To be named as Saskatchewan’s 2023 Outstanding Young Farmers is an honour that siblings Jake and Sarah Leguee didn’t expect when they agreed to let their names stand for nomination along with their business partner (and brother-in-law) Erik Nikolejsin. But they all agreed that the timing was right to put themselves out there, have an adventure and interact with other like-minded farmers.

“I felt the greatest opportunity in doing this was being able to expose ourselves to other successful operations,” Jake Leguee says. “Hopefully we can learn some things from them.”

And there are certainly a few things other farmers can learn from these third-generation farmers. Over the years, the family has grown Leguee Farms near Fillmore, Saskatchewan, into a successful 15,000-acre grain operation growing canola, durum, spring wheat, lentils and flax. To do that, they have focused on getting the most out of every acre they farm.

Everyone plays to their skills

The farm was started by Jake and Sarah’s grandparents, Don and Elsie, in 1956. Their parents, Russ and Sharon, took over in the late 1970s, growing the farm over the next few decades to 9,500 acres. 

After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with a degree in agronomy and a minor in ag business, Jake returned to work on the farm, but also worked for an independent agronomist and then an ag retailer for five years.

Sarah had graduated from Olds College in 2006 with ag production and business diplomas and also worked for an equipment dealership and a truck shop before returning to farm full time in 2012, around the same time as Jake. They have gradually assumed more responsibility in different areas of the business, each finding complementary but defined roles that suit their individual skills and aptitudes. 

Erik, with his background as a trained mechanic, has assumed the role of operations manager, while Sarah serves as vice president of grain logistics and Jake as CEO and managing partner. In the last few years, Sarah has taken over logistics, managing trucking, grain hauling, booking loads and tracking grain inventories. Meanwhile, Jake’s wife Stephanie – a busy stay-at-home mom with their three children, Asher, 8, Grayson, 5, and Tristan, 2 – also helps out with the bookkeeping and will take a turn in the combine if needed in the fall.

“There was a gradual transition of management responsibilities,” Jake says. “Dad passed over some of the crop and finance responsibilities. It was a natural changeover because I enjoyed both of those things while he retained the day-to-day management duties that he preferred.”

Focused on growth

Over the past decade, Leguee Farms has been focused on growth. One of the major goals they have achieved in that time is to increase the share of owned versus rented land from around 20 per cent to just over 50 per cent. But their growth and success isn’t just about buying more acres, it’s also about making sure they are getting the most productivity out of every acre they farm.

As the farm grew to 15,000 acres, the family realized they needed to change their focus. From 2010 to 2014, the farm received too much rainfall, which presented a lot of challenges. They had expanded rapidly, not capitalized enough and needed to switch gears to focus on doing a better job while improving the land they were farming. 

“You can’t control what you get for weather, but you can control how you manage what you get, and so that was what we started to focus on,” Jake says. “What it costs to plant a 10,000-acre crop in 2012 compared with a 15,000-acre farm today, it’s not 50 per cent more, it’s triple. Part of that is inflation but it’s also because we’re investing more in the crop, in our machinery and our people to make sure we have enough people to get the job done.”

Their land is highly variable with some marginal and some highly productive areas. Some of the land is saline and other areas struggle with hardpan, so they have concentrated on managing those troubled spots better using technology like electrical conductivity and elevation mapping.

“Thirteen years ago, we started down the path of getting mapping done on the land, so we could get a base level understanding of the soil that we’re farming because that type of map tells the soil particle size, which is a good indicator of productivity,” Jake says. “In our area, variable rate works well because we deal with such variability. We’ll go from some zones where we’re putting on zero fertilizer to zones where we’re putting on fertilizer rates to target 80 bushels/acre on a durum or hard red spring wheat crop. We have increased our overall rates but are much more site specific with it to try and extract the most we can out of every acre.”

Using data to make better decisions

They have also generated a lot of data from weather stations and soil moisture probes and their own on-farm field trials of everything from comparisons of seeding and fertilizer rates to the evaluation of plant growth regulators. 

“We have collected so much information from our trials over the years that just the volume of data alone is enough that we could trust it,” Jake says. “When I see results from five or 10 replicated trials over multiple fields over multiple years, that’s data that I can use, and we can say this is real, this can become a standard management practice, or this isn’t working, let’s drop it and move on to something else. We’re trying to make sure that the things that we’re doing or using are providing us a return on investment. It’s worth the effort to do our best to set the trials up and collect the data.”

After the crop is planted with a fertilizer rate to target their five-year yield average, it then becomes a case of fine-tuning everything based on the data that’s coming through in season.

“We look at the rainfall records from our weather station, and data from our soil moisture probes, to try and make our best educated guess of what we’re going to get for weather, which is still the most difficult part of trying to do any of this,” Jake says. “But we know a lot more by the middle of June than we did
May 1 when we planted that crop.”

Using all that extra knowledge compiled into a spreadsheet, Jake has a series of checkboxes to help them decide if there is enough potential in the crop to apply more fertilizer or other inputs. Ultimately, the farm is trying to move towards making better crop management decisions based on probability and statistics rather than on gut feelings.

“Most of the time it’s extra nitrogen decisions, but we might also decide on a fungicide, or some micronutrients, or maybe a plant growth regulator in the case of our cereals,” Jake says. “We make those incremental additions to the crop based on what we’re seeing for soil moisture, the potential of the stand that’s there and the forecast going forward. We’re doing a better job of predicting which years are going to provide that return on investment and which years aren’t.”

Always learning

It was hard to see the value of some of their changes and investments at first, but expecting the unexpected has become something the team has come to embrace as proof positive there is always more to learn.

“After the first year with the weather station, we realized that the most valuable sensor on that station was the soil moisture probe, which I thought initially wouldn’t even matter for us because we can’t do anything about it,” notes Jake. “But it was the deepening of the understanding of what’s underneath our feet – where those roots are and how deep they are capable of going in a short period of time – that significantly improved my understanding of the crops that we’re growing and the soils that we’re farming. When we get decent weather, our more marginal land can compete with some of the best land when it comes to the production that we’re getting. In the poorer years, there’s nothing we can do about those spots but we can reduce our costs.”

Governance is another area that the team has worked on because they know that having multiple family members involved in a farm business can put a lot of stress on relationships and the business itself.

“Some farms end up splitting unintentionally or intentionally just because it can be difficult to make sure that each person is happy in the role that they have,” Jake says. “But somebody does need to lead it, and step forward to take on that role, but it also means that the other family members have to be OK with letting that go. We’ve been very fortunate that the three of us have found roles that we enjoy on the farm and we aren’t envious of each other’s roles.”

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to work on communicating and keeping the business relationships strong.

“We have to make sure that we’re talking to each other and challenging each other on the things that we think need to be done better,” Jake says. “Building those roles and understanding of the accountability that goes into those roles is important.”

The important thing, says Jake, is to knock off some of the goals they have set for themselves through their strategic planning process. Then, they set new ones.

“We need to celebrate what we have achieved but we also need to take the next step forward,” Jake explains. “Even as we go through this process of hitting our strategic plan goals, we need to make sure that, even if they’re small, we’re setting new targets as we go; we can’t wait three years to redo that. We wanted to improve our cash flow, grow our operation and own more land. Those three goals definitely clash because buying land and growing your farm are huge consumers of cash flow, but we’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to pursue all three in the last couple of years in a significant enough way to make progress.”

Building for generation four

Longer term, they never lose sight of their vision to build an enduring business for the fourth generation.

“The fourth generation right now has got six kids in it and another one is on the way,” Jake says. “The governance required to run that ‘cousin consortium’ is quite significant. It’s going to become extremely important to have very clear governance practices when that generation starts to want to come into the farm because down the road somebody is going to have to lead this business and we need to separate ourselves from our own biases.”

To this end, they have set up an advisory board of people with different backgrounds and expertise to offer them different perspectives on their farm business operation and get some impartial, third-party advice.

Of course, there are always challenges and one thing that Jake and his business partners think about a lot is public perception of agriculture because they know it’s a driver for everything from government policy to the continued success of their farm. Although they admit it’s a challenge to communicate well to people who are increasingly disconnected from farming, they also see it as a huge opportunity for those who make the effort to try. 

“We haven’t done a great job of communicating why we do what we do and we need to try and make those connections because people are interested in agriculture and that’s a big change from when I was a kid and farming was sort of a forgotten occupation,” Jake says. “That’s a positive change and we need to harness that because that’s a major opportunity. Public policy ties into that, whether it’s environmental regulations, business risk management programs, or research and development in agriculture. All of those stem from the public having an interest in it.”

There are positives and negatives in any issue a farmer deals with on a daily basis but Jake states, for the most part, their team likes to focus on the positives.

“As business people, you have to look towards the positives while maintaining a realistic sense of the risks as much as possible, but also not living your life and not running your business through fear but through the lens of optimism over time,” he says.