By Natalie Noble

This May, Holman Farming Group celebrated their Eighth Annual Feast for Families. It kicks off each growing season for everyone involved on the fourth-generation grain farm near Luseland, Sask. Owned and managed by the third and fourth generations, Rod and Gayle Holman along with their son Dan and his wife Stacey, the operation covers over 20,000 acres of cropland, impressive storage facilities, and an elevator with rail siding.

The celebration saw the family, their team of five employees, spouses and children, gather over a meal featuring farm-grown ingredients and two employee-built BBQ smokers. As the close-knit group prepared to take in the feast, an employee prayed in thanks for a new growing season, asking for protection, safety and prosperity. 

It’s a different dynamic than the early 2000s when Rod took over the then 3,000-acre farm on his own. It’s also something Dan’s purposely designed since his 2007 entry that brought robust skills to the four-partner table.

“Our farm runs like a play performance. The frontstage is what the public sees, the equipment and the fields,” says Dan. “Rod likes to improve field efficiency by removing obstacles, moving equipment, seeding and harvesting. This is Stacey’s sixth year running the land roller, combining, coordinating meals and scheduling. As general manager, I do a bit of everything.”

Backstage is the behind-the-scenes strategic planning and analysis while Gayle manages the complex financials. “When we bring any idea forward, there are four different ways of looking at it based on our unique personalities,” says Dan. “This diversity creates much stronger decisions.”

They’re also in capable financial hands. “My off-farm career brings the farm comprehensive financial management and informs the financial structures we’ve set up,” says Gayle, who spent 15 years as CFO at North West Terminal (NWT) before retiring as she continues her involvement with the professional accounting body, CPA Saskatchewan through board committees. 

At Holman Farming Group, Gayle’s the accountant and Dan’s the economist. Stacey, a veterinarian, offers scientific reasoning while Rod brings decades in valuable hands-on farming, trucking and entrepreneurial experience.  

Since 2005, the farm’s averaged 1,000 acres in expansion each year. One might expect sleep deprived seeding and harvest windows. However, a single event in 2012 changed Dan’s entire philosophy on what defines success in the farming world. “In the initial stages of growing the farm, Stacey and I were both working off-farm and trying to accomplish more by working harder, the only way we saw to do things,” says Dan. “I’d worked nearly two days straight to finish seeding. After a 3 a.m. parts run, I fell asleep driving and woke up in the ditch.”

While no one was hurt, the couple were expecting their third of four children. “This was a wake-up call to sort out what we were doing, become better farm managers and work smarter not harder,” says Dan. 

It’s a relatively new notion for Prairie farms, more acceptable today than not so long ago. During Rod’s earlier days, rest and seeding didn’t mix. 

“When I farmed with my dad, I also ran a custom grain and fertilizer hauling business, splitting my time between both,” says Rod. “It was very hectic. I’d run the tractor, seed, get in the truck and go get another trip with fertilizer. There were a lot of four-hour night’s sleeps. I’d be home every night, but as a baby, Dan would be sleeping when I got home and when I left. I’d see him but he didn’t see me.”  

Burning that candle at both ends may be a nod to Rod’s grandfather, Allen Vivian (A.V.), who broke ground using horses to grow wheat and oats on the original quarter of land 25 kilometres west of Luseland in 1908. In the 1950s, A.V. and his wife Pauline transitioned the farm to their son Ernie, who’d farmed with A.V. since completing eighth grade, and his wife Angie Holman. Barley was added to the rotation along with a new crop, canola. 

A young Rod rode the school bus from that original homestead to Luseland. Completing Grade 12 in 1976, he started farming with Ernie. When he married Gayle, they lived on the farm two years before building a house in town to raise their three children, the oldest being Dan. “Dan’s wanted to be a farmer since Day One,” says Rod. “I’d be getting ready to go to the farm first thing in the morning and get a tap on the shoulder when Dan was four or five. He’d come along, bring his pillow, and ride along in the tractor all day. Later, he’d take his 80cc Honda motorcycle and backroad the 16 miles from town to help Grandpa for the day.” 

At the same time Rod was helping on the farm, he grew his commercial trucking business into the early 2000s. Meanwhile, Ernie and Rod had expanded the farm to approximately 3,000 acres before Ernie died in 2004. The family’s loss meant decision time. Rod wound down his business to pursue his true passion of farming. “It was a difficult decision,” he says. “No matter if you’re farming or running your own business, you put your heart and soul into it. But it was the right time to move on.”

Despite half the manpower, Rod quickly expanded the farm to 5,000 acres. “One of the biggest technologies that changed our operation was the onset of direct seeding,” says Rod. “We could expand as a one-man operation because I could cover more ground in the same number of hours. Dan would come home from university and help whenever he could, but I was doing about 80 per cent of the work, including the crop planning and management.” 

As Dan completed his master’s in agriculture economics in 2007, he worked with NWT to help market the production of their new ethanol plant and develop the company’s hedging and grain purchasing strategy. “This gave me a tremendous background knowledge around how the markets work,” says Dan. “It certainly helps with our grain marketing strategies, including the marketing side of our elevator.”

Joining the family farm, Dan and Stacey married that same year and moved to Luseland. Stacey worked at a clinic in Provost, Alta., until the birth of their third daughter. “Dan was extremely busy. If I was called out at night, there were a few times I’d have to take little kids with me,” says Stacey. “With one little one, it wasn’t so much, but when we had three within just over three years, the decision was clear. And we liked the flexibility in farming together.”

Dan continued with NWT until 2012, also delivering market outlook presentations. “Teaching farmers how to market grain is an awesome thing to do, but I just didn’t have the time to focus with the farm and my family growing at the same time,” says Dan.

By 2016, Holman Farming Group planted 14,000 owned and rented acres across a 65-kilometre radius. Today it’s up to 20,000 acres of pulses, including green peas, Kabuli chickpeas, red and black lentils, durum, soft white spring wheat, red spring wheat and canola. 

The goal is to keep converting that rented portion to owned land. “Land ownership is a really important part of farming in having that controlled access,” says Dan. “The goal of our farm is not to be miles wide in the production sense. We want to become more vertically integrated, to do more up and down the supply chain.”   

Helping achieve this is a massive storage and elevator project. The farm’s base sits on six acres near town where a 50- by 100-foot shop originally used for the trucking business is now the farm shop. Here, large capacity storage bins allow crop carryover for strategic marketing. First, four 55,000-bushel steel bins were added, then two more 75,000-bushel bins.

Next, Dan saw opportunity in a vacant grain terminal in town. Recognizing potential, the Holmans scooped up the elevator with its own rail siding. “It’s taken a couple years to get it back up to speed but one of the biggest successes is the ability to ship out rail cars of our own grain,” says Dan. “It’s much easier to move that way, especially with fuel costs constantly rising.” 

The added value raises the farm’s margin. “On the sales side, we look to get more value for our grain by processing it ourselves and delivering it to customers by rail or our new larger trucks,” says Dan. “We have cleaning equipment in the elevator that allows us to upgrade our grain. Rather than selling raw grain to an elevator, we want to sell processed product to an end use customer.”

Ever focused on efficiency, Dan’s brought a whole new level of organization across the farm. During the growing season, every task is outlined for each week on a colour-coded chart, including who’s responsible and which machinery will be in use. Involved are a heavy harrow, a Seed Hawk seed drill, two Bourgault 3320 air drills, a land roller, a rock picker, three Rogator 1300 sprayers, five combines, two grain carts, four super-Bs and a pair of swathers. For each task, such as hauling seed and fertilizer or combining, there’s a lead person listed at the top, with others named underneath according to the likelihood they may step in where needed.

“Like a Broadway play, we always have a star for each task with an understudy ready,” says Dan. “If something comes up, there’s always someone competent and ready to step into that role so the farm never slows down.” 

That weekly operations chart functions by reverse engineering from an end goal. For instance, looking at the projected final week in late September, it shows a production goal of 425,480 bushels of canola with the corresponding combines and operators. “In order for us to produce that many bushels of canola, all these other things need to happen at any given time of the year as mapped out,” says Dan. 

The chart shows the massive quantities involved in such production. For instance, in the first week of May alone, 600 tonnes of canola seed and fertilizer were hauled to the field. “That’s the equivalent of 15 super-B loads,” says Dan. “We have to ensure that happens to seed the 3,875 acres of canola indicated the following week.” 

Dan’s vision to continuously raise the bar is dedicated to bringing others along in the farm’s success. “We believe in creating full-time careers for people to work in our business,” he says. “We’re moving up and down the supply chain here to make the pie bigger for everyone working on this farm.”

Such growth depends strongly upon embracing technology and progressive practices. Precision agronomy, including comprehensive soil sampling and EM38 electro connectivity mapping, make for more effective input use precisely in the places it drives economic return. The work is done through the internal team’s expertise including Dan’s undergrad work in crop science, and an employee with his master’s in plant science. “We know how to manipulate data and make things work,” says Dan. “We’ve taken a lot of training in trial and error, but it’s a powerful tool once you get it figured out.”

That specialized internal team handles most everything the farm needs – quality maintenance and repairs, leveraging data and software, soil sampling and generating prescription maps, including salinity mapping. “This identifies where we can cut our inputs back in areas with salt or seed them to grass. Soil sampling is a good mathematical way to figure out how to apply nitrogen. The savings can be enormous,” says Dan.  

The fresh perspective is welcomed by the team. “Dan’s entry brought a lot of new ideas to the farm,” says Gayle. “It was interesting for Rod to look at all these different ideas. The ones we went ahead with have turned out to be real game changers for our operation.”

Dan has wider hopes for that continued progress. “We want the businesses we create to drive our community forward. Entrepreneurship is the key to making our small towns survive,” he says. 

It’s a purpose filled with pride for the innovative contributions Saskatchewan farmers have made to global food production. “We farm in one of the more difficult parts of the world. It’s too dry, too wet, there’s late frost and early snow, always something,” says Dan. He points to the Beaujots with SeedMaster, the Bourgaults at St. Brieux and Halford selling ConservaPak to John Deere. “They’ve forever changed the way dryland farming is done with the technology developed on their farms. It makes us all better farmers.”