Toban Dyck: On small farms, the 'sharing economy' can be a matter of survival

In April, I will walk to my backyard, past the now vacant house my ancestors built in the early 1900s, past the row of bins that sit empty, and past the mobile home my wife and I moved to the farmyard in 2012. On the northwest side of a canvas structure, which 19 years ago housed hogs, sits our seeder, a 30-foot hoe drill.

I will remove the tarp that has been protecting it since last May. I will grease it and otherwise get it ready for the field.

It's an old piece of machinery. It works. It works well. But it won't work forever. Our small farm will need to replace this implement at some point.

Tractors are more powerful and more expensive than they used to be. Implements the same. A farmer can spend north of $750,000 on a combine and more than $500,000 on a tractor. And then there's tillage equipment, spraying equipment, trucks, grain storage and more tractors.

The sudden need to replace machinery due to catastrophic loss could end a farm. Tornadoes and other natural disasters have closed the doors of many local operations.

This is partially due to formidably high replacement values, but also to blame is the changing face of agriculture in Canada.

There are fewer farms than there were. Between 2006 and 2011, Statistics Canada reported a loss of 23,643 farms, which means there are fewer farmers managing larger farms.

Equipment manufacturers have noticed this trend and have adapted production lines to service large-scale farms, leaving small operations no choice but to buy used, potentially outmoded equipment, or purchase new equipment that is under-utilized on only a few acres. And in the dollars and cents vocation of farming, buying horsepower you don't need is a noticeable waste of money.

The realities of a small-scale farm, say, under 2,000 acres, is that the agronomic advantages of being able to use more precise, more efficient equipment will be out of reach for quite some time. The public should care about this. Precision agriculture has the ability to bend public trust toward the positive. And the industry needs that. It needs you on board.

According to the first page of results under the Planting/Seeding category, I could purchase a used 60-foot air drill for USD$169,500.  For me to buy this now, a new farmer facing expensive land purchases, would be crippling if not impossible. I'm not alone. Many farmers are finding themselves needing new equipment, but are unable to pencil out the costs.

In Manitoba, and, arguably, Western Canada, the buzzword is collaboration, a concept being applied to individual farms, commodity groups, industry, as well as government.

There's a growing understanding that in order for the ag sector in Canada to excel, all agriculture-related groups are going to have to work together.

My farm started when Jacob Banman purchased a quarter-section (160 acres) for one dollar under the Dominion Lands Act in the late 1800s. Since then, the farm has grown and adapted to that growth, purchasing equipment as needed. But this operation, like others its size, is no longer one of many. It's one of a few. This is a challenge, given that the industries servicing us farmers are more likely to appeal to the many.

Some of the farms in my area have started to purchase equipment in groups, increasing their ability to purchase more advanced machinery. And this trend towards working together is taking hold in more areas than machinery sales.

On the surface, the compromise is ownership. Older generations cling to it and fear its loss when words like ‘collaboration' are uttered. I don't blame them. My gut reaction isn't far off. The only difference is that I have a few years of farming ahead of me and, from where I'm sitting now, collaboration is not just feel-goodery, it's what we need to do to survive.

The history of agriculture in Canada is a story of people working together to tackle adverse conditions. The concept is not new.

When my father nearly lost his life in a motor vehicle accident in the '80s, the community of Winkler, Man., came together to harvest our crops and finish our fieldwork for the growing season. They worked together. Every year, my neighbours help me with some aspect of farm life, and I do the same.

Farmers can seem staunchly independent, but, even among the most stubborn, there is the implicit understanding that what we do would not be possible alone.

Our seeder has a few more crop years left in it. This I am sure of. The trick is maintenance, but that's for another time. For now, let's all find new and interesting ways to work together.