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A lot of judges were scratching their heads when Brett Sheffield showed up at the ‘Central Canada’ finalist of a major competition for young entrepreneurs.

How had a young farmer from Pilot Mound, Man., managed to beat out hundreds of entrants, including MBA students from the nation’s top business schools?

But just as he had done in the regional final (Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba), the 26-year-old wowed the judges – more than 40 business people, including CEOs of national firms – to capture the Student Entrepreneur Championship this May.

“I think they didn’t really think of farmers as entrepreneurs,” says Sheffield. “But when they saw the nature of my business, how dedicated I was to the quality of the product I grow, and how important agriculture is to the Canadian economy, they understood.”

Afterwards, some talked to Sheffield about what made him stand out and praised him for something you might not expect – his willingness to admit his shortcomings.

“Some of the judges were very interested when I talked about lessons learned,” says Sheffield, who started farming in 2008 with 160 acres of canola and now crops 1,700 acres of grains and oilseeds.

“As I’ve grown bigger, I’ve needed to be more of a manager. One example I gave them was last year when I had an employee do some sulphur fertilizing and a field was missed. So my canola yield was zero on that field and it cost me $20,000. Because of that, I’ve learned to be a better record-keeper. Now, everything comes through me and goes into my iPad.”

Others were taken with his last-minute decision last spring to buy a broadcast applicator so he could seed his soggy fields.

“Because of the rains, a lot of people decided to not seed and take the $80-an-acre (excess moisture) payout,” says Sheffield. “But I decided to try and my canola yielded 30 bushels an acre. So I was able to bring in almost $400 an acre gross instead of the $80.”

A goof-up and a gamble? Those may not seem like things to admit to a panel of business judges, but they illustrate a desire to improve and a willingness to take carefully calculated risks.

Interestingly, Sheffield never expected to be a farmer.

“Like a lot of farm kids, I wanted to get away from the farm and do something else,” he says.

He attended university in North Dakota, played hockey, and was working on a degree in physical education when he announced to his friends that he missed farming and was quitting school to go back. Many weren’t impressed.

“At the time, commodity prices weren’t very good and lots of people thought I was ridiculous to go back. But I wanted to give it a try and as it turns out, I got in at a good time.”

He returned in 2008, rented 160 acres and worked with his dad, Lyn, before later enrolling in the agriculture diploma program at University of Manitoba. The program allowed students to undertake management planning projects and work with a mentor – and Sheffield took full advantage.

“It was a huge influence on me,” he says. “The project was about what I could do at the farm, building realistic goals, evaluating the equipment I had, and those sorts of practical goals. It was just great. I was there after class all the time and it’s been a huge part of my success.”

While still at school, the gym in Pilot Mound came up for sale. But there wasn’t much interest in buying it, so Sheffield took a look – largely because he was a regular member and didn’t want to see the town of 700 lose the facility. Although just 1,600 square feet in size, the Stay Fit Health Club was nicely equipped and because it operates on a membership/cardlock system, staffing costs weren’t high. Applying the same techniques he uses to calculate break-even costs on his crops, Sheffield figured out how many memberships he needed to sell and decided to buy.

Once again, people gave him their frank opinion.

“Everyone thought it was ridiculous to buy it,” he says. “I tried to get a loan and was turned down. So I used my own equity. Doing the numbers showed me the potential was there, and the return on my investment has been very good.”

What might seem like a gamble to outsiders – whether it’s buying a gym or broadcasting canola on water-logged fields – was, for Sheffield, a risk-versus-return calculation. Knowing his numbers and making decisions accordingly is why he has a detailed cash-flow plan, pre-sells up to 25 per cent of his anticipated yield, and creates a host of spreadsheets when planning what to seed or assessing a business opportunity.

He says the best part of winning the entrepreneur contest was meeting other young people who, like him, get jazzed up about that sort of thing.

“It was just great being around enthusiastic people – people whose attitude is ‘Do more, do more, do more,’” he says. “Being with them was like seeing a really good motivational speaker who makes you excited about being in business and what you can accomplish.”

Sheffield says he is keen to ‘do more’ but once again, he’s charting his own course – even if that means defying conventional wisdom. So while many Prairie farmers are rushing to buy land – prices have reportedly doubled or tripled in some areas since 2007 – Sheffield is standing pat. He and his father, who also crops 1,700 acres, are merging their operations and concentrating on efficiency.

“I really want to focus on increasing productivity on my current land base,” says Sheffield. “A lot of people are excited and want to expand, expand, expand. But that makes it difficult to do the best possible job of managing what you have. I want the best possible per-acre income.”

Because he rents most of his land, Sheffield makes it a priority to have strong relationships with his landlords.

“That’s very important,” he says. “I’m always talking with them. We talk about what kind of practices they want to see used on their fields and maybe even things such as what crop rotation they like to see.”

In hindsight, Sheffield says he was fortunate to start farming before grain and oilseed prices took off because thin margins meant he had to know his cost-of-production numbers inside and out. Developing such business skills has given him the confidence to chart his own course – even when others are skeptical, he says.

So what’s next?

“If I had all the money in the world right now, I’d probably look at real estate in the States because it’s low and you know it’s going to come back at some point,” he says.

“I like to go after things that you know are going to appreciate but may not necessarily be the trend at the moment. That’s why I’m looking at investments such as the gym, which is not weather dependent, so I have income streams coming from other places instead of all from one spot.”

In addition to the student entrepreneur contest, Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship ( also operates a student entrepreneur program available at more than 60 Canadian universities and colleges. Sheffield will compete in the Global Student Entrepreneur title in New York City in November.