By Natalie Noble
The Aberhart family is working together to advance agriculture in Canada for their family, their industry and a better future for everyone. So far, they’re excelling with two thriving agri-businesses and a family farm that’s grown 10-fold over the last 20 years. Was it all easy to imagine 30 years ago? Not according to them.
In the late-1980s, pre-teen Terry Aberhart was a budding entrepreneur with a flourishing poultry enterprise. Selling chickens and ducks to friends and neighbours around the family’s 1,500-acre farm, he learned the value in goal-setting and hard work early in life.
They’re a family who come by hard work honestly. In fact, Debbie looked after the farm’s dairy herd while expecting each of her boys and up until younger daughter Jennifer was born. Today, Terry, wife Lichelle, Harvey and Debbie work closely as a team, and have grown the farm to a 15,000-acre, progressive dryland grain farming operation.
Aberhart Farms, located near Langenburg, Sask., just a mile from the Manitoba border, was originally purchased in 1961 by Harvey’s father. After earning his journeyman electrician’s licence, Harvey returned to the farm in 1974 and purchased three quarter sections from his dad. He and Debbie also bought 30 dairy cows and then two more quarters of land.
Fast-forward to the late 1990s and Harvey had sold the dairy herd, then worked as an electrician in Saskatchewan’s mining industry, then sold crop insurance and finally, was managing the John Deere dealership in Russell, Man. Dan would soon be working in sales for John Deere, and Terry was showing some serious interest in running the farm.
“For as long as I remember, I always wanted to farm,” says Terry. “I was always excited about it, and it’s always been part of my plan.”
Paying attention in school wasn’t his strong-suit, yet Terry says he still had a passion for learning that continues today. Seeking skills that would complement farming, he earned his journeyman certification in ag mechanics, working with a few John Deere dealerships.
Unsatisfied with leading a double life on and off the farm, Terry called it quit his day job and made the call to go full time at farming.
“I reached a point where I realized I wasn’t enjoying working off the farm and worrying about what was going on there,” he says. “I decided if I was going to farm, I wanted to be able to just farm, and to do it well.”
At 20 years old he was entrusted with a fair bit of leash from Dad, who was still working off-farm at the time. He was given the freedom to “step on some rakes” and learn as he went, but wanted more education from other successful farmers.
“I remembered from my days working as an ag mechanic, I would go to a farm that was really successful, had an awesome yard and equipment and a great reputation for growing amazing crops,” he says. “Then, I could go to another farm down the road and see a totally different scenario. I recognized quickly that the difference was within the agronomy, the management and how they ran the business. So, I knew I had to learn more in these areas.”
With this in mind, and as the farm grew to 5,000 acres, Terry signed up for an Agri-Trend town hall meeting in Saskatoon, Sask., where he met some of their senior coaches.
“I thought their platform and the agri-coaching model was really interesting, definitely something we could use on the farm. There were areas I thought we needed more knowledge and expertise and I could see there would be a lot of value there,” says Terry.
Growing the farm, and a startup
Terry returned home from that trip in 2006 and started Sure Growth Solutions, a business that offers agronomic and management expertise and consulting to farm clients with the training and support of the Agri-Trend network.
By then, Aberhart Farms had expanded to 7,500 acres while Harvey’s dealership had changed ownership. “I was able to convince him to quit his job and come to the farm full time,” says Terry. “That allowed us to start this other business while supporting and moving the farm forward.”
Harvey says this transition was not easy at first. “It was a little tough, wondering how we could all manage. It’s not easy to move from a secure job into farming and all the associated risks,” he says.
Terry agrees. “The first couple years there, I think he was a little unsure. Working sales in the dealership environment, there’s a lot of positivity, but you can be exposed to a lot of negativity. It was hard to feel confident that the farm could be successful and support our families.”
Fortunately, as the farm and Sure Growth grew together, the Aberharts were surrounded by numerous entrepreneurs and professionals who were passionate about agriculture and agronomy. “We formed a lot of really strong relationships and through that it helped us sell our consulting business and our knowledge there, but also our farm as well,” says Terry.
Today, Sure Growth has been in business for more than 12 years. Their team actively consults on approximately 100,000 acres of variable-rate technology and precision ag-focused work.
But the Aberharts weren’t stopping there. A new opportunity was approaching that would bring Dan back into the mix.
After studying at the University of Saskatchewan and starting up a custom spraying business, Dan says things really clicked into gear for him when he came into sales, selling high-clearance sprayers for John Deere between 2000 and 2013.
“This work gave me the opportunity to do business and network with a huge number of really progressive producers in western Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” he says. “There’s an incredible amount of capital and value in building a good network.”
By 2015, a new opportunity presented itself to Dan, a product called Bio-Sul Premium Plus. A team of Terry’s networking colleagues in Alberta were working with the sulphur-amended compost and had approached him about distributing it east of their province.
“I figured I had enough irons in the fire at the time, but the product was really unique and I thought there was a good opportunity there,” says Terry. “With Dan’s ag sales experience, and because he was looking for a change in direction, we got together, drove out to Alberta and checked the business out.”
When the brothers returned home, they put a business plan together and launched Aberhart Ag Solutions.
“We were seeing the opportunity to think and be a bigger business at this time,” says Dan. “In the last three years since, we’ve built a network with around 50 re-sellers and have nearly one million acres supplied with the product in these two provinces.”
With Dan at the helm, Aberhart Ag Solutions unites the three Aberharts as shareholders. Along with their team, they’re proud to be a part of advancing Canada’s ag industry by offering products, technology and practices that reduce farming’s environmental impact.
“If you use our products, it’s not just something Terry’s using on his farm to produce quality product. It’s something you can tell your city friends about that will blow their minds when you tell them what we’re doing in agriculture,” says Dan.
For example, the Aberharts use zero-tillage practices, variable-rate and GPS technology, all to avoid erosion of their soil and ensure inputs are used solely when and where required. Furthermore, Bio-Sul is a fertilizer made using Class A compost—certified as a soil amendment as its carrier and derived from using recycled urban waste (often grocery waste)—for the elemental sulphur which is a byproduct of the oil industry.
“We’re focused on growing food better and more sustainably. It only translates to better economics, soil health and yields; a better future,” says Dan. “We’re working to change the narrative about what we’re doing in agriculture to enhance our environment.”
What’s next for Aberhart Ag? Bringing more products to market that increase the quality produced on the farm, and have positive environmental and social impacts.
“Our new platform is #farmersfixingtheworldsproblems and how we can help farmers achieve sustainability they can sell to their customers,” says Dan. “Modern producers are getting lumped in with some bad public messaging from the customer’s point of view.
“With Terry’s knowledge and experience in the field, we have the … credibility about important issues today that run counter-current to some of the negative messaging that’s out there.”
Growing through challenge
While the sky looks to be the limit for this family, it wasn’t always straightforward.
After purchasing 10 quarters of land in 2002, the farm suffered a devastating early frost in 2004.
“It was the worst anyone around us could remember,” recalls Harvey. “That pushed us into doing more projections, and proving to the bank, the government and ourselves that we could survive.”
Terry also recalls a tough stretch in 2011 and 2012, two of the worst years in the farm’s history. “These were very poor production years with high financial losses shortly after expanding aggressively,” he says. “I remember going through that and it was really demoralizing. I looked at it like, ‘did I fail, did we not make the right choices?’”
With that, the family instituted annual strategy meetings, bringing in trusted outside experts and coaches. “We look at where we’re at, where we want to go, and how we move forward,” says Terry. “It was tough getting through those two years, but we learned a lot, as we do from the biggest challenges. Part of farming is learning to overcome adversity and adapt.”
For two young men and their father, each headed in different directions at the turn of this century, fate brought everyone back together. When Terry came back to the farm to avoid working away from it, he would have never expected to be part of two growing businesses today, working with Harvey and Dan. Rather than looking back, they’re focusing forward.
“We’re looking a lot at managing our land, the health of our soil and ensuring we’re improving,” says Terry. “We want to leave our land and businesses in better shape than when we took them on.”
Farming between his previous and next generation, Harvey has seen massive changes in the way things are done. “My parents farmed the best they knew at the time, and they did a good job,” he says. “But back then, whoever sat on the tractor the longest, was the most successful. The more times they worked the field, the more money they were going to make.”
Today, that’s no longer true.
“We’ve focused on leveraging technology, data, new science, efficiency and just doing things better than we did yesterday. That’s all we need to do to keep improving,” says Terry.
And doing better involves planning.
Terry strongly believes that in business, especially farming, one of the biggest risks comes when something happens to the principal operator. “If they’re doing everything themselves, that’s a really dangerous situation,” he says. “I’ve strived to build a team and organization that can live on, even if something happens to any of us.”
This includes having the right structure, tools, support, planning, and also the right advisors in place. “We can leverage each team member’s unique abilities, but also we can fill in the gap if anything comes up. One of our core values is supporting family.”
And the family dynamic, like farming, has also evolved with the third generation of Aberharts. Both Terry and Dan have created amazing families in not-so-conventional ways.
Terry, Lichelle and their children Sarrikah, 17, Asceline, 15 and Holden, 11, doubled their kid count last September, opening their home on the farm to three foster children, Rydar, 8, Hailee, 6, and Octavia, one-and-a-half. Living in Brandon, Man., Dan is blessed with a beautiful blended family that includes Gavin, 20, Zack, 18, Trinity, 15, and Evanka, 3.
Harvey remains heavily involved in the farm’s operation through the growing season, but he and Debbie head south to Arizona along with their trusty Harley Davidson, for the winter. “I’ll probably never retire,” he says. “I won’t quit. I’ll just slow down and take more time to hit the roads on the Harley with Debbie.”
No matter what’s next, family is the Aberharts’ guiding principle. “Our companies are family companies and if they aren’t enhancing our family relationships, they’re no-gos,” says Dan.
Terry agrees. “My ultimate goal is to build businesses that can carry on successfully beyond me. I think a lot about not just making the farm and the businesses successful today, but also ensuring they’re successful tomorrow and for our future generations.”