When the lady sitting next to Jason Kehler on the airplane asked what he did for a living, he saw it as an opening to tell a story — the story of a young boy who always wanted to farm, like his father and grandfather before him.
It’s a story where hard work, determination, drive and great passion propel a young family forward. It’s the story of Jason and Laura Kehler, winners of the 2016 Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program award for the Manitoba region.
The Kehlers farm 5,600 acres in the Carmen area of southern Manitoba. Much of that is potatoes, but they also grow seed soybeans, edible beans, corn, canola, oats and wheat.
“I grew up in the cab of a tractor around the farm. I knew I wanted to farm since I could keep both ends of a wrench off the ground,” chuckles Jason, a fourth generation producer. “My dad went out of his way to spend time with me, taking me along and immersing me in the farm.”
Despite being clear about his career intentions, Jason took the long road to get there — literally. Enamored by big rigs, trucking was his first real enterprise. It allowed him to meet a lot of people and see all four corners of North America. Income from his truck — hauling everything from flax straw to furniture to Mexican produce — helped build his initial investment in the farm.
“One of the biggest things I learned on the road was to have patience,” he says. “It’s not something I was born with! Ultimately that taught me to be tolerant of other people. It’s a good virtue to have no matter who you’re dealing with. In business, and working with hired people, having patience and tolerance, and being a good person, is what gets you along.”
When his father said: “If you want to farm, I guess you should farm,” and offered him a 20 per cent share in the family operation, Jason jumped at the chance to get off the road and go “all in.”
The farm’s location, in the productive Red River Valley, means plenty of specialized crop options. “Dad’s always been on the cutting edge that way,” says Jason. “Our family grew sugar beets for years and years. My grandfather was one of the initial beet growers in Manitoba.” But several years before the local sugar plant shut down, Jason’s father decided to get out of sugar beets, tired of seeing profit from even a bumper crop eaten up by freight costs, and the primary focus moved to potato production.
Raising potatoes is an intensive record keeping adventure, with traceability and food safety requirements a longstanding part of growing this crop — measures that are now becoming a big part of all food production.
“We’re so used to it because of the potato business, I feel like we have a real leg up on grain producers,” says Jason. “Now when you take a load to the elevator, you have to sign a noncontamination slip. And more detailed record keeping is coming — it’s already getting that way with our edible beans.”
Jason points out that complete traceability has been possible with potatoes for more than a decade. “If somebody buys an order of french fries at a McDonald’s in Chicago, the whole system is set up so if something goes wrong with that order of fries, they know who produced it, and what field (the potatoes) were grown on within two hours.”
Fortunately, Jason has just the right person in charge of the farm’s extensive food safety record keeping — his wife, Laura. She came to the farm with a masters degree in meat science from Oklahoma State University, plus past experience working with both Tyson Foods and Nestle. She grew up on a sheep and grain farm in northeastern Ohio.
The two met eight years ago, thanks to the uniquely focused online dating service FarmersOnly. com. Laura worked as a senior food scientist with Manitoba Agriculture before taking on the bookkeeping, food safety and workplace health and safety programs at Kehler Farms.
“She’s extremely busy with that, and the kids, and feeding us,” laughs » Jason. “We all know combines don’t run well on empty!” Daughter Paisley (4) and son Wyatt (2) are already well versed in farm life and loving it.
Along with taking on more of the farm’s ownership from his father, Jason and Laura have also increased their total crop production land by nearly 50 per cent since 2014, doubling their acres in potatoes. But, such rapid expansion is not for the faint of heart. “As the saying goes, there is no perfect time (to grow),” says Jason. “It wasn’t so much our intent, as the opportunities kind of came to us.”
Just months after completing a deal that increased their potato production by two pivots (135 acres of potatoes equals a pivot), Jason found himself talking with another grower who wanted to lease out his potato farm. The Kehlers consulted with their banker and accountant, and then plunged in again, increasing production by another two and a half pivots in 2015.
“I don’t know if there’s anything glamorous about expanding that quickly,” he says. “It’s hard work, but we had a lot of people in our corner who helped make the transition relatively smooth.”
That kind of growth doesn’t come without some stress, and Jason confesses there were a few sleepless nights. “If I ever had to give any young guys advice, I’d say yeah, follow your opportunity. But expanding quickly has big cash flow requirements,” he says. “We made it all work, though, and going forward looks very positive. There’s a quote Grandma told me I’ve kept in mind my whole life: ‘nothing worth doing is easy.'”
Despite the timing not being his choice, Kehler believes he was prepared to take on the business test. “Looking back, I didn’t always realize it or even appreciate it, but Dad was grooming me to be a good farmer since I was a kid. He made me work my way up from the ground, so I knew the operation inside, outside and backwards. That, and a good strong work ethic, gave me the drive and ability to do it.
“As a young farmer, I also want to make my mark,” he says. “My Dad had brought the farm such a long way from where his dad had left it, and I felt it was my duty, given a good opportunity, to take it to the next level. I wanted the challenge.”
Jason knew the potato business needed to get bigger to achieve economies of scale, and already he and Laura are seeing the cost of production come down as efficiency levels go up. He’s also quick to point out they’ve got a great crew of employees and agrology experts in their corner. Plus, the farm takes advantage of technology where it makes sense, like variable rate fertilizer applications. He’s also taken steps to minimize weather risks, by tiling all of the potato acres to help manage excess moisture in the soil.
“Working smart is very important these days, just as important as when Dad and Grandpa considered hard work to be physical,” he says. “I have to embrace technology to get my job done. It’s not all about having a sweat on your brow at end of day.”
For Laura and Jason, having a future on the land means they are always considering how to farm in an environmentallyconscious and sustainable way. It’s a message they believe needs to be shared. “That’s very important to me,” says Jason. “Obviously farmers are a pretty small percentage of the population. Any time we have chance to tell a good story, or invite people out to see what we’re doing and explain it, it’s an opportunity to represent agriculture.”
Which is why Jason shared his story of farming with the lady sitting next to him on the airplane. At the end, she admitted she never realized all that went into raising food, and appreciated hearing his perspective. It was a good opportunity, and Jason Kehler doesn’t like to pass those up.
The Kehlers will represent Manitoba at the Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program national event this November in Niagara Falls.
Would you like fries with your golf ball?
No one wants to find foreign material in their french fries, so when it comes to potato production, food safety measures are critical. Potatoes come from the field to the grading table before being stored. They’re shipped from there to McCain Foods or Simplot Foods in the U.S. for processing.
The grading table is where any debris is picked out and Jason Kehler says you’d be amazed at what they find. They’ve removed golf balls, clay pigeons and shotgun shells (from skeet shooting), jawbones and wood.
“Harvesting potatoes in a field, it’s amazing how much history you dig up, because you’re sifting through those top six inches of soil,” he says. “We find lots of those old glass insulators from hydro lines and we’ve found dozens of those old clothes irons and household items like cast iron pots. I even ended up with the grill off a ’56 Chevy in my digger!”