The biggest asset at Windy Poplars Farm in Saskatchewan is the open embrace of new ideas.
By Daniel George | Photos By Jamie Cole
It is a loaded word, open to interpretation, so when John Burns hears his and his partners’ farm described as “progressive,” he understandably bristles just a bit. “I’d guess I’d have to know in what context that word is being used,” he says.
Burns, 69, is sitting on the deck of his farmhouse, overlooking his land on the prairies of eastern Saskatchewan. His wife, Linda, is seated nearby, a new Labrador puppy at her feet. A sweep of poplar trees frames one side of the home and inspired their farm’s name: Windy Poplars.
“If ‘progressive’ means we try new things, I guess I am comfortable with that,” Burns says. “That is our biggest asset—bigger than our landmass, bigger than the effort to manage our finances. We are not threatened by change. We engage change.”
That could be a family mantra. Windy Poplars exists, in part, because in 1975 John and Linda made a big change. John left Canada’s Department of National Defence—a laboratory job befitting a man with a PhD in chemistry—and bought a farm.
It has since grown to more than 20,000 acres under management across three different soil zones, a cooperative that also includes two of his four children, as well as a family friend. Each member of the group owns a parcel of land individually, but also holds common shares in land and equipment companies. They share profits, and risk, equally.
John may question the descriptor, but Windy Poplars is progressive, both in how it is structured and how it operates.
The farm features a conference room where partners meet regularly to discuss, among other topics, the creation of a research and development group. Like many producers, the team at Windy Poplars has their eye toward the operation’s future. For instance, they plant a variety of crops (including canola, flax, barley, peas and fava) and also regularly underseed alfalfa, prioritizing land stewardship even when it costs them money. They’ve even joined an organization to share their philosophies with like-minded agriculturists across Canada.
“It all starts with dad,” says Dustin Burns, the oldest of John and Linda’s three sons. “He is progressive, and so we learned to be progressive.”
In 1998, Dustin and his wife, Kristi, were the first to return to the farm. Next came Doug Reeve, a childhood friend of Dustin’s, and his wife, Bonita. Doug is so close with the Burns family, “I just refer to John as ‘Dad,’” he says. In 2008, Tyler, the youngest Burns child, and his wife, Janelle, joined the cooperative. (Another Burns son and a daughter work off the farm.)
John and Linda pushed their kids to get college degrees and encouraged them to work elsewhere for a few years, “so if they did come back, they would not second-guess their choice,” Linda says.
That mandate has led to a group with a diverse skill set. With engineering degrees under their belts, Dustin and Doug are constantly modifying equipment and problem-solving, always looking for ways to boost the efficiency of their machines or tweak how they seed or harvest. Tyler will finish spraying and jump on Twitter and Facebook; he’s become adept at finding customers and employees there.
Kristi feeds the crew (which includes six full-time employees and three college interns in the summer) and her five children, while also helping plan farm strategy. She discusses canning tomatoes in one breath and then the strategic intent of Windy Poplars in the next. She has spearheaded initiatives such as the creation of a mission statement, “something that will guide our decision-making as we go forward,” she explains.
John and Linda have 16 grandchildren, and much thought and planning has gone toward creating opportunities for those who may wish to return to the farm after college—even those who aren’t children of current cooperative members. “So, we are trying to build a structure that allows for a lot of things, something consistent for all the grandkids,” Kristi says. “And we also want to create opportunities for them, even if they don’t want to drive a tractor.
“We could use an animal vet. We need people with good general business sense, so get a degree in marketing and accounting. Go get an education and, if you come back, we will have options for you. That’s the goal.”
On a recent weekday, Dustin and Kristi hosted a First Farm Managers event, one of three annual meetings of a group of about 10 families they joined in 2014 to share ideas. “We are like-minded agriculture producers with similar-sized operations, similar workforce; but we are not neighbors, so we are not in direct competition with each other. We can share ideas freely,” Dustin says.
They met in the upstairs conference room (whiteboards on the wall, long table in the middle), a recent addition to Windy Poplars that may seem like an unnecessary extravagance, but that serves an important function. “Building that [conference room] is a cost you can’t justify in terms of current returns, but it makes sure that everyone can voice their views on neutral ground,” John says.
“We can listen and deal with things frankly without the distractions you might have talking at the kitchen table. In there, everyone is equal by perception and reality.”
Windy Poplars has struck a unique balance. It is a booming operation, yet has retained congeniality; it seems like a traditional family farm, but it is also an incubator for new ideas. The idea for a research and development group came out of desire to try different ideas without harming the overall efficiency of the operation. They are working with a graduate student to help it come to fruition, hoping it will launch sometime next year. One goal of the proposed R&D group is to find ways to plant test crops (hemp, for example) on a smaller scale (like, say, 40 acres) without having to modify machines that could hurt the farm’s efficiency during seeding. “To have a research farm on the farm,” Kristi says, “will allow Dustin and Doug and Tyler to use that curiosity that started with John.”
For John and Linda, Windy Poplars has developed far beyond what they imagined when it was founded. It is a bigger, bolder and, yes, more progressive operation. “I tend to be more of a long-term, big-picture-thinking [farmer],” John says. “But I don’t think we had any anticipation it would be what it is today.”