By Angela Lovell
You know the saying, you become like the people you hang around with? It’s true, and that’s why Dallas Vert and Natasha Pospisil, who run a farm and two other side businesses, make sure they’re surrounding themselves with creative and interesting people.
Since they won the Alberta Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) title in 2019, they have gotten to know many other successful farmers and people throughout the agricultural industry.
“When you’re talking about ideas and someone says, ‘that’s a pretty cool idea,’ it gives you a little pep in your step,” Vert says. “Whereas if you’re talking with negative people who say, ‘that’s a stupid idea, why would you do that?’ it brings you down. Surrounding ourselves with positivity has energized us and helped us be more successful.”
Vert and Pospisil need a lot of energy. Not only do they seed 12,000 acres of grain land, they operate a general store and post office, and a fertilizer, seed and input retailer in their local town of Kirriemuir, Alberta. They are also raising three small children: Reese (10), Tegan (7) and Ryker (3). But they don’t use any of that as an excuse to shy away from new opportunities.
“If we would have said, ‘we’re too busy,’ we wouldn’t have had all the opportunities that we have had,” Pospisil says.
Striving to constantly improve
After returning to the farm in 2001 with an agribusiness diploma from Olds College, Vert realized that the farm wasn’t big enough to support two families. He began custom spraying as a sideline with the aim of growing and improving the farm over time.
“If you don’t try to grow and change, you’re always going to be in the same spot you were 10 years ago,” Vert says. “My focus on the farm is to constantly try to improve, even if it’s small improvements throughout the year, say on grain marketing or cost of production. If you try and improve all those different avenues, it adds up to a big dollar return at the end of the day.”
Slowly, the family grew the farm through a combination of renting and purchasing land. Vert and Pospisil, who married in 2009, took over the farm from Vert’s mother in 2017 following the death of his father that year from progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurological disorder.
Since then, they have maintained their growth mentality and have remained open and receptive to taking on new things. It’s an important ingredient in their formula for success.
“If you do the same thing all the time, it can start to feel redundant and you need something to rejuvenate you,” Pospisil says. “It helps to spark your creativity and reinvest your interest in what you’re doing if you can incorporate something new or take on something else.”
Pospisil, who runs the general store and does the books for all three businesses, grew up in northern Saskatchewan, helping in her family’s outfitting and summer resort businesses from a young age. After graduating from Olds College with her land agent licence, she worked on land acquisitions for oil companies. She met Vert during a visit to the farm to discuss a pipeline route on Vert’s land.
Watching for possibilities
There are many ways that farmers can diversify into other ventures both on and off the farm, but more often than not those ideas and opportunities come from putting yourself out there, building relationships with people and being attuned to the possibilities.
Vert had worked cooperatively with his uncle, who previously owned the retail outlet, to build up his customer base for custom spraying.
“We had a good relationship where he recommended me to his retail customers and just asked that if any of my customers were looking to buy chemical that I would recommend him,” Vert says. “After doing that for several years, I got to know his business and how it worked. When he was looking to retire, we came up with an agreement and Natasha and I took ownership in 2012.”
Although willing to take a few risks and seize opportunities, the couple know that their decisions need to be financially responsible to ensure long-term viability of their operations. Sometimes that means thinking things through from different angles and coming up with creative ideas.
As an example, six years ago they expanded the farm from 6,000 to 10,000 acres but didn’t want to have to buy more equipment or hire more people. A different approach was needed.
“We have one air drill and one tractor, so we started experimenting by seeding very early, around the second or third of April, as soon as we can get onto our land,” Vert says. “There was some skepticism that our crops were going to freeze when they came out of the ground, but we’ve been doing it for six years now and we’ve been getting a two-week jump on our seeding window. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it takes us 25 days to seed and we’re done seeding the first or second week in May. That makes a big difference, not only financially, by not having $4M worth of seeding equipment, but by getting things done in a timely manner. It’s the small, out-of-the-box thinking that can make the difference.”
Understanding your business
Vert and Pospisil have defined and different roles in their various enterprises. That has happened organically by virtue of their different expertise and interests. Vert is hands-on, likes the day-to-day challenges and often comes up with new ideas that he’s anxious to run with. Pospisil is more detail-oriented and organized; she creates some structure around Vert’s ideas. They complement each other perfectly but admit that the key to building a well-functioning business system, especially with so many moving parts, is communication, something they work on constantly between themselves and with their outside advisers.
“One thing we started doing about five years ago is having more constant communication with our bank manager, lawyer and accountant so that, at any given time, they know what we want to do in the future, and we know what’s expected of them and what they expect of us,” Vert says.
They also understand that knowing the numbers inside out is vitally important. They review their finances weekly.
“You need to know bottom baselines, where you need to be, where your projections are,” Vert says. “One extra day in the office trying to figure out logistics and crunching numbers accelerates you one month of hard physical work.” That’s important because time is not something that Vert or Pospisil have a lot of to spare, and certainly not to waste on things that don’t matter or are distracting to their operations.
“We make 10 to 13 substantial decisions in a day, and if we pushed them off and procrastinated, we would never get anything done,” Vert says. “The biggest thing is to accept what you need to do, execute it and then carry on to the next job.”
Pospisil finds it useful to make lists to help her manage her time and stay focused. “Sometimes I’ll just make a list of the things that I’ve got to hammer off the next day, or it’ll be for the week, and it keeps me on track,” she says. “You have to make sure that you don’t lose focus when you have so much orbiting around you. You want to make sure that your focus is always very sharp.”
There’s a lot to learn
Vert and Pospisil are the first to admit that running multiple enterprises is not easy and has presented challenges for both of them. They have had to learn how to run very different businesses while juggling their family and outside commitments.
Although Vert had a basic understanding of how the fertilizer world worked from a farmer’s perspective, he soon found that running a fertilizer plant was a totally different business model than a farm.
“There is a lot of risk, especially with the current volatility in the markets,” he says. “If you buy the product at the wrong time, and all of a sudden, the floor drops out and the value of that product is much lower, you know you have to take that loss to be competitive in the market. Every year, purchasing is totally different. You can’t make a decision on a whim, you have to be educated on the trends, and calculated. It took a lot of time to learn and understand that.”
For Pospisil, it’s been balancing family and work life that has proven the most challenging, especially with no childcare options in their rural location. Again, she has learned to use her own experiences growing up to help find creative solutions that allow her to manage her two worlds to the benefit of both.
“I have had to learn to slow down and it’s been beneficial because I’ve become good at integrating the kids,” she says.
“I have learned to incorporate them into the business. From day one, they have come to work with me every single day, so that’s been huge. It’s important to me because I grew up with a family who integrated me into the family’s work. The kids are so involved with the customers and it’s nice to see them a part of something. They see the world through a different lens and I think it’s going to pay off well for them in the long term.”
Besides running their operations, Vert and Pospisil are heavily involved in industry and community organizations and projects. They still work with the OYF program and sit on a producer panel for the Olds College Smart Farm. They also donate a lot of time to their tiny K-12 school’s fully operational farm which operates a hydroponic growing system, grows produce for a local community-supported agriculture scheme and provides agricultural education to local and urban students.
Policies and perception
The couple do more than their share of paperwork. They have environmental farm plans in place and try to follow new trends in regenerative and ecological production practices as much as they can. But Vert and Pospisil admit they are sometimes concerned about the impact of environmental policies on their operations.
“What worries me is whether the governing bodies understand how the farm community works,” Vert says. “For example, they are starting to introduce legislation that you know isn’t possible, such as the reduction of fertilizer by 30 per cent (by 2030). We are not going out and randomly spending X amount of dollars just because we can; we’re trying to get by with the best possible blend that we can. We’re not spending 30 per cent more if we don’t have to, so that kind of stuff is a little bit unnerving.”
He is also concerned that these kinds of policies send negative and unrealistic messages about the farming industry to the general public.
“Public perception is that farming is negative, contributing to our carbon footprint and hurting the environment, and [decision-makers] need to be better educated before they make those kinds of decisions,” Vert says.
The future lies in small things
Vert and Pospisil have focused on steady growth over the past 10 years, but for the immediate future they are switching their attention to efficiency. Following the same philosophy that allowed them to make efficiencies at seeding, the couple just built a large grain dryer so they can begin combining earlier and make the most efficient use of their two combines instead of having to buy a third to finish harvesting in time.
“We plan to focus on smaller increases in production, better marketing, better equipment use efficiencies, that kind of stuff rather than just going out and buying another 1,000 acres,” Vert says. “We have a good base, we’re trying to tweak our workforce, and we want to fine-tune and make our business more viable and more profitable with what we have.”