Young Farmers: The Skobergs

Skoberg married his wife, Shelly, two years ago, creating a robust blended family in the process. When everyone’s home, it’s all hands on deck.

By Claire Vath | Photos By Curtis Comeau

SEE THE COMPLETE SPECIAL REPORT: We asked several young farmers about their challenges and goals, then listened as each spoke of hard lessons learned, their passion for farming and hopes for the future. >>

If ever there were a question about whether agriculture simply provides an occupation, just shoot a message to Dan Skoberg. “Fifth-generation farmer” is part of the Alberta farmer’s email address … and a large chunk of the 36-year-old’s identity.

The Skobergs

The Skobergs

Skoberg works 3,000 acres of rich prairie soil, like the four generations that came before. And when his father, Ken, passed away from cancer in 2013, Skoberg found himself fully in charge of the family grain operation. “My dad was the head of the farm,” he says. “But he was slowly starting to do more relaxing and taking holidays, and I was picking up more work on the farm, so the transition was relatively painless.”

That doesn’t mean there weren’t growing pains though—those uncomfortable yet valuable lessons young farmers must learn by doing, in tandem with balancing the grief of losing his father.

Skoberg did set out on his own for a few years. “I earned my journeyman electrical certificate by 23 and spent time living off the farm in Edmonton, living out of hotels and camps and job sites all over the province,” he relates. But in his mid-20s, he headed back home, and in 2003, he settled back into the daily farm operations with his father, while working full time within driving distance of home.

“My dad was the one who wouldn’t serve you everything on a platter; he set it up in such a way as to teach you a lesson, so you learn what you’re doing,” Skoberg says. In 2004, only a year after he’d been back on the farm, “Dad had me make a decision about whether I should be harvesting my canola crop.”

Skoberg thought he should.

“I shouldn’t have,” he says. “The moisture content in the canola was higher than the recommended level that is safe to store in the bin because I harvested too soon.” His entire crop burned up in the bin that winter.

“I lost all my income, so over the next five years, I had to finance all my debt from that year to pay it back. I financed all that through an off-farm job. But I haven’t burnt one single kernel of canola since,” he says.

Now, more than a decade after that costly mistake, the family operation comprises large yellow peas, hard red spring wheat and canola.

The Skobergs own half the 3,000 acres they farm, with the balance rented. Dan serves as the farm’s primary operator with one full-time, on-farm employee. His mother, Birthe, is a shareholder but typically defers to Dan. “She has major trust in us and understands we’re doing the best we can,” Skoberg says, referring to his and his wife’s work on the farm. “If we’re looking at major financial changes like buying land, though, she sits in and shares input.”

Working Farmer, Working Family. Skoberg married his wife, Shelly, two years ago, creating a robust blended family in the process. When everyone’s home, it’s all hands on deck. The children live on the farm part time, and the older ones help with on-farm chores. And while grain is the operation’s mainstay, the kids also raise their 300 chickens.

Shelly works as a customer account manager with United Farmers of Alberta. In her role, she provides crop inputs and livestock essentials to growers and producers. She also supplies agronomy advice and livestock expertise to help producers make the best decisions for their operations—something that serves the Skobergs well on their own farm too. She helps treat and care for sick animals, while providing products and advice both to ensure animal health and to help sustain viable crops.

And, says Skoberg, “when she has time, she still enjoys driving the combine, running equipment and being involved on the farm.”

Challenges and Triumphs of Life on the Land. And, as in most places, purchasing land is a real challenge. “Big operations are taking over in our area, and small family farms are being depleted,” Dan says. Since he bought his first one-quarter in 2003 (about 160 acres), “land values have gone up 300%,” he says. “But income hasn’t. For a farmer my age with a farm our size, there’s a real fiscal challenge to owning more land.”

He attributes such price increases to generational transitions. “Lots of landowners are retiring and just want to get the best money for their land … and they’re getting an enormous amount—$3,200 to $4,500 per acre,” he says. “But farmers like myself are missing out on that acreage, whereas bigger farms can purchase that a lot more easily.”

But despite those and other obstacles, Skoberg feels life is pretty good. “You’ve really got to have patience and understand how a farm works,” he muses. “So many factors are completely out of your control—and are extremely stressful to people who don’t love it.”

He pauses. “I do it ’cause I love it,” he says. “If we had to trade our lives, we’d have five kids—and Shelly and me too—kicking and screaming to stay.”