How a Peer Group keeps this farm business looking forward
Over the past five years, Dustin Burns and Kristi Nylen-Burns have been inspired and energized by having confidential, goal-oriented discussions with like-minded farmers. Here’s their story.
Smooth operations and a well-planned future
Chris Kletke has worked closely with Backswath since 2010, both on day-to-day operations and longer-term strategic planning. Now, he’s poised for growth.
A long-term plan built on solid ground
With an assist from Backswath, this Alberta farm family set up a solid partnership between its two generations, a robust financial base for operations and the flexibility to capture future opportunity.
In the 45 years since John and Linda Burns came home to farm near Wynyard, Sask., Windy Poplars Farm has always been about more than growing crops.
“They were progressive from the start,” says their daughter-in-law Kristi Nylen-Burns. “They focused on education and trying new farming techniques— and they passed that along to the rest of us.”
Today, the farm includes Kristi and husband Dustin Burns, Dustin’s brother Tyler and wife Janelle and partners Doug and Bonita Reeve.
Some innovations at Windy Poplars Farm occur in the field. As one example, the farm now has two growing seasons under its belt with the DOT autonomous platform and 30-ft. Seed Master seeding unit.
Another game-changing innovation goes back to 2015. That’s the year Kristi and Dustin joined a farmer Peer-to-Peer Network Group (Peer Group for short) organized and moderated by Backswath Management.
The Power of Peers
Backswath’s Peer Groups bring together carefully chosen small groups of producers for guided, confidential, results-focused discussion. The program is open to farm operations of all types and sizes. Backswath matches individual farms with others with compatible operations, so that discussions are as relevant as possible.
Kristi and Dustin were matched with a group of prairie producers – couples as well as individuals – who share an interest in technology and innovation.
Discussions relate directly to personal and business goals identified by the group, and the steps needed to achieve them. Backswath also brings in speakers and workshop leaders to guide the members through specialized topics such as succession planning and human resources.
Dustin and Kristi’s group is moderated by Backswath President and CEO Terry Betker. As they see it, he helps the group achieve far more than a casual conversation between farming neighbors could.
“Having a skilled facilitator is critical,” says Dustin. “There are different personalities around the table, so Terry draws people out and keeps the discussion productive and group members accountable. Even though he doesn’t say a lot in the discussions, there’s a real skill there.”
Member Relationships Deepen with Time
Pre-COVID, meetings took place in person and lasted a full day, plus an evening meal and social gathering. Since COVID hit, the meeting format has changed to a virtual approach. The group has carried on socially via WhatsApp and looks forward to meeting in person as soon as possible.
“We’ve really missed it,” says Kristi. “Partly that’s because, it’s not all about business. People have a level of care for each other. Someone could be having a struggle with a family member or be facing a difficult farming situation. People will offer help and support and check in with each other later.”
To be successful, a peer group discussion demands openness and a willingness to share business information in a confidential setting. That’s different than a casual chat about farming at a local sports or ag event. Finding producers in your area whose interests align closely with yours can be a challenge, but not impossible.
“This is a completely different feeling than sitting down with your neighbors,” says Dustin. “For one thing, there’s absolutely zero competition within the group. You won’t be bidding on the same piece of land, for instance. The way it’s structured removes any inherent competition from the discussion and I think that’s so important.”
Return on Investment
For Dustin and Kristi, their Peer Group meetings require 36 hours away from the farm, which includes travel time. What’s really exciting, though, is what happens when they arrive home.
“When we come back, we’re energized,” says Dustin. “We want to dig into all those challenging things that you put aside when you’re busy with farming. We want to tackle those. It’s about working on the business vs working in the business.”
The investment in a Backswath Management Peer Group is two-fold. There’s a fee to participate, which covers the cost of group formation and communication, meeting moderation and outside resources such as speakers. There’s also the investment in time of being away from a busy farm and doing the thinking and planning needed between meetings to ensure group and individual goals are met.
Hour for hour, dollar for dollar, it’s an investment this innovative farm couple is glad to make.
“It has helped us become better farmers and better business managers,” says Kristi. “We have not found another farming tool that has given the kind of value that we have found with our Peer Group, both for the money and time invested. I’m not sure we have anything else that can rival that.”
For more information about Backswath’s Peer Groups, visit our website, send an email to or call 204-275-0458.
When customers pull into Kletke Hay & Straw in Brunkild, Man., they see a farm business that’s running on all cylinders. The company specializes in selling high-quality wheat straw to dairy operations in Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest.
Owner Chris Kletke wants the business’s day-to-day operations running smoothly, but he also has one foot planted firmly in the future. A close working relationship with Backswath Management helps with both missions.
Chris has known Backswath’s President and CEO Terry Betker for the better part of 15 years. The relationship took on a new dimension in 2010 when Chris took charge of Kletke Hay & Straw at age 28, upon the death of his father.
“There was a need to structure my current business, along with dealing with the estate,” says Chris, “and merge all of those interests into a manageable package for me to move forward and grow as a business owner. That’s where Backswath came in.”
With current operations put on solid footing, it wasn’t long before Chris was looking ahead to the next challenge. With Terry’s advice, Chris formed an Advisory Board to ensure he had the business counsel he needed. By 2017, he’d completed Kletke Hay & Straw’s first strategic plan, and continues to refine this plan with each passing year.
Of course, without success and profit in the here and now, even the best strategic thinking will come up short. It takes capital earned today to fund growth tomorrow. Chris has also relied on Backswath for operational advice and support. While Terry has been Backswath’s strategic lead with Kletke Hay & Straw, several other Backswath team members have been intimately involved. Chris likes the deep bench he can call on when required.
“As our business has grown, it’s been imperative that our systems and processes grow with it,” he says. “I’ve used Backswath for many different functions: from day-to-day business advisement, data processing, bookkeeping, to utilizing a contract controller and for longer-term strategic planning. With Backswath, you’re not just getting access to one person but a team of advisors with a broad depth of skillsets.”
With a solid business structure, efficient operations and a formal strategic plan all in place, Chris Kletke is focused squarely on the future of Kletke Hay & Straw.
“We’re growing,” he says. “The business is at a point now where, if we want to grow further, we need to change the way we do things in some areas. Like many primary producers, I’m programmed for operations first. I’m challenging myself to step away from operations, by carving out a senior role as business owner, while management takes care of operations. That way, we can continue to do what we do well today and grow at the same time.”
Ten years ago, Gary Flitton looked around his family farm and thought it might be at a turning point.
As the third generation of Twin Valley Farms near Vulcan, Alberta, he was farming with his son Noel. At the time, the business was recovering strongly from a few tough years in the 1990s and seemed poised for even bigger things.
Then came the news that Gary’s son Ryan and his wife wanted to come home to farm. Now, there was no question about it: this family farm business was definitely at a turning point.
“I never thought in a million years he’d want to come back to the farm,” says Gary. “The farm had doubled in size over the previous few years, and Ryan felt strongly that we needed to take an objective look at what we were doing and put more structure to it.”
A partial answer came through a program called C-TEAM – short for Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management – presented by the Ontario-based Agri-Food Management Excellence group. Gary, Noel and Ryan all participated in the four-session program.
There they met Terry Betker, President and CEO of Backswath Management, who was a guest speaker at one of the sessions.
“We decided that we would like someone to look at our operation,” says Gary, “and give us an objective view of where we are and what needs to improve.”
In the years that followed, Terry met periodically with members of the Flitton family to help them accelerate their farm business’s performance in the short term and chart their course for the future.
“Terry helped us redefine our goals,” says Gary, “going all the way back to the basics, like, why are we here and what do we all want to get out of farming?”
Family farming, of course, is as much about family as it is about farming. Beyond dollars and cents and acres and bushels, there’s a vital emotional component that’s part of the planning process. Easy and pleasant? No, not always.
“We learned how important it was to deal with issues that might have been holding us back, and make them a priority,” says Gary. “It can be difficult to deal with these topics, but Terry’s experience and non-judgmental demeanor coached us through that process extremely well.”
A key area for the family’s planning process was individual roles and responsibilities. They also finalized a formal shareholder agreement that spelled out a process to follow in case anyone wants to leave.
“Having a clear exit strategy is really important so that people don’t feel trapped,” says Gary. “If anyone chose to leave at any point, they could do so, and it wouldn’t cripple the operation.”
In terms of finance, working with Backswath allowed the Flittons to see just how far they’d come since the challenges of the 1990s. After comparing the financial position of Twin Valley Farms with industry benchmarks, Terry saw an opportunity.
“Terry kept saying, ‘you’re paying too much for your credit’,” says Gary. “He put the Regional Manager from a competing bank in touch with us. We provided our financials and along with Terry’s ratios and advice we received a very strong offer from that lender. Our lender chose to match it and a bit more. When I look at the dollars and cents of that financial change, which was really initiated by Terry, it’s huge.”
Apart from favorable rates, this new lending agreement meant that Gary and wife Bev would no longer need to personally guarantee the farm’s loans. Looking toward their retirement years, that felt liberating and energizing for the third generation and would allow the fourth generation to think boldly.
Looking around the farm in 2021, Gary and Bev Flitton have a strong but flexible partnership with their sons, a sound financial base for their operation and an opportunity to have the future they want. Backswath Management is proud to have played a small part.
Says Gary: “When I look at good investments we’ve made in our operation, working with Backswath is at the top of the list.”