Farm transition: sustainable growth with Perry Farms
By ATB Financial 8 March 2021 6 min read
Transition. Every farm will go through it in one way, shape or form. There are countless questions to satisfy and every farm family’s answers will be unique to the location, type of farm and interpersonal dynamics among a myriad of other factors.
For the Perry family at Chin, Alberta, the transition from Gerry to sons Chris and Harold was smooth. A defining factor in their transition was the sons keenness to utilize their parents as trusted resources—ultimately making them proud with the farm’s new direction.
For thirteen years, the farm was primarily a sugar beet operation maintained by Gerry and his brother Dwight. In 1973, the brothers had a friendly split and Gerry went on to manage the farm for another 30 years with his wife Beerta, adding potatoes to their rotation. In the mid-to-late ‘90s, Gerry’s two sons Chris and Harold joined the farm business full time, along with their wives Jill and Kyra.
Over time, the farm has slowly but surely shifted to include canola, peas, sunflowers, forages and more potatoes on a landbase that went from four quarters to now more than 30. During the transition, family meetings, including their sister Karen, were held monthly to maintain an open line of communication and ensure the farm was where the brothers wanted to be.
"It became obvious that their passion for the farm should be rewarded with the ability to become owners and managers on their own."
The sons are quick to deflect credit to their father’s legacy for the ability to create their own.
“We can’t say enough to dad,” says Chris. “He was an enabler and mentor for my brother and I to grow the farm to where it is today. He gave us such a freedom to make really big decisions.”
One new area the brothers were keen to explore, like many farmers, is cutting production costs while maintaining productivity. Harold, with a penchant for agronomy, had become very interested in soil heath and carbon sequestration that served as the basis of his 2006 Nuffield scholar research paper: Healthier Soils Producing Healthier Plants for Healthier People. Later, Harold moved into regenerative agriculture as a natural outflow of his soil interests. Chris preferred the business side of farming and had great interest in diversified business opportunities, which has grown to include the family farm’s locally famous biogas generator.
And, while each family member has their own strengths, their ability to bring it all together makes them stronger as a whole and in a better position to be competitive.
Family balancing act
What made Gerry’s farm profitable was starting to shift and the sons envisioned that, in addition to crops, the biogas facility could also turn a profit at the farm gate. However, Gerry wasn’t completely convinced from the outset. After all, it was a noticeable deviation from what made his farm profitable.
“Dad did question the biogas facility to start off with,” says Chris. While Harold and Gerry focused on taking care of the farm, Chris immersed himself in the biogas business to get it well-established and learning, and clearing, regulatory hurdle after regulatory hurdle for three years. “[Dad] was right, for sure, that it was a bigger project than we understood it was at the start.”
These days, there’s no bigger advocate of the biogas system than Gerry, something the boys are grateful for. It has helped cement the farm’s legacy and has proven that value-added can take many forms.
"We owe so much to mom and dad. They've empowered us with the freedom to just run this place like we do. And when they need to step in, or chime in, or offer advice, it's so appreciated. And it's just been a relationship that has really worked."
And, while the transition was smooth, the brothers did not force their father out or ignore his hard-earned wisdom, either. After all, it was Gerry who built up the farm’s equity to give the sons their opportunity to diversify.
“He would come and chime in on, ‘Yes, this is a good idea or it isn't.’ But what it really did was it allowed Harold and I to take some chances, take some risks with the backing of the equity that dad had built with the main farm and to grow it,” says Chris. “Without dad empowering us to do that, it never would have happened.”
New school sustainability
The brothers’ biogas facility generates more than 4200 MWh of electricity annually, and helps produce a nutrient and carbon rich amendment that reduces the farm’s need for synthetic fertilizers.
“We capture and stabilize this carbon, spreading it on the farmland in the form of digestate, which is the spent material of the anaerobic digester,” says Harold. “This is an organic fertilizer that reduces our crops’ fertility needs and reduces the amount of carbon that would otherwise off-gas in the landfill. Our main goal is to keep the soil covered with a growing plant at all times. This enables us to sequester carbon from the atmosphere to the soil through photosynthesis. Through this process, root and soil biology exudates carbon and increases the soil organic matter, making our soils more resilient.”
Other utilizations of biogas include direct heat, fuel and upgrading biogas to renewable natural gas (RNG). Looking to the future, the family is developing a biogas upgrade plant that will be integrated into their existing facility and will allow them to upgrade all of their biogas to RNG. This RNG will ultimately be injected into the natural gas grid. Their commitment to sustainability and innovation has paid off as the brothers recently inked a 20-year deal with BC’s largest natural gas producer, FortisBC, to provide a less carbon intensive fuel option as it looks to “green” its gas grid.
“It’s what we’ve been looking for all along,” says Chris.
So, as the shift to cleaner energy evolves across the globe, it appears that the farm transition has been successful—despite many long days, hard conversations and difficult decisions—and is starting to pay dividends for the Perrys.
Their trailblazing has not gone unnoticed, either. Chris was invited to speak during the Paris Agreement climate talks on behalf of Frito Lay North America, one of the family’s potato buyers, about their sustainability imperative on the farm through natural fertilizers, variable rate irrigation and minimal crop protection product. The farm was also given an award from McCain Foods for sustainability efforts.
And even though they are only about to crest 50 themselves, they have begun the transition conversation with their own kids, as well, a few of whom are already in post-secondary and have farming aspirations.
“It’s still really 10 years away, but that’s right around the corner,” says Chris.
The family’s farm vision statement—Grow, Live and Be the Change—was born out of a ten-year business planning session that included Chris, his wife Kyra, Harold, his wife Jill and Gerry and his wife Beerta. Each family got to pick a word they wanted to ascribe to the farm. Today, it’s clear that not only did they pick the right words, they’re living them, not just reciting a catchy phrase. Although each word has had its time in the limelight, it appears Be the Change might be shining brightest at the moment.
“The Be the Change is really to network, teach, collaborate with like-minded people to just continue the chain of getting better and better for long-term sustainability in agriculture, hence we built the biogas plant to take a big part of that,” says Chris. “It’s been a huge part of our farm and our family farm going forward.”
Part of nurturing growth opportunities is having the right financial partner.
“It’s about trust with ATB. Their trust in us has allowed us to make big decisions”, says Chris. And, the role of a good financial advisor goes beyond just financing: “our relationship manager is a good double-check to understand whether or not our path is right or if we need to review and revisit research.”
Connect with one of ATB’s agriculture experts to learn how we can help Alberta farms and agribusinesses evolve and thrive.
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