the dust settles, we all go out on the town in either Calgary or Red Deer for a great dinner together in celebration.”

Next, it’s time for reflection and planning a new season, including evaluating the ways new technologies are impacting production. “Large broadacre farms in the Prairies can be run very efficiently, especially with all the new applications of technology,” says Jeff. “The amount of food volume and value produced by a well-run, experienced team can be amazingly impressive. If one calculates that caloric value of the food we produce, our operation produces enough to feed a small city. This makes it easy to get up every morning and excel.”