By Angela Lovell

For the past 25 years, Lee and Dana Petersen and their family have not only farmed 3,500 acres of grain land near Hodgeville, Saskatchewan, they’ve also run a 100-head cow/calf operation and a custom combining business that takes them away from the farm for most of the summer and fall.

Being that diversified involves a lot of management and organization, and it can definitely get a little crazy in the spring.

“Basically, we plant our crop in the spring, we get it sprayed and then we’re gone until harvest,” Lee says. “We don’t see our own crop. We try to monitor it remotely. That causes some challenges but it’s something we’ve worked with.”

By mid-May there’s a lot going on besides the usual work of preparing the tractors and machinery for seeding. The combine crew is doing maintenance on the machines to get them ready for the season while the Petersens deal with the paperwork to get their work visas and other documents in order to head down to the United States, all the time keeping in touch with their harvest customers in Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado about how the crops are shaping up.

“Certainly, at that time of year you have got to wear two or three different hats and sometimes you wear them all the same day,” Lee says. 

A family that’s all in

Lee’s three children grew up helping out on the farm. They have been heading out on the road every summer and have been part of the harvest crew ever since they could legally operate the machines. Tyson, the eldest son, at 22, is now working full-time on the farm along with his wife, Brooke. Their newborn, Wells, will be six months old when he goes on his first harvest run, following in the footsteps of his dad who was two weeks old when he had his first combine ride in Flagler, Colorado.

Tyson’s sister, Tilynn (20), who just graduated from Lakeland College with an agribusiness diploma, will help out again this summer, as well as his brother, who is 19 and just finished his first year of mechanical engineering at university.

Lee’s 81-year-old dad, Lloyd, who still helps out with the day-to-day chores, purchased the farm in the early ’60s. In 1968, he and his brother began custom combining for farmers in the United States. Although Lloyd got out of custom work after a few years, his brother continued until 2006. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that the idea came around again.

“We started doing some custom work just for a few neighbours to supplement the farm and make better use of the machinery that we had at the time,” Lee says. “Then, we had the opportunity to go to the United States to do some jobs in 1998 and it has grown from there. Now it’s an integral part of the operation.”

The Petersens currently have three combines on the road and the combine crews (that usually include an extra three or four seasonal employees besides the family members) harvest in the United States from early June until August, then come back to do jobs in Canada for September and October. Sometimes they will go back to North or South Dakota to harvest fall crops into November.

They work on farms from 40 acres to 40,000 acres and all those farms have different needs. In some cases, they complete the entire harvest operation, including hauling the grain. Other farms have their own combines and just need some extra capacity for a week or two to help out. Some farms have never owned a combine and don’t intend to. All are family-owned farms and in most cases, they are repeat customers. Some have worked with the Petersens for so long, they are now dealing with the next generation.

“We may have dealt with dad for 15 years and now we are dealing with the son or daughter,” Lee says. “It’s nice to see.”

Learning how to juggle

Over the years, the Petersens have developed ways to manage all these multiple enterprises at once and if necessary, remotely.

“Dad stays home on the farm all year round, so he certainly does a good amount of it as far as checking everything. We also have a full-time employee at the farm to check the pastures and help with haying and things like that, but we rely a fair bit on the local agronomists and specialists that we deal with,” Lee says. “If we’re talking to the neighbour and there’s a pest in the crop or something that’s causing some problems, we’ll lean on somebody to do some scouting and get their opinion.”

The juggling doesn’t stop for them on the road either, with timing of the custom jobs often being a bit of a squeeze play.

“It can be a battle to get one job done because the next farm is going to be ready tomorrow,” Lee says. “We do have a pretty good network of other Canadian custom harvesters that we know and we help each other out if we need to. You do rely on your friends a bit too.”

Typically, the Petersens do not have trouble finding employees but ever since the mandatory training for truck drivers has come into effect, it is a bit more of a challenge. Over the years, though, they have had young people from as far away as New Zealand and Ireland who were eager to sign on for a season. 

“It’s more than just farm work because it’s an adventure with the harvesting and the travelling,” Lee says. “We have two fellows from Switzerland working for us on our crew this year, and they just want to go out and see the world. They both got a hold of us through people that worked for us in the past; a majority of our employees the last few years have come as a result of word of mouth.”

Know your numbers if you want to diversify

Obviously, the Petersens know a thing or two about diversification and they have developed their own way of managing their complementary businesses, but the driver behind every decision they make is economics.

“You stand back today and see all the grain prices are high. There’s opportunity there but you still have to look at the big picture,” Lee says. “Harvesting is no different than farming. We’ve had good years and years that aren’t as good but everything comes around if you make a decision based on the economics. You can be too diversified. You can be putting too much energy into part of your operation that’s not paying for itself.”

A good example of that was the family’s decision to reduce their cow/calf herd from 300 to 100 head recently.

“We have some marginal land that the cattle are the best fit for but we only need a certain number of head to use that most efficiently, so that’s why we backed off a bit on our cattle side, simply because of economics,” Lee says.

Lee believes that custom work is a good thing for farmers to get into if they are trying to diversify.

“If you’ve got a tractor or you’ve got an implement that you’re underutilizing, you can look at doing a little bit of custom work with it,” he says.

But that advice comes with a caveat; it is vital farmers know exactly what their costs are going in so they can get a true picture of whether their investment is making them enough of a return to be worthwhile.

“With the price of machinery and the depreciation on the machinery, you’ve got to make sure that if you’re out there running it on somebody else’s farm, it needs to be paying for itself – or you’re going backwards,” Lee says. “You think you’re making money but you’re really depreciating the implement faster than you are earning money.”

Lee, who is 47, has seen a lot of people trying to get into custom work make the same mistake: over-investing at the very beginning.

“I’ve seen people decide they are going to be a custom harvester and spend a bunch of money to buy fancy machinery when they don’t have the work to back it up,” he says. “Or, they have a year when there isn’t a lot of work and two years down the road they’re dejected because they can’t make any money at this. It’s like any other business. You have got to watch your cost going into it and grow it over time. Everything doesn’t need to be new and shiny year one or two or maybe even year 10.”

Comparing Canadian and U.S. agriculture

Spending so much time on either side of the border means Lee sees agriculture from both sides. One of the biggest differences he has noticed is that Canadian farmers seem to be more adaptable than American farmers.

“Canadian farmers are a lot more adaptive to change and technology even with things like crop rotations and different varieties of crops,” he says. “The average farm in Western Canada grows at least four to six different crops, anything from oats to canola to flax, and you may see a bit of that as you come farther north, like in northern Montana, but not to the extent you see here. We have customers who grow wheat and have summer fallow and they’ve done that for 50 years. I had a middle-aged farmer from Iowa who stopped by a field in Kansas we were combining because he had never seen wheat harvested before. On his farm all they ever grow is corn and soybeans.”

Lee admits he doesn’t know why that is, but he does have a few theories.

“Perhaps it’s how their crop insurance programs work compared to ours. I think maybe we’re a step ahead with our crop rotations, with watching disease and all the other agronomic reasons that we do crop rotations. However, I don’t have a firm reason to say, ‘this is why it’s different,’” he says.

Past Quarter Century

Lee has seen a lot of changes in the industry over the past quarter decade, in the types of crops and of course the equipment, which has got bigger and heavier over the years. There is a lot of new technology, although the basics haven’t changed that much. 

“If you’ve got a combine that’s brand new or one that’s 10 years old, they’re not drastically different,” he says. “We have autosteer and things now we didn’t have when we started but we’re still harvesting the crop and hauling it to the elevator. The technology has made it easier and more convenient with things like apps on your phone to track the loads to the elevator and to link your scale and your cart to your phone but we’re still doing the same job.”

With the next generation coming on board and a farm that offers opportunities on so many different fronts because of how diversified it is, the Petersens are working, in the short term, on defining what everyone’s role will be going forward.

“Right now, everybody can do everything but as you get into the next generation, it’s about figuring out where everybody fits and where we need to grow our business to fit that,” Lee says. “I could see, as the opportunity arises, certainly growing the farm and we could also grow the harvesting side, running another crew, that kind of thing. We’re basically there now; we can do that now, but that’s something that could easily develop in the future for sure.”