When Greg Menzies's uncle Ernie approached him a few years ago about taking over the family farm near Regina, Mr. Menzies asked to see the farm's financial statements.
After reviewing the figures for about three hours, Mr. Menzies told his uncle bluntly: "The numbers don't really look very good. How do you make money farming?"
Mr. Menzies knew how to run a business. He'd spent 20 years in the technology world and ran his own company in Vancouver. Although he'd grown up in Regina and worked on the farm as a teenager, agriculture didn't seem to make economic sense.
His uncle kept asking and eventually wore him down. In 2005, Mr. Menzies agreed to return home and become a co-owner of Wigmore Farms. He came with one condition - the farm's business model had to change.
Instead of growing crops and then finding a buyer, Mr. Menzies said the farm had to start looking for customers first. The typical farm model is "backward to everything I ever did in the engineering and technology side," he said in an interview. "We looked for a need and we filled it. And where we found that need was from the world."
Mr. Menzies started travelling, checking booths at the giant Gulfood Show in Dubai and the Paris Food Show. He quickly discovered the huge demand for Saskatchewan lentils, chick peas, beans and other so-called pulse crops. "It's a source of protein for many, many families around the world who don't have luxury of eating meat or fish," he said.
He began transforming Wigmore, pushing it into these crops and finding buyers in far flung places such as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, India and Bangladesh. Today, Wigmore sells specially branded products in 30 countries, and it plans to open an office in India.
Wigmore has evolved from an 8,000-acre family farm growing mainly wheat and flax into a multi-sided business that spans 43,000 acres, grows 18,000 tonnes of pulse and runs a cleaning and packaging facility along with a division that sells fertilizers and chemicals. The number of employees has grown to 90 from two. And Mr. Menzies is just getting started. By 2012, he envisions Wigmore managing as much as 200,000 acres.
To keep expanding, he has adopted a modular system that matches his grain-growing operations with the limits of farm machinery. He leases farmland in multiples of 8,000 acres because that's typically the most productive size for equipment. An-8,000 acre operation might take one air seeder, while a 16,000-acre farm will take two. So far, Wigmore has assembled three modules and is acquiring another one.
The farm still has a way to go. Financing is a constant issue - running a 16,000-acre farm requires about $5-million worth of equipment - and Wigmore regularly turns down customers because the farm can't meet large orders. Mr. Menzies also gets frustrated by government policies he believes hold Canadian farmers back. But after five years running the farm, he has learned that it is more than just a business. "It's about feeding and finding food for the world."