Farming Across the Continents
- Franck Groeneweg, of Living Sky Grains
Jamie sits down with Franck Groeneweg of Living Sky Grains to talk about his passion for agriculture. His journey in ag takes him from France to Iowa to Saskatchewan to Montana, all in the pursuit of being a more perfect steward of the land.
Episode 29 | 1:17 min
Franck Groeneweg is Owner-Operator of Living Sky Grains. “Agriculture is my Passion. I am proud to be a steward of the land, feeding the world with the best technology available so the food that farmers produce, and that my family eats, can be nutritious, abundant, affordable, and sustainable. Making sure that the land I received, is in better shape when I pass it on. To accomplish that, I have been privileged to be part of the agriculture leadership community, shaping the present and future research, policy, and market development.”
Jamie Duininck (00:00:02):
This is The Water Table.
Kent R. (00:00:05):
The chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues.
Jamie Duininck (00:00:09):
A place for people to go find information and education.
Matt H. (00:00:13):
Water management is just going to become even more critical into the future.
Jamie Duininck (00:00:16):
How misunderstood what we do is.
Kent R. (00:00:22):
I would encourage people to open their minds and listen to this dialogue.
Jamie Duininck (00:00:31):
Well, welcome to The Water Table podcast today. My guest is Frank Groenweg. Frank is a friend of mine. I’ve known Frank for probably close to 10 years. He’s going to tell his story. He’ll probably have a little bit better idea in the story of the date of when we met or the timeframe, but wanted to get Frank on the podcast today, just to talk about his journey, his life journey, his journey in agriculture. My experience with Frank is through the water management industry, but he’s got a story to tell that’s a lot grander than just the water management industry. And some of the things that I think you can take away from this story is relationships. It’s why Frank and I have stake connected for close to 10 years is just he’s a relationship builder. He has intertwined people and people that have helped him in his life, and that he’s helped throughout this story and throughout his life.
Jamie Duininck (00:01:38):
Frank was named the farmer of the year in Saskatchewan, him and his wife, back in 2011. You may hear a little bit about that. Just the story of the ups and downs in life and the ups and downs we find in agriculture is part of what you’re going to hear today. And it’s just really rewarding for me to listen to his story of perseverance hard work, dedication to a occupation that he loves, which is agriculture, and that he’s passionate about. And I hope you enjoy the podcast and listening to Frank and I converse as much as I did in recording it. So here we go. Welcome, Frank Groenweg.
Franck Groenweg (00:02:25):
Well, thank you, Jamie. That’s really exciting to be on your podcast.
Jamie Duininck (00:02:30):
Yeah. So Frank, you and I met, I think it was right about 10 years ago, this time of year in the fall. And I don’t remember what social media platform, but at that time there was an agricultural chat board and you were farming in Saskatchewan at the time and you were looking for some pipe and water management. Pipe was in tight supply at the time and so we started a conversation. That’s how we got to know each other and I got to know your story. So I was just wondering if you could tell me about your story and where you’re from. Let’s start at the beginning where you’re from and how you ended up in America and that kind of thing.
Franck Groenweg (00:03:18):
Yeah. That’s a bit of a convoluted story. It has a lot of turns along the way, and it’s been very exciting all along. I grew up in France, south of Paris, about 80 miles, and always wanted to see North America, big equipment wide open spaces. At the age of 17, I had the chance to meet my aunt’s uncle, who was from Salix, Iowa in central Iowa. And he came to visit her in France and he had been farming all his life. He was retired and he was working for farmers in the fall, helping farmers. And I asked him if he could find me a job sometime because I really liked to see what that was about and what the landscape was like. And like I said, the big equipment and all these things, and he said, “Yeah, I can find you somebody. I actually work for somebody. I’m sure they’ll take you along.”
Franck Groenweg (00:04:29):
So in the fall of ’94, I made the trip to Salix, Iowa. And I found there’s something totally different that I was looking for. Like I said, that I was looking for wide open spaces. Well Iowa is a little bit maybe wider open than my parents farm in France, but I didn’t find the big equipment I was looking for. But I found great people, people with just a heart of gold and, and communities that were supported by agriculture. In France, agriculture can often be denigrated as being something not of a noble profession.
Franck Groenweg (00:05:15):
And it always struck me at the time to turn on the radio and have the ag markets. And you could really tell that the agriculture was the big part of the community. And the other thing is the church side of it. Grew up going to church in France. But our church was starting to dwindle somewhat and had a Dutch heritage. And in Iowa, I found actually my heritage, the roots of my heritage, which that was really good. That was really interesting how that went.
Jamie Duininck (00:05:56):
So you’re now in Salix, Iowa in 1994, and you’re just a laborer on the farm. Is that what you were doing?
Franck Groenweg (00:06:06):
Yeah, somewhat. I mean, I came there. I think it was a laborer, but it was also just a discovery trip. And it was funny because he was … Joe was his name. He was quite good at selling something. So he went to the people that were employing him in the fall and said, “Hey, I’ve got this French kid and he wants to come and it’s going to be great. I’m going to have him in my house and he’s going to help us.” And I don’t think they were too excited about that at all. And the grandpa of the family actually had said, “Oh, oh, I don’t know about this. This got to be a short, dumb fat kid from France. I don’t know about this.” And when I got there, well, I guess he told me later, was totally the opposite then. He was actually the short, dumb, fat guy he said, which was interesting on that one.
Franck Groenweg (00:07:03):
But we hit it off and we ended up, he was the grandpa of the family, so his son was farming and he had retired somewhat and was doing some side businesses. He was in two, two cylinders, John Deere, two cylinders. And at the time I was a John Deere through and through fan. Everything John Deere was a big thing for me. So he’d take me along just going to check two cylinder tractors and we’d go on trips throughout Iowa and it was just the funnest time.
Jamie Duininck (00:07:35):
That first stint then in ’94, between Salix and Rock Valley, that was a few months that you were in America before you went back to France?
Franck Groenweg (00:07:44):
Probably two and a half months.
Jamie Duininck (00:07:46):
Franck Groenweg (00:07:47):
And I went back to France and I told my parents, “I’m going back to Iowa.” And they weren’t too happy about that because I’m the oldest to five. My dad at the time was farming 500 acres. And really, it was slated I would take over the farm at some point. It was not written that way, but it was the general understanding and I said, “No, I’m, I’m not farming in France.” But there was a letter from the government at the time for mandatory service, military service. And basically I had to do that. I told my parents, “I’m not doing that. I’m going to Iowa. Why would I serve a country I don’t want to live in?”
Franck Groenweg (00:08:39):
And they said, “You’re going.” Okay. So the conversation was maybe a little longer than that, but in the end, I ended up going to do my military service in France. And that was actually an awesome experience. It got me to back up a little bit and, and assess what I really wanted to do, how I wanted to, what the next steps would be. Northwest Iowa has an interesting industry. A lot of parts are made there, a lot of machining, A and I products or Parts Country now with John Deere is originated there. There’s a couple really important salvages out there. So agricultural parts are pretty important. And I saw that and I thought maybe there’s a business here to start.
Franck Groenweg (00:09:33):
So I put an ad in the French farmers’ magazine or paper, it’s a weekly magazine, and basically American equipment parts for sale. And at that point, I started to get phone calls. I had gotten myself an apartment, but the time difference is seven hours. So I would get calls from farmers it would be 9:00 in France, it would be 2:00 in the morning in Iowa. And I’d get calls at 2:00 AM and I’d start working on that. Oh, all right. Yeah. That’s was all right. I was working for farmers. I had taken a bit of a job milking cows at night because I didn’t need to sleep at the time.
Jamie Duininck (00:10:32):
Yeah. You’re, you’re 20 years old now and have a lot of energy.
Franck Groenweg (00:10:36):
Oh yeah. I didn’t need to sleep. So I’d go to work at 10:00 at night until 2:00 in the morning and the phone would start ringing at 2:00 in the morning, so I’d take a few phone calls and then it would die off, I’d sleep for a few hours and I’d start to work on how to find these parts. The idea was still to be able to farm, but it was pretty difficult to get going, but I was at least getting myself supported and getting myself to learn something different and start a business that possibly would evolve into something that could help me farm.
Franck Groenweg (00:11:13):
That business, as the 19, 20 year old, any amount of money seems like a lot of money. So I started to sell a lot of engine kits and axial flow case IH combine parts, and I start to get pretty good at it, but a year or two in to it, the dollar exchange started to go against that business and started to make it pretty much impossible to sell anything. But it was pretty neat because I’d get a part number from France for a case IH piece from a combine, a part of a combine.
Franck Groenweg (00:12:00):
And I was able to actually get decent price by shipping it and still make a little bit of money on it and saving a farmer some money on the other side, which that was the craziest thing. But then the dollar exchange worked against me and these dealers I was starting to work with in France. One guy said, “We deal in Zetor tractor parts, or Zetor depending how some people pronounce it differently. It’s a Czechoslovakian brand of tractors. And it said that there are about 300 dealers in the US that sell these tractors. And we were wondering if we could sell them some parts. And so I couldn’t see that many of them, but started to research a little more and yeah, did find all these dealers, started to contact them.
Franck Groenweg (00:12:55):
I was able to get them parts at 40% under their cost and still making 40% myself. That was the craziest thing because at the time, we were talking Czechoslovakia and we were in ’97, about ’97. And that’s just eight years after the Eastern wall broke and all these Zetor was a state owned company. And they had all these suppliers that were also owned by the state. And by the time everything fell apart, these factories were producing parts, but they had no allegiance to the factory and there were no contracts or anything that made it worse, so they could sell OEM parts directly to whoever they wanted. So I started to just get these and make a business and it started to work out pretty good. And that’s actually when my wife Carrie came on the scene about that time.
Jamie Duininck (00:13:57):
Well, and for people that don’t understand, there’s a lot of people that listen to this podcast that are just interested in learning too. But when you come from France, you don’t have that community connection. You don’t have the family connection and then you don’t have the money. I think most people would just tell you, “Why are you even trying?” Because just thinking about that it just seems impossible how you could grow a farm business in a place like Northwest Iowa, where it’s highly competitive, some of the most valuable land for sure, in the Midwest egg belt and how does that work for a young farmer that doesn’t have those long term roots in the community? So I just wanted to mention that, but keep going.
Franck Groenweg (00:14:50):
Yeah, you’re exactly right. It was difficult. And we had one deal that was just about happening. It was 240 acres of land that we were going to be able to rent. And on the corner of that 240 was a big old square house with a barn, like your typical Iowa picture, something that we thought was just awesome. And we’d be able to buy that acreage and rent that land. And we met with the owner and we were hitting it off pretty good. And it felt like, yeah, that was going to go that route. We were pretty much on board except the rental rate on the land was like, we were $5 apart and already it was basically break even, but he tells me, that was toward the end of the year, and at that time it’s probably ’98 or so, or ’99.
Franck Groenweg (00:15:46):
And he says, “Let me do my taxes here and I’ll get back. I’ll get back to you in the new year and we’ll see where that goes.” So we were waiting along and praying about it. And we’re just excited about this thing coming together. And then my wife goes to a Bible study and she hears that this place is actually sold and we never heard from the guy or anything. And he basically went and sold it without telling us that he had done so. And at that point, that was a big stab. That was really tough on us. Compared to other things in life, it’s probably fairly minor, but we felt betrayed and felt at that point after so many different tries, felt that maybe it wouldn’t be maybe looking elsewhere, were starting to be one something.
Franck Groenweg (00:16:40):
If we really wanted to farm, maybe Northwest Iowa wouldn’t be the place to do it. Yet, we had it good. We had a parts business that was flourishing. We were selling parts in, I believe, 32 states at the time. We had a catalog, things, and my wife had a decent job. We were doing really well, but really wanted to farm. And we could see it was not going to be possible in Northwest Iowa. Her parents being from Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada said, “Why don’t you look into Saskatchewan?” I think the first time I heard of Saskatchewan, I said, “Sa skase what? Where is that?”
Jamie Duininck (00:17:28):
Yeah, like all of us have done.
Franck Groenweg (00:17:30):
Yeah, that’s right. And so her family, her uncle Carrie’s uncle, had been looking at some farms there. What was interesting about Saskatchewan is there were hundreds of farms for sale at the time. And the drastic contrast between Iowa, where somebody would whisper that their farm was for rent or for sale and they would be picked up just like that. And then you’d have Saskatchewan where a hundred farms, hundreds of farms would be for sale and they’d have a hard time selling them. There must be a reason for that. So one, oh, it must be Thanksgiving dinner of 2001, I think, after being had so many doors shut on us, started to go online and Googled, I think Google was going at the time, Googled farm land realty in Saskatchewan. And this website came up with all these farms for sale. And it was absolutely eyeopening to just see how much land was available for so little value. November of 2001 I decided I got to make a trip up there.
Franck Groenweg (00:18:47):
So I’m looking at a couple. My criteria was the most land for the least money, which is maybe not the best criteria, but I had a couple places I wanted to check out. So I called the realtor and I make a trip to Saskatchewan and we’re talking/ That’s a 13, 15 hour trip. And we’re now in the beginning of December, snow on the ground, and I’m just so excited. There was all these farms for sale at really good values. And I started thinking, “Well, this is a possibility.” And came back from that trip very excited. And we started to look more eagerly into that.
Franck Groenweg (00:19:34):
And in the new year, my dad came and visited in let’s see, in … Well, actually the way it went is I made another trip back in April of 2002, and looked at other farms that I had seen on the website and started to zero in on some that I really liked. And one was by Regina, had 12 quarters of lands. So about 1,800 acres and was close enough to the city. It was a nice block of land. And I thought, but it was totally unreachable. I mean, financially it was pretty tough. And so my dad was hearing about what I was looking at and our relationship had been strained. You can imagine the oldest of five kids, like I was saying, slated take over the farm, and I throw some cold water on his dream and say, “Hey, I’m moving to Iowa.”
Franck Groenweg (00:20:42):
He always had that story of the prodigal son and some reason that’d be me. So we’d have phone calls about every week I talk. And usually I would talk to my mom and maybe there’d be a 30 second blip where I talked to my dad and it was usually a fair, kind of cold, but still we’ll keeping communication. And we start to talk are these farms. And he gets excited about that and he decides to make a trip. So in July of 2002, he comes over and he had not met my in-laws actually. So we decided to make a trip from Rock Valley, Iowa to Alberta, and on the way stopped in Saskatchewan at different places. And I started with one farm that was probably the bottom on my list.
Franck Groenweg (00:21:37):
And we worked our way toward that one farm that I thought was great. And we get to that first farm. And he’s just so excited. This is four quarters of land, one section. And you’re talking our farm in France was 500 acres in all little fields, different, spread apart. And here we are on a section of land in Saskatchewan with black dirt and it’s one block and he thinks this is the greatest thing. And we keep going to different farms. They are a little bit bigger, different land, and we get to that one that I thought was so great. And at that point, we get to that farm and we find out that actually there’s an offer on it. We’re a little bit, “Ah, we’re just too late.”
Franck Groenweg (00:22:26):
That farm had been on the market for two years and as we show up, it’s actually gone. What was really interesting is that we’re walking on the place, just looking at it anyway. And the farmer is rolling his lentils and we end up, he’s stopping the tractor and we talk to him and he tells us at the time that there’s an off on the farm and oh well, I guess it was not meant to be anyway. Okay. Fine. And I say, “Hey, you mind telling us what’s the offer?” “Oh yeah, yeah. Here’s the amount.” And we counter offered at that much. Oh, oh, okay. All right. Well, I guess we won’t get it anyway.
Franck Groenweg (00:23:10):
I mean, here I am. I’m 22, maybe 23, no, maybe 24 at the time. And he’s thinking as if this kid is going to buy this place and so he’s really basically brushing me off a little bit and we go away and talk to the realtor and he said, “This offer, it doesn’t seem like it’s coming together, so you could put an offer right in the background. And if the counter offer doesn’t get accepted, you can move in like that.”
Franck Groenweg (00:23:44):
And since we knew the amount of what they counter offered, we put ourselves exactly there, which was, 25% less of the asking price. So that was interesting how that went. And we signed, we did the last signature on the offer. And at that point, the offer was accepted and we started, “Oh. Oh wow. How’s that going to work?” Now it hits me. We’re into something here.
Jamie Duininck (00:24:13):
Yeah, now it became real.
Franck Groenweg (00:24:16):
It became real. What did we do?
Jamie Duininck (00:24:18):
So now you own a farm in Saskatchewan and you’re 24 years old and you’re highly leveraged, but you’ve got a lot of passion and a lot of resolve around farming. And so what happened then? The next couple years, how’d that go?
Franck Groenweg (00:24:35):
Oh, well, so we start farming. We’re in March of ’03 and we still don’t have a bit of equipment at all on this farm. So we had made some deals on drills and tractors and we start to bring in things. We were very lean. There’s this no extra thing. The toolbox, there’s hardly any tool, hardly an air compressor or anything. But here we are. One of my brothers came from France to help with seeding that first year. And we put everything on the shoe string. We had some really nice used equipment because with the parts business, I had some decent connections and that helped me to put a nice line of equipment together, very economical, but in good shape.
Franck Groenweg (00:25:27):
And so that first year starts wet and then turns really dry. But still we get a decent crop. Having been a little bit held back on a leash in Iowa with the fact that you couldn’t get any land or anything, and then you get into Saskatchewan and it seemed like the whole neighborhood is for sale or for rent. There was a farm in the area that it was 1,700 acres that was available for rent. So, well, why not do that? So in 2004, we went from 1,800 acres to 3,500 acres total, and just changed a little bit of equipment, but decided, in good old fashioned to just not sleep because even at that time, that’s still not needed. So if you don’t sleep, you can do a whole lot more work.
Franck Groenweg (00:26:25):
In 2004, we start to actually get a lot of rain and we have just an amazing crop in July durum wheat is five feet tall, beautiful heads on it. Just everything is looking just awesome. And we’re thinking, “Oh, we’re going to hit it right here. It’s going to be fine.” We were saying three on the original 1,800 acres, we were leveraged to the max. So you just can imagine putting 1,700 acres, what that did to our numbers, they didn’t look great at all, but suppliers were ready to help us with credit and different things. And in August 19th of 2004, we had a frost event that started at 2:00 in the morning at minus three Celsius. So we’re talking about 25 degrees Fahrenheit and it started at 1:00 in the morning and went till 8:00.
Franck Groenweg (00:27:26):
And basically, it devastated our crop. That durum wheat went from something that could have been 70 bushel an acre down to about 30 bushel an acre. And the bushel weight, instead of being 60 pounds was more like 30 to 40 pounds. It was just ugly. And it took us for a loop. It was devastating. We lost so much money in that few hours and we lost money that we couldn’t lose, that was not ours. Some people say, well then you’d be okay then. Well, no, because if you want to survive, well, you can’t just leave bills unpaid. It just doesn’t. Some people seem to be able to make it work. But that was a tough time. It was a really tough time that, that harvest of 2004, and then what was following with bills piling up and not be able to pay. That was very difficult.
Franck Groenweg (00:28:32):
Our farm was starting to thrive again by 2007. We had tightened our costs every way we could. And so our costs, we were lean, very lean and the prices came up and by 2007, we were doing really well. So for somebody that doesn’t seem to learn much, well in 2008, we started to buy more land and rent more land. And at that point we were probably about 5,000 acres and we were doing more custom farming as well. By 2009, we were at about 10,000 acres. And then by the spring of 2010, a dairy farm we did some custom work for bought another 2,500 acres, and we were going to be 12,500 acres of work ground. So we were doing roughly about half of it was custom work. And then a quarter of it was owned and a quarter was rented.
Franck Groenweg (00:29:36):
And at that point, it was exactly what I always wanted to do. But there’s always a theme, it seems, whenever you are on top of the mountain or whenever you’re at the spot where you feel like this is great, it seem like watch out because instinctively, you know that you are in for some rough time coming ahead. And in the spring of 2010, it started to rain, rain and more rain. Now we’re talking Western Canada is a fairly dry place in general, I wouldn’t say semi arid, but pretty close to semi arid. And so generally people want moisture more than they actually want to dispose of water. And that spring, our daughter Solange was born May 10th of 2010. And we had hardly done any seeding at all. Generally May 1st is you want to be in the field by May 1st and on some years, we’d be last week of April. And by May 10th, with 12,000 acres to seed, we had hardly done anything.
Franck Groenweg (00:31:06):
The weather was starting to turn and my daughter’s name actually, Solange means sun angel. And so that day, the sun was shining and we felt like, “Okay, it’s it’s going to turn around.” And no, no, it just kept raining. And to a point to where about a week later, it felt like we better get some help in place here because we’re not going to be able to do our custom work stuff.
Franck Groenweg (00:31:30):
And so we brought some help in, but they had a hard time getting it done and had a hard time putting some crop in the ground it was so wet. 2011 was wet and we hit five years where it was really wet, amid some commodity prices that were awesome. So we weren’t really doing great, but the commodity prices were keeping us from losing money or there were a couple tough years there where we had very little crop, but at good prices and we were losing money, but it was not a disaster. It was just par for the course amidst some better years. So that’s actually when too much moisture came in and that’s actually, when we start to think, “How do we manage water better?” And that’s actually when you come in the picture, Jamie.
Jamie Duininck (00:32:34):
Right, right. And this is when you start thinking about we’ve had all these water events and you got to probably consider your opportunities and your challenges a little different than you had in the past, just because of all the water. And I know you had researched drainage and had bought a pull behind plow at the time. And tell us a little bit about that. What was your experiences in Saskatchewan, your farming operation when it came to managing the water when you had too much?
Franck Groenweg (00:33:09):
Well, my parents farm in France was pattern tile sometime in the early ’80s. Water was always managed well. So there was hardly ever, on wet years, it was always fine. So when we moved to Saskatchewan, even during these years that were more on the dry side, there were times where a lot of our fields had some smaller depressions, lower areas that were accumulating water from snow melt in the spring, temporarily accumulating water from snow melt, if we were to delay seeding till that water had percolated down, it would just be too late to seed. So we ended up turning around these and then two weeks later they would be dry. Some people say, “Well, these were wetlands.” No, no, they weren’t wetlands because they had no life in them.
Franck Groenweg (00:34:16):
Some years you could see through them and then they would flood maybe a bit later. And so these areas were in general, we felt like if we could do a better job with these, we’d do a better job for the environment because we wouldn’t be applying products, fertilizers, and crop protection products for no crop. The idea is not to put more out there, it’s just to make sure that it’s efficiently used. So we started to look at that and I’d be talking to different farmers and say, “Well, we don’t need that because generally it’s a dry place here and you really want that water on a dry year.” I said, “Well, it’s not like you’re pumping this water onto the crop or anything.”
Franck Groenweg (00:35:06):
So there was something, even the way it started in ’03 that felt like timing these spots would really be good. And definitely Northwest Iowa there’s a lot of water management with tiling that happens. And so there was also that. In the back of my mind, the farmer I was working with in Salem, South Dakota had done a fair bit of tiling and it was working awesome. And so in the back of my mind, I really wanted to do something about it. But again, how do you do that when you’re cash strapped and everybody, the bank basically, says like, “Oh, you don’t need that.”
Jamie Duininck (00:35:46):
Exactly. They don’t know anything about managing water as a banker in Saskatchewan.
Franck Groenweg (00:35:52):
That’s right. So at that point, it’s like, “Well, you have to do it with cash.” And when cash is scarce already, well, it doesn’t happen very easily, but you talk about 2010 and ’11, and you start to say, “Hey, we need to do something about this.” So as you said, we bought a plow and we’ve got all the equipment in by fall of ’11 or ’12. Which year was that, that you had a really hard time? Was it ’12 supplying pipe?
Jamie Duininck (00:36:26):
It was, yeah, the fall of ’11 was tighter than the fall of ’12. It was basically from the industry got really tight on pipe in ’11 until through the summer of ’12. And then it opened up a little bit.
Franck Groenweg (00:36:40):
Oh yeah. Yeah. So it must have been ’11. And I can’t find anything. There was a manufacturing company in, in Manitoba that I had some chats before with them. And it was possible to get pipe there. But then by that time, it wasn’t anymore. My wife and I were like, “Oh, here we go. We got all the equipment now. And we can’t even do anything.” Not that when you start and you’re learning, well, it’s not like you get up going and do a whole lot of it. But if at least we could have some to get our feet wet or so to speak, that would be nice. So I think ag talk was the form we were [crosstalk 00:37:20] to.
Jamie Duininck (00:37:19):
Franck Groenweg (00:37:23):
And I think I may have written, “I can’t find any tile pipe. Do you guys have any suggestion on where I could find anything? I’m looking for a load or two, and that would be it.” And that’s when you answered. And as I found out later, as you told me, you moved a fair bit of stuff to try to make it happen. And you got us a couple loads. And that was something that got us going and got us started. And yeah, it started actually a great friendship as well. So it’s all about relationships.
Jamie Duininck (00:38:03):
Yes, it is. That’s what’s so neat about your story is you can go back and just listening and how you connected with people all along the way in those connections, whether it was in Salix, Iowa or in Rock Valley, the wood stove piece, or this piece, it all starts with a connection and a relationship, and then it grows from there. So glad you mentioned that, because that is how things happen in life as relationships.
Jamie Duininck (00:38:36):
So you improved your farm, started improving it in that … That could have been 2012 that we met too, but it was one of those two years. And not too long after that, Frank, we’ll just keep moving ahead here, but you did some great projects to improve what you were doing and part of it, what a lot of people in the general public don’t understand is what you were mentioning about when you got to farm around spots or wait until those spots dry out, the longer you wait into the spring, the more yield loss you’re getting by not having that crop in the ground.
Jamie Duininck (00:39:20):
If it gets too late, you just see yield loss across the whole field. So having that uniform crop and that uniform plant date as early as possible is really beneficial to the end result of a profitable crop at the end of the year. So you’re doing a lot of things that were pretty common practice, like you say, in France or in Iowa or the states, but definitely not common practice at the time in Saskatchewan. And then, sometime not too long after that, you and your wife, Carrie, were named farmers of the year of Saskatchewan. When was that?
Franck Groenweg (00:39:59):
That was actually in 2011. That was basically just right at the time where we got our tiling equipment.
Jamie Duininck (00:40:09):
Franck Groenweg (00:40:10):
Yeah. Basically through our accountants nominated us for the award. It was the Outstanding Young Farmers of Saskatchewan Award. And it happens guess when? At the farm progress show in Regina. So it’s funny how sometimes some of these things just show up and you yeah. In 2011, we won the title for Outstanding Young Farmers of Saskatchewan. And that was a really exciting, exciting thing because I felt that our efforts, through all the ups and downs, our efforts were rewarded with some recognition and it was really a neat time. What’s neat about that award is every year a new couple is awarded the title. And so you have people from back from the eighties up unto today that every year there’s a new couple. So you have a network of, well, risk takers, opportunity takers that-
Jamie Duininck (00:41:30):
Successful farmers that you can go back and connect with.
Franck Groenweg (00:41:31):
Yes. Yeah, yeah. And so with that, every year there are seven regions in Canada that nominate an outstanding young farmer for their region. And then in December, the national competition happens in one of the seven different regions and it rotates throughout every year it rotates. So we ended up competing in Manitoba. And so we met with six other couples from across Canada. Some were in market garden, some were in dairy and just different crops. And instantly you have a connection, even though they’re from different crop production areas, these people have the same attitude of not taking no for an answer and looking at opportunity in the midst of adversity. And so it’s a great organization that we’ve been able to be part of, my wife and I, and we really cherish these connections we have today with these people. That was in 2011.
Jamie Duininck (00:42:51):
Okay. Okay. And just for two time’s sake, you and I can go on and on forever, but after 2011, and that’s when you won the award and you started doing some tiling and managing the water on your farm, which showed some really great results from the standpoint of the investment you made and how it improved your land. But then we just fast forward, you had some really, really good years. I’m sure not every year was, but some really good years through the mid 2,000s there, the teens. And then, I don’t stay in touch with you real close, but then one day start hearing some rumors that were really surprising to me. So tell me what took place in the later, I think it was ’19 when he started considering some things and ’20 when it happened, but tell me what happened in your life?
Franck Groenweg (00:43:48):
Yeah. Well, as we had been very successful, when we had started farming, we were buying land when neighbors were saying, “This is nuts, this, this kid’s going to go broke.” And for us, it looked like the opportunity was there. This land was cheap and it was available and we could rent this stuff. You fast forward to 2015, ’17, ’18, something like that. And now these neighbors that had said we were nuts, were starting to buy land at crazy prices, and were starting to say, “This doesn’t make any sense at all.” And it really goes back to one guy told me when everybody walk, run, and when everybody run, walk. And I’ve always subscribed to this contrarian view that it’s possibly tried to always do the opposite of everybody else.
Franck Groenweg (00:44:42):
But we started to be a little bit uneasy about where things were going. Felt also that maybe interest rate would start to go up. And we were borrowing enough money that felt that that could be, if interest rates were going up a few percent, it would be more difficult to service the debt. And we felt that there’s an opportunity maybe to do something else, but we were a little bit uneasy with where things were going. But then there was a catalyst event. In 2017, November 7th of 2017, my sister-in-law at 31 years old in France passes away in a stupid accident in her backyard. And, at that point, it’s like a lot of people get in that spot, where, “What are we doing this for? What is this all about? Is it all about the acres making money or is it …?”
Franck Groenweg (00:45:47):
You just really have this realization that something is … I don’t know. There’s some confusion in some realization and it’s a good time to go. I’m not going to say it was a good time to go through, but it definitely was an opportunity to reassess our goals. And it was a tragic time. I went to that funeral and leaving three kids behind, my brother left with three kids, six, four, and two years old. And you think, “What? This doesn’t add up.” But that’s how it worked. And so coming back from France, from that funeral, I went to a farm show in Regina that’s [inaudible 00:46:42]. It’s more of a cattle show.
Franck Groenweg (00:46:44):
And I went with a friend and we stopped at a real estate booth just because he knew the realtor and we were chatting. And I just started to unload a little bit about what I saw things about the macroeconomics, some of the interest rate possibly going up and the price of land and how things were just nuts at the time. We went away and a couple weeks later that realtor called me and said, “You wouldn’t sell your farm, would you?” No, there’s no way I am. Yeah, I may be a little bit uneasy on this, but, I’m not ready to sell. And he said, “Would you mind if I put a price together?” And I said, “Well, yeah, sure. That would actually be good, because that way it’s always a good conversation piece with the banker to know what the value would be.”
Franck Groenweg (00:47:38):
He put a price together and he came back to me and I was shocked. Generally, you have an idea of what your land values are in the area, and that’s what you have in your mind. But the banker thinks it’s about half that and that realtor thought it was twice that, and at that point, I thought, “Whoa, this is really nuts.” We had a beautiful farm. We had made some nice improvements.
Franck Groenweg (00:48:12):
It was beautiful, but it was also getting to a spot we had some bigger farms in the area that were very aggressive. And even though it was a viable farm at the time, we could see that it could possibly be difficult in the future to access land. And possibly we’d even lose some land, some rental land over time. So we started to think about that. And we ended up going back and forth a little bit. We ended up actually doing a trip to Haiti with our family for a month in January where we did some agriculture development work. And that was January of ’18. And the realtor had said, “I could put a something together that when you come back from your trip, we will have some offers and you’ll be able to take an offer and sell it then.”
Franck Groenweg (00:49:12):
Oh, no, no, just let’s say not so fast. And so we ended up going on that trip. When we came back, confronted with the bit of the reality of the third world country in Haiti and the drastic difference with our life in North America. Felt like why would we sell our farm when we’ve got it so good? Later on the macroeconomics had not changed and we started to consider it more. Called them, had a few time meetings. Talked about it as a family. And it’s one thing, you can sell a farm, but then what are you going to do? It’s like everything else you got to say. I was 42 at the time. You don’t just retire at 42. You maybe take a month off or something, but I’d get bored pretty quickly. So we start to look at where else we’d go and started to feel maybe a little more at peace with the idea of selling.
Franck Groenweg (00:50:13):
And so we put it on the market and the deal was we’d seed the crop and when we’d be done seeding, it would actually go live on the market. And it worked as a tender process, sealed bids, that people had a month to put bids together. And when we dropped the bomb, that it was for sale, people were shocked. I was probably the last person they thought would ever sell. They actually thought maybe we had some health problems or things like that, because that just didn’t fit the way we had done things. And we just started to say, “Hey, this is where we’re at in our life. And we just feel that this is something we’ve grappled with this idea. We’ve prayed about it. We feel that’s what we want to do.”
Franck Groenweg (00:51:22):
The process went. We got 10 offers for our farms and different ways and we retained one and it was yeah, just everything. For anybody that’s done any real estate transaction, whether it’s for a house, there’s always some uncertainty from the other person or even one’s self being able to get the financing. And it’s not done until it’s done. But the process went pretty smooth all the way. In November of 2018, we had sold off, December of ’18, we had sold our farm and it was weird. But we were glad with what we did.
Jamie Duininck (00:52:15):
Yep. And at that time, did you know what you were going to do next? The day of closing, did you have it planned out or no, not yet?
Franck Groenweg (00:52:28):
Not quite, no. But just with the decision of putting it for sale, there were themes that we were comfortable with. We could just buy a farm again or we could … I mentioned that trip to Haiti. We had a chance to work there for five years and put a farm together and give it or handing it to the locals after three to five years. That was something we considered. We had an opportunity to do some something similar in Uganda as well. Now the family was less excited about the Uganda opportunity, but they were open to the Haiti opportunity. As it turns out, and as we see it today, Haiti has turned out to be very, very difficult place to be and very unsafe. And so we didn’t like to do that, but that was actually pretty high on the list.
Franck Groenweg (00:53:30):
So we had themes of things that we could do and places we could move to. We were at peace. That’s what made a peace and no doubt the kids, they were uneasy. They thought that dad fell off the deep end, and Carrie was was going with it. She felt like, “Yeah, no, that’s fine.” But I think she also had a bit of her questions on how things were going to turn out, but the general direct we were going, we didn’t have a specific thing, but we had a few, let’s say vignettes, in the air that if we were selling, it would be okay because we would do this and we’d figure it out.
Jamie Duininck (00:54:20):
And some of this, just from conversations with you, too, Frank, some of this, well, not some of this, all of this, somewhere through this, your faith, you’re a very committed Christian, and your faith weaves in and out of this and in how you made decisions too, correct?
Franck Groenweg (00:54:42):
Oh, correct. That’s all of it. In God’s providence, I’m a dreamer and there are many dreamers in the Bible and it seemed like you just go along and see where it leads. And don’t exactly have a real defined path. You have these things that you, like I said, put a little bit in the air up above somewhat and say, “I’d really like to be a farmer in wide open spaces, and this is what I feel I’m called for.” All right. Well, let’s see, we’ll open the doors and we’ll open doors till one actually opens up. We’ll try to open doors until what actually opens up. And in prayer, there are doors that just don’t open up and they’re there for a reason.
Franck Groenweg (00:55:32):
They’re there to shape up, to shape us. They’re there to form us. Everything that we go through in life is, is there to form us in such a way that we can be used later. And so the struggles we had were just as much or more a good time, I guess. So an opportunity.
Jamie Duininck (00:56:06):
Franck Groenweg (00:56:06):
All the times that we were at a low spot is when we pulled back and figured what was important, and it made us more lean, more able to … We had more clarity to go forward, versus when we were in better times, it seemed like that’s when the confusion happened so much more.
Jamie Duininck (00:56:37):
Yeah. That’s interesting. Looking at doing some podcasts on some things going into next year, that can just help family businesses around, which most of our industry is family businesses, but around mission vision values, and it’s that clarity that sometimes can wane when it’s too easy. I wanted to mention that, cause I know that was really a huge part of all these decisions was what’s best? Where is the Lord leading me in my faith and what’s best for my family? And that was part of how you made these decisions. And so you sold the farm and started looking and Montana got pretty high on the radar. Tell me about that. And what was the result of that also?
Franck Groenweg (00:57:37):
Yeah. In fall of ’18, the farm at closed and we were doing our last harvest and we hit into just in a snow, like always, we hit the spot where there’s rain and snow, and we never know if we’re going to finish harvest. And at that point we’re, oh, it’s always frustrating that time. And I had looked at some. Well, I had spent some time on my laptop looking at different realtor websites and I’d often be on the couch and then I’d stand up. And I say, “Kids, we’re moving to blank.” Just anywhere in the world. So could be Kazakhstan, whatever, and the kids would just start to roll their eyes, “Oh, here we go, dad is [inaudible 00:58:26] and I can …” And so there was this farm in Montana that I really liked the way it was put together.
Franck Groenweg (00:58:31):
And so I called the realtor and he sent me a package and it turned out not to be what we were looking for, but then he says, “But I’ve got this other one here. It’s a quiet listing and it’s really nice.” And he sends me the package and reminiscent from the Saskatchewan days, oh, this is just way too expensive. I wanted to actually slow down a bit and maybe to finally get some sleep. But this was a new thing. So during that weather delay in the harvest of 2018 in Saskatchewan, we decided to take a trip to Three Forks, Montana, where we live now. We had never been to Yellowstone and thought, “Oh, well, maybe we’ll check Yellowstone out.”
Franck Groenweg (00:59:20):
And we come on this farm and we drive down the driveway. And the thing is, we are right in between the mountains. I mean, no matter if you stand in the fields, you have mountain ranges all around. So as I’m looking out in my office window right now, I see snow peaks. I see just a wide open space, beautiful yellow subtle, it’s just … And we get on this yard, a beautiful clean yard. Kids get out of our Suburban and on the back of the house, there’s this huge … It’s not like the Grand Canyon, but it’s our Grand Canyon, let’s say, an in between. It’s a little different. Instead of having the void, you basically have farmland as far as you can see, and then mountains in the back. And the kids, basically at that point, I think it was their time to say, “Okay, we get it now. We sold the farm. We sold the farm. And if we are going to move somewhere, it’s going to be here.”
Franck Groenweg (01:00:27):
And then, I just mentioned, this is actually a pretty big bite again, but everybody’s on at that point. It’s like, okay, we’ve got buy-in from the whole family here that this is where we want to go. And it took a bit to put it together. It took a lot. Well, when you move country, there are a lot of things from a tax standpoint, from a credit standpoint, from so many different things, from immigration. It’s a lot of work. Good thing you actually don’t know how much work it is ahead of time. We probably wouldn’t do it. Everything came together in March 18, then you mentioned that date of 2020. We had everything loaded and we crossed the border again, 17 years later to the date.
Franck Groenweg (01:01:27):
And we moved to our new place here at Montana. That’s actually an interesting date. That’s actually the day that the border closed for COVID reasons as well. So here we are just leaving our farm in Saskatchewan. We are just, I’m driving a semi with our stuff in it. My wife is in a vehicle and my son in another vehicle. And we hear on the radio, “The border is going to be closed to non essential travel.” And we’re calling each other. Carrie and I said, “Well, what’s that mean? Well, I think we’re essential on the farming end of it.” And we get to the border and the border patrol guards, they don’t know what to make of all this. And so it was a crazy day. We came closer to our farm. We stopped at a place for lunch, and that was in a grocery store deli. Their shelves were bare and we starting to think, “What’s going on? What kind of new world are we moving to?”
Franck Groenweg (01:02:35):
No doubt it’s been rocky, down that end of it. It’s been a different time.
Jamie Duininck (01:02:44):
Yeah. And so you’ve had two seasons then. Two, where you’ve had two years of farming in Montana now, right?
Franck Groenweg (01:02:55):
Jamie Duininck (01:02:56):
Is that going okay.
Franck Groenweg (01:02:59):
Well you know what I was telling you about being at a spot where everything goes, everything is great. And that I would say that would be fall of 2018, where everything was great, or actually when we moved here, like everything, March of 2020, everything was just beautiful. And we felt like, “Hey, this is awesome.” And at that point, something was nagging me in the back saying, “This is so good that probably just brace yourself because it may just … Something’s going to come up.” And we’ve been hit now with two dry years. 2020 was a fairly dry year with low commodity prices. And it was a fair bit loss that happened. And no doubt, when you get to a new place, you’re learning a lot of things.
Franck Groenweg (01:03:55):
You’re making new connections. You’re trying to figure out your way and you make mistakes no matter what. I think they were manageable mistakes, but amplified by the dry year. And now this year, we have an extremely dry year. The national drought monitor has five different stages and we’re at the top of the most exceptional drought stage. We had basically 20% of a crop, crop insurance level, but crop insurance never makes up for what you stand to make. So we are at a spot where we’ve lost a fair bit of money in the last couple years, and it’s getting us to just refocus and trying to see, “Okay, how do we do this again?”
Franck Groenweg (01:04:47):
And so this farm was actually always was linked with the wheat Montana farm. That’s a wheat Montana farm that we bought and wheat montana is a brand of flour and bread that’s sold throughout Montana and other states as well, but definitely Montana. And so we deliver to this bakery, and it’s just been interesting how that all works, but we’ve actually started to look at doing our own flour label. And that’s what we’re working on right now. And also we got a canola press and we’re looking at pressing our own canola oil and starting a website soon, selling flour, whole wheat flour, and then cold pressed, virgin canola oil, and trying to do a quality product. Actually, we’ve done some tests at a flour mill in Boise, Idaho, or the same flour mill that we are installing.
Franck Groenweg (01:05:59):
And so we’ve given a lot of flour to France and different things, and we’ve got some incredible feedback. We have one variety of wheat that is from Southern Southwest France. It’s an heirloom variety, that the interesting part is when we grind it into flour, we’ve had people with very high gluten intolerance have been able to actually eat the product and not be sick. So that’s very exciting. We’re going into that because all along, farming is a way to sustain us. And it is definitely a calling, but all along, from being in Iowa, and knowing that farming was the backbone of the community, to me, farming is a calling. I have to bring the best that I have in me to do my job and make sure that it feeds people in a very safe way with most nutrients possible.
Franck Groenweg (01:07:07):
And I’m not saying I’m doing a perfect job, but I’m trying my best. And I always say, when my kids, if they take over the farm, I hope they can say, “Dad was a great farmer, but we figured out so many more things since and we’re doing a better job now.”
Franck Groenweg (01:07:29):
I want continuous improvement and I don’t pretend to do … I know there is a continuation know of improvements that are going to happen. I just hope I’m doing my best at this point. And so to produce a crop that’s high nutrients and have actually health benefits is probably the highest satisfaction that I have. And I truly feel like I’m fulfilling God’s plan when I do that. And so we hope that we’re reassessing, with having some struggle here, some financial struggle, we’re doing fine, but definitely we’ve been trimmed a little bit for the last couple years. We’re, trying to reassess and see how can we do a better job? How do we get this back on the rails? By also doing a better job for agriculture in general and for the general public.
Jamie Duininck (01:08:42):
Yep. What else can you bring to the table? I know that gluten thing is a real struggle for some people. And that’s pretty neat that you have a … How I understood what you said is you have a gluten product that works for people that have gluten allergies or gluten sensitivities. And so that sounds like something that the world needs, that people need within, a lot of people in my family that I know that would love to try that and would love to buy a product like that.
Jamie Duininck (01:09:20):
This has been an awesome time, Frank, just to hear your story. And I know a lot of people are going to be interested in listening because everybody has their own story and they’ll be able to relate to certain parts of this and then not relate. But I think what it’ll do, certainly has done for me, you’re a very inspiring person and very motivating. And I just hope that that’s what this podcast can do for others that have found themselves in a place where maybe it’s a young farmer that is having a hard time finding land to rent, or maybe it’s somebody else with another issue.
Jamie Duininck (01:09:57):
Just to hear your story and how you navigated. Every few years, it sounds like, there was a turn. Either a turn where there was a struggle or a turn where you were back on top, so to speak. And I think that for me, listening to that, it’s just inspiring. And I hope others can feel that way too. The one thing that, when I’ve done podcasts or throughout my career, visiting with people, it’s almost always where you find a pretty successful person, there’s a lot of it’s about passion. And you bring a passion to your work every day. And I just want to say, thank you for that, because it’s exciting to see, and it’s exciting to be your friend. So I appreciate our friendship.
Franck Groenweg (01:10:54):
Well, Jamie, I absolutely want to return to compliment because you’re right. Finding inspiring people right along, along life’s pathway is what keeps us motivated and going. And I’ve seen the same passion in you when it comes to your work and how you want to make sure that you’re doing a great job, whether it’s in your business or with your family. And that’s how we feed of each other, how we propel ourselves forward. And there’s no doubt that God puts on our path people like you, like me, like other countless people throughout this journey. And they’re all there playing their part. And you talk about inspiring podcasts. I’m passionate about our story and I’m not sure I’d wanted any different as far as redoing this story at all.
Franck Groenweg (01:11:58):
It’s very easy to just look at it as being well, it’s just our life. And that’s just the way it is. I listen to other, different stories on podcasts as well. You look at wow, this is really something. And then like you say, it reinforces or get to a spot to think, “Huh? I never thought of that. Maybe …” And so I’m just really happy that I can provide that part of it, whatever I may have said today that can maybe make that, if somebody is at that spot to have in decision or if that can push toward the right direction, I’d just be super happy of that.
Jamie Duininck (01:12:40):
Yeah. I know you’re in the early stage of this, but if people listening ever try any of your products, when you get them labeled, how do they get ahold of you, Frank?
Franck Groenweg (01:12:52):
So at this point, Living Sky Grains is our farm and the label we’re going under. We don’t have a website just quite yet. We were hoping that it was going to happen this summer. And of course, with harvest with, with farming, different things seemed like we put a lot of things a bit on hold and doing. But that’s something that’s going to happen hopefully before the end of the year, livingskygrains.com will be the website for that. We’ll have our products available on there. I appreciate the the plug for this. I was telling you about this variety on the gluten side of, of it. I’m never going to make the claim that it’s going to fix everything because I think some of it is, well, it’s not I wouldn’t say experiential, but some of these ailments affect people in different ways, but so far from what we’ve seen, some of the people that have tried it, it’s absolutely amazing.
Franck Groenweg (01:13:55):
We we had this family where they have a son with the Asperger’s syndrome and that they couldn’t feed. Originally they found that they took all corn and wheat products away. And then in the last couple weeks they got some of that variety and they it tested it. And they said, “Well, we didn’t see. It seemed like he was able to take it and it didn’t change his personality or anything.” And when you see that you think, “Wow, this is amazing that all along, we’ve looked at our nutrition as being just nutrients, like chemical nutrients that you put into a body and it should come up, but there’s so much more to it. The biology and our gut biome are so important and it plays on our mental health.”
Franck Groenweg (01:14:43):
And so I think, agriculture is going to start to look very different in the next decade or so, because of these things.
Jamie Duininck (01:14:54):
For sure, for sure. And that’s super exciting about being on the front end of that for you and being part of just the agricultural industry for me. But if we go into that, Frank, we’ll be here till tomorrow morning. So we don’t want to do that, but I really, really appreciate you. And I’m grateful for you taking the time to spend with me today on The Water Table podcast. And I think we’ll say bye for now. And maybe we can do another on when you get your labels going. That’d be fun to hear how it’s going.
Franck Groenweg (01:15:32):
You bet. That sounds great. Thank you, Jamie.
Jamie Duininck (01:15:32):
All right. Thank you, Frank.
Franck Groenweg (01:15:34):
Jamie Duininck (01:15:34):
We’ll talk soon.
Franck Groenweg (01:15:35):
Jamie Duininck (01:15:36):
Franck Groenweg (01:15:36):
Jamie Duininck (01:15:37):
Well, what a great story today. Thanks for joining us, Frank. If you would like to learn more about Frank and maybe start a conversation with him, you can find he has social media contacts in the notes on this episode. Again, what a great story of perseverance of hard work. Frank’s a pretty humble guy. What he’s got going on to take what he built in Saskatchewan, and be able to release that for a vision he had of bigger and better, and a vision for his future and his family’s future is something that is very unique. And from my perspective and who I am, I’m just really proud to know somebody like this and have a relationship with a guy that has a vision that big. So thanks for joining us, Frank. Thanks for listening listeners. And I hope that you can take something away from this episode of The Water Table.
Jamie Duininck (01:16:48):
If you enjoy what you’re listening to, you can find us on your favorite podcast platform. You can find us on Twitter or Facebook, and you can also find us at watertablepodcast.com. Thanks for listening.