By Natalie Noble

It’s not every day a Prairie farm family’s success story is told without the history of several generations’ contributions in building up the operation. But, what if a young boy aspires to grow up and be a farmer one day with no farm to take over?

Jim Faulkner, Lang, Sask. farmer, and his wife Joanne, know well the dedication involved in overcoming every obstacle to realize that dream. Today, they grow canola, durum wheat and green lentils on 3,600 acres and are currently adding another 2,200 in conjunction with a transition on to their daughter, Jolene Durie.

The journey to this poignant life moment is not a short one. It took determination and an adventurous spirit on behalf of both partners. “The most important thing is that my wife has always been very supportive and encouraging in my ventures into farming,” says Jim. “We’ve done all of this together. She’s always been, and still is, my ‘right hand man.’” 

It all begins in Saskatoon, where Jim grew up in the city, his father a pharmacist and mother a medical secretary. “I have always wanted to farm since a very young age,” he says. “I spent most of my summers and fall seasons on my uncle’s grain farm. I was so focused on farming I did everything to work towards that goal by studying farm machinery mechanics to earn my heavy equipment mechanics as a trade.”

After marrying Joanne in 1982, they purchased 80 acres in the Saskatoon area, both working at a local potash mine. “I was thinking an acreage would curb the desire to go farming but I think it only made me want to farm more,” says Jim.

A few false starts were blocked by high land prices and interest rates of the late-70s to early-80s. An attempt to start farming irrigation land near Outlook came close – until land values rose from $600 to $1,000 per acre over one winter. By March 1987, things looked up. The local Royal Bank was selling a nearby section of good land.

“Finally, my dream of farming would become a reality,” says Jim. “I sat across the desk from an older grey haired loans manager and explained my reason for coming in. He leaned back in his chair and said, ‘No this land is for sale as a whole and we will not consider selling it in part.’ This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.”

Jim describes storming out of the bank angry, adrenalin flowing. Arriving home, he started thumbing through an ag publication, noting a number of smaller parcel listings in the Regina area.

“The big question was, ‘are we willing to relocate, leave our family and friends, and both quit our high paying jobs at the mine?’” says Jim, whose mother encouraged the couple to go down and at least look. Eventually, the Faulkners purchased a quarter section in Delisle, set in the Belle Plaine area, and rented another quarter. Jim’s father assisted with the down payment and Joanne’s father contributed towards equipment. 

They sold their new truck, the acreage, liquidated anything they could and cashed in some investments. They were respectively aged 28 and 26, the first of their three daughters only a few months old. 

“We moved to the old house on the land, which had no running water and could not be lived in through the winter months,” says Jim. “Over the years, I’ve suggested a couple times to different people wanting to farm, ‘why not sell your house, use the money for a down payment and live in the old house until things are paid off over time?’ They would laugh and say, ‘my wife would not go for that.’”

But Joanne was always onboard and shared Jim’s vision. They kept their heads down and continued to work hard. Jim worked a few winters at an equipment dealership, next the Canada Farm Debt Review Board, and then taught at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, (then S.I.A.S.C.) for five winters. Joanne worked full-time for a couple of years and then drove school bus until the mid-90s. That extra revenue enabled them to rent more land and eventually purchase another quarter section.

Over the next 25 years, they bought and sold, eventually moving to Lang. “According to the realtor, I went through 25 different land transactions, not including the ones we did on our own,” says Jim.

He refused to borrow money for anything except acquiring land. “Against my banker’s advice I would only take land out on a 10-year term,” says Jim. “It was difficult and a sacrifice for sure, we gave up many other things.”

Jim kept a flowchart with payments and due dates posted up in their office. “I looked at it many times wondering how we were going to make it,” he says. It worked – they’ve been debt-free since 2014.

It certainly took courage. “Starting a first-generation farm isn’t easy and most people would not try it,” adds Jim. “But I always felt if I wanted to move ahead, I needed to do things differently than most.”

There were also advantages to their unique position. “For one, I could pick exactly where I wanted to farm, just like an original homesteader,” says Jim. “I wasn’t held back by a location that a father or grandfather picked, and there were no emotional ties to anything.”

Finally Arriving

When the Faulkners gradually relocated to the current farm near Lang between 1999 and 2004, they had their pick of the province. “If we weren’t going to farm where we started, it was now our choice and we decided this in general was a desirable place to look,” says Jim. 

They’re now set in the Regina Plains, a heavy clay soil region. “We searched for this type of soil because that’s what my uncle had farmed,” says Jim. “Working with heavy clay is very sticky soil when it’s wet, which can be challenging, but it’s very forgiving soil at the same time. It holds moisture really well.”

To care for that soil, the lentils help keep a healthy rotation. Jim likes split applications of nitrogen, which work especially with durum wheat. “We come in with liquid after seeding, and then at a three-to-four-leaf stage,” he says. “That way it’s spread over a longer period of time throughout the season. It helps produce optimal protein levels in the wheat and a better yield with less straw.”

Between Jim, Joanne, occasional help from their daughters and a few seasonal workers each year, fieldwork is done with Case machinery and a small line of John Deere equipment. They currently run three combines, two air seeders, a 56-foot Concord, a 40-foot flex coil and two semi-trucks. Over the years, machinery has been upgraded, but the couple started out with mostly older equipment, made possible through Jim’s heavy duty mechanics trade.

“If we had to narrow down a single thing that set us up to be successful as first-generation farmers it’s that we could run that old, and I mean old, equipment,” says Jim.

The Next Generation 

The Faulkners recently decided it’s finally time to slow down. They’ve hired a full-time hand to oversee much of their farm management. Next year, Jolene will step into Jim’s position as the farm expands with those extra 2,200 acres, currently owned by Jolene’s husband’s family, an exciting joint venture.

The transition looks to be a natural fit. “From the time Jolene was little, she was out in the shop working with me and she developed an interest in farming and tractors at a young age,” says Jim. “She has always helped on the farm and we’ve worked on tractors as a hobby in the off season.”

At just 12 years old, Jolene’s love for ag mechanics was cemented while working on a 1938 Case Model C. “I was always in the shop with my dad, interested in mechanics, and he’s always had old tractors around. So, after school that’s where I was, that’s where it started,” she says. “The first tractor I bought was a John Deere Model A. I was 14, and I thought that was a big deal at the time. I still have it and I never want to sell it.”

Also memorable were auction sale trips where Jim and Jolene loved looking everything, picking up tractors to add to their collection. 

Entering high school, Jolene studied mechanics, Joanne asking the instructor if it was a fad. “The teacher reassured me, ‘no, she is good. I tell everyone to go to her if they want to see how it’s done when they’re working on their projects,’” says Joanne. 

Jolene worked with a local ag dealer after school. “The school bus would drop me off there and I just loved it,” says Jolene. 

Next, she moved on to study automotive mechanics and worked for a GM dealership but missed the ag side. So, she moved on to the local Case IH dealership with nine stores across Southern Saskatchewan. Newly married at the time, she worked there for 12 years as a product and technical specialist, training customers to operate their new air seeders, combines and sprayers and performing many demos. Quickly advancing technology and continuous learning were big draws.

“I started out working with machines with one GPS system, now it’s all these different monitors, vehicle sync – where the monitors are talking to each other,” says Jolene. “I was most excited to see older generations embrace new technology, be proud of their fancy new equipment with the latest monitor. It was so exciting to watch them take that initial interest, and then realize how much time and money it saved them, how much easier it was to operate.”

Meanwhile, she and her husband had two children while residing on his family’s farm near Moosejaw, having recently built a new house there. At the same time the family realized her parents were ready to slow down, Jolene was contemplating her return to Case after having the second baby.

Weighing everything out, including the fact that her and her husband’s schedules are only getting busier as their family grows, farming was the right fit for Jolene. “Being a mom and working, farming will give me more control over my schedule,” she says. “It’s also the lifestyle I want my kids to have. I don’t want them at a daycare when they can be with me at the farm like I was with my parents.”

With the decision made, in January 2022 the family consulted Danielle Wildfong, family farm coach, for guidance. “She’s been so great coaching us through and helping us to communicate,” says Jolene. “There’s a lot of change, especially working from a distance. And family dynamics can always make things interesting.”

While it may have been easier to collect a cheque working elsewhere, Jolene is ready for the challenge. “I’m ready to take more of a leadership role and make the big decisions. Before, I had a narrower focus within my equipment and technology speciality,” she says. “Now, I get to crop plan and make my own decisions, not just have my husband tell me how everything’s going to go,” she adds with a laugh. 

Jim and Joanne will still help during the growing season and transition out slowly. “For one, I’ll need the help, and two, I still have a lot to learn,” says Jolene. “But, now in the winter, my parents will be able to go away for longer periods of time. I can handle the calls and management to give them that freedom and the break they deserve.”

There’s a lot to look forward to. For Jolene, it’s balance. “I love being able to work on new equipment, enjoy all the new technology, and then go work on an old crank start tractor of a totally different era. I’m enjoying having the best of both worlds,” she says.

Jim and Joanne will enjoy that leisure time they sacrificed over the years, spending time at their Saskatchewan Beach cottage and visiting their daughter who recently married and moved to Australia. “We’ve always had land on the highway, and in May we’d see campers with boats cruising by and wonder to one another: ‘are we doing the right thing?’ It always stuck with me,” says Jim. 

Was it all worth the risk? In Jim’s words, “We’re so fortunate for timing. We often think, ‘what if we’d made our move 10 years earlier?’ Boy it really could’ve flopped. We can have the best of intentions, but still end up on the wrong side of time,” he says. “But, it’s been 35 years of farming and we wouldn’t trade it for any other job or lifestyle.”