A large Caucasian family of seven adults and six children stand in a sprawling field of wheat, with silos along the distant horizon.

From the left: Jake and his wife Stephanie, Russ and Sharon Leguee, Sarah, Amber and Eric Nikolejsin and third generation kiddies in amongst the parents.
Photo: Vanessa Lanktree Photography

Most farmers would prefer a day in the combine over a day in the boardroom. But by focusing on good governance and maintaining a willingness to learn, the Leguee family ensures the future of their family farm

Keeping a large and complex business strong as it’s passed down through generations is no easy task. It requires a team effort, supported by a well-defined structure, strategic planning, good communication and a willingness to learn.

This is the day-to-day commitment of siblings Sarah and Jake Leguee, their father Russ and their sister Amber’s husband, Erik Nikolejsin, who, together, run a third-generation 16,000-acre grain farm near Fillmore, SK. “We are always learning,” says Jake. “You think you know more every year and that’s true, but you also find out there is more you don’t know.”

Building acres with succession in mind

Leguee Farms is large but not unusual for this area of the province. Jake explains plenty of farm operations in his region are in the 10,000- to 15,000-acre range.

Of course, the farm didn’t start out that size. “In the 1990s and 2000s, it was tough to make a living at farming here,” Jake says. “Dad had beef and cash crops, and he tried to grow his acreage so that he could turn a profit, support his family, and provide an opportunity for the next generation.

"He had a reputation for stepping up, and so when someone had land to rent, they called him,” Jake adds. “It wasn’t easy to convince a lender to give you money for farmland, but you could rent quite cheaply. Farmers said in those days you could rent the land for the taxes, meaning all you had to pay was property taxes.”

Russ steadily grew the farm’s acreage from the original 1,200 acres to 9,500 acres by 2009, which is when Jake started on the farm full time. Sarah returned to do the same in 2003 — the year the last of the cattle left. “We continued to expand and we were able to bring on Erik as a staff person in 2017 and then part owner,” Jake explains.

The family currently rents about half of their acreage as the cost is reasonable and there is a lot of farmland for rent. “There are quite a few farmers who don’t want to sell, and we also rent from some investors,” Jake says. “On our current acreage, we can handle the planting and harvest with the four of us, three full-time employees and some part-time help from retired farmers, but we want to continue to grow. We’d like to keep purchasing land, but we’re not super aggressive about it.”

Making the farm bigger will boost profits now but it will also help accommodate the next generation, something Jake, Sarah, Russ and Erik are already starting to talk about — seven members of that generation are already here, and another is on the way.

“We don’t know how many of them will want to farm or how many households the farm will be able to support, but we need to talk about how the next transition will occur,” Jake says. “There are a lot of ways to do it and we’ve started work on a family charter. It’s never too early to start these discussions.”

Indeed, Sarah, Jake and Russ started talking about succession not long after Jake returned in 2009. “Communication is by far the most important part of it,” he says. “You need to talk continually to work out what everyone’s roles will be.”

All the while, Russ has stepped back gradually where he’s felt comfortable doing so. “It takes a long time for someone who has done everything — agronomy, equipment, all the farm business aspects — to let go of the management roles he’s had his whole life,” says Jake. “It’s a huge transition for him.”

Good governance, good guidance

Clearly defining everyone’s roles happened only a few years ago, when the family hired a new accountant. She stressed the importance of governance for many reasons, most importantly to help avoid confusion about duties and to ensure nothing is left undone, a situation that surfaced several times in the past.

Sarah mainly handles grain logistics and updates the inventory, which includes canola, durum and other types of wheat, lentils, peas and flax. Erik looks after daily farm operations and staff, and Jake’s role as president is selling grain and overall business management.

In addition, the farm heavily relies on advisors and consultants for every aspect of the farm operation, says Jake. “We have accountants, agronomists, lawyers, a grain marketing expert, and we also have an advisory board with four members who have a mix of agriculture and general business background. They meet three times a year with us and provide a wide range of perspectives,” he explains. “We talked in our most recent (meeting) about how we can develop culture for our staff so they feel empowered, a culture of excellence. We talk about the known unknowns and what might be the unknown unknowns,” he says.

“The line in our budget for professional fees has grown a lot over the years, but it’s one of our most important investments,” says Jake, and adds that if they could do it all again, they would have involved more advisors at more points in developing the business.

He also puts critical importance on something he learned from a mentor long ago: put the emphasis on doing the best you can with what you have. Jake and his family are firm believers that in every situation there is always something you can do to maximize results. It’s no surprise then, that Jake, Sarah and Erik won the 2023 Outstanding Young Farmers Program award for Saskatchewan.

Advocacy as a business decision

One area of farming where Jake feels it’s crucial to try and maximize results is raising awareness among the public and elected officials about the realities of food production.

"The vision that we have as a family is to operate an enduring business for the fourth generation, but that will only happen if we are able to keep farming,” he explains. “I’m increasingly concerned about government policies that make farming more difficult, along with the increasing disconnect with the general public about what farming and food production entails. I worry a great deal about the level of knowledge held by elected officials, by everyone outside of farming. And there is so much misinformation.”

Jake considers it no more and no less than a critical business decision to be involved as much as possible in raising awareness. At the same time, he acknowledges that he has a passion for farming and not everyone has the interest or ability.

“Advocating for farming takes a village,” he says. “There are so many places that these conversations need to happen — on social media, in government circles and through many initiatives such as Farm & Food Care, Bayer’s Sustainability Council, Grain Growers of Canada and the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission where I am chair.

“And we also have to educate our children and that’s why I’m so supportive of Agriculture in the Classroom. You can’t overstate the importance of knowing where your food comes from, that farmers are actual people. It’s really important to put a face to it.”

Two men and one woman stand leaning against the wheel of a giant green tractor parked at the edge of a sprawling wheat field.

“The vision that we have as a family is to operate an enduring business for the fourth generation, but that will only happen if we are able to keep farming”

Jake Leguee