The cover story on the 1989 Harvest Edition of Farm Forum featured a pair of young kids, Dane and Reid Hilton, part of a successful family farming operation at Strathmore, AB. Today those youngsters have returned, the fifth generation to help drive a new era of the family business.
A lot of things have happened since that photo. Reid, for instance, has learned to put his boots on the right feet. They were on backwards on that cover photo as his family likes to remind him.
The story in that issue 30 years ago was focused on things such as innovative soil management on the just over 3,000 acres the family farmed. Today many of those fundamentals remain but the business thinking has evolved into a very modern, open framework with more partners, more than 13,000 farmed acres and more business relationships.
GROWN FROM QUALITY
Like most good harvests, this one started with good seed and developed with care. Spencer and Lynne Hilton, Dane and Reid’s parents, thought bigger and challenged conventional farm succession planning when they became partners in the family farm in the late 1990s. That set the stage for Spencer’s younger brother Sterling and his wife Lianna to become partners.
Dane became a full partner on the management team after that, and Reid is starting into that process now. Other family members are involved in related valueadded businesses.
The family business philosophy has been driven by a need to think differently about how farms grow today. What follows are five examples of that thinking.
1. Living succession plan.
Watching young talent leave the farm for greener pastures has been a major motivating force. The Hiltons realized that unless there was opportunity for young people on the farm, they would simply go elsewhere.
The family brought in outside help to shape succession planning options. They learned that effective succession planning really never ends. Today they have a living succession plan that says to potential new partners: We are ready to hear your ideas.
It also means being ready to consider partnerships earlier because, unlike the old days, young people are not prepared to come back, work and “hope things turn out.” That said, clear expectations of partners are important.
“Just because you are a Hilton you don’t get to come back automatically,” says Dane, who spent time managing a company in the oil patch, overseeing teams of people and big equipment. “It’s a big business and you have to bring some skills to become a shareholder. You have to bring value, make a more efficient and better company.”
Another realization, he says, was that business success today is more than basic farming skills; young people may dream of being involved but not everybody wants to be a machine operator. Reid, who is a pilot and works in the airline industry, likes the “anything is possible” attitude the family has today. “It’s good to see we are more than fieldwork, that there are new opportunities and we are not afraid to branch out from basic agriculture,” he says.
2. Clear communications, management roles.
A lot of work has gone into building an effective management team with responsibilities clearly defined around skills, such as equipment and people management, agronomy, financial planning and business management.
One responsibility that each position takes on is team communications.
A farm office anchors that; weekday meetings drive day-to-day activities. Longer-term planning is tackled through monthly and quarterly meetings with an assigned secretary to take minutes.
Cell phones and community calendars with need-to-know networks help keep everyone in the loop, keep message volumes manageable and ensure messaging is targeted.
And there’s something of real pride for the family. Women have been involved as equal partners on the farm’s management team from the start — long before it was commonplace in farming.
3. Protect the land.
If there is a source of pride that transcends the five generations of Hiltons who have farmed this land, it’s their approach to soil and land management. They have been leaders in conservation tillage for decades. The land they farm is networked across 100 miles and involves many different landlords.
“We manage land like we own it and that reputation has been a big factor in attracting renters,” says Dane. “That’s important because today more people are hanging onto farmland as an investment, and maintaining a strong land rental base is essential to expansion in this area.”
4. Innovative marketing.
In so many cases, the Hiltons have been successful due to creative marketing efforts and a little luck on the timing front.
The family’s reputation as a supplier of high-quality malt barley and for highquality land care worked in their favour when the Canadian Wheat Board was disbanded. They were one of a network of malt barley growers asked to supply a contract to a large malting company.
That malting company emphasizes the ability to trace malt used in a specific beer back to the field where it was grown. That field-to-glass thinking was ahead of its time and has been a solid success story. The Hiltons also have a contract with Rogers Foods in Nelson, BC, for wheat.
The value-added, locally grown culture led to the establishment of an offshoot company to reach the craft beer and malt market. Origin Malting and Brewing, in nearby Strathmore, is managed by Reid and Dane’s sister Meleah and brother-inlaw, Kyle Geeraert.
5. Build the brand.
One new effort to build the farm brand is drone footage. Reid, Spencer and Meleah capture the farm and farming activity in all seasons. Those visuals, run on social media and on a screen at Origin’s taproom, help keep renters engaged and market the farmland-care model.
For Reid, today’s value-added, buy local farming is all about connections, helping people understand the decisions made to get food to the grocery store.
“We want to do whatever we can to make it more tangible,” he says. Farm tours help. Social media connects young farm people with young people in urban centres and there is great potential through Origin.
TRUST AND ENERGY
Ultimately the biggest opportunity to grow the family brand is the people behind it. Dane and Reid Hilton have returned, determined to work together, respect and build on each other’s skills and add new energy to the family business. Good for them, good for agriculture.