It’s obvious that Robert Andjelic feels comfortable in his truck.
Driving south on Highway 9 in eastern Saskatchewan on a gusty but sunny day in late April, Andjelic rested one hand loosely on the steering wheel and sat in the relaxed posture of someone who spends a lot of time on rural roads.
Andjelic estimated he puts 60,000 to 65,000 kilometres on his Dodge Ram annually, most of it accrued in rural Saskatchewan.
He covers all those kilometres because he likes to check in on the farmland he owns in the province, 210,000 acres ranging from the United States border north to Prince Albert.
Andjelic, dressed in a black baseball hat, green shirt, black leather jacket, jeans and cowboy boots, doesn’t fit the image of a corporate businessperson who controls land worth tens of millions.
With his outfit and jet-black goatee, Andjelic looks more like the hard-boiled leader of a biker gang from Hollywood central casting.
Sitting in his truck and looking at a map of his land south of Whitewood, Andjelic explained how he came to own 210,000 acres of arable land in Saskatchewan. And more importantly, why he owns it.
“I believe in land. I believe in its future and I believe in Saskatchewan’s future.”
Andjelic’s story began in his hometown of Winnipeg, where he graduated from Daniel McIntyre High School in the 1960s. He got started in the masonry business and eventually realized there was an opportunity in commercial and industrial real estate. By the mid-2000s Andjelic had 300 tenants and owned nearly three million sq. feet of commercial space.
He sold the business in 2007, an opportune time to sell, and moved to Calgary with the intent of re-investing the money in a new fleet of commercial buildings.
But after thinking more about it, Andjelic decided to invest in a sector of the economy where Canada truly had a global advantage.
“What do we have that the rest of the world has to have?” he asked, while sipping coffee at Archibald’s Diner in Whitewood. “The answer is definitely agriculture and water.”
Plus, even though he was a city kid, Andjelic always had an interest in farming. He had a hobby farm in Manitoba for decades.
With his substantial capital, Andjelic could have easily bought and operated his own farm in Western Canada. He didn’t go down that path because he “never liked equipment.”
Instead he saw an opportunity to partner with established farmers, which led to him founding his new business: Andjelic Land.
Andjelic is transparent about where he owns land. A map on the company’s website shows all of his land holdings, illustrated as red dots on a map of southern Saskatchewan.
Between bites of hamburger steak at Archibald’s, he explained there are thousands of prairie producers who need to expand their grain farm to make the operation more efficient.
“One full line of equipment, large equipment, can do 7,000 to 10,000 acres…. So, if a guy has 4,000 acres and he has the full line of equipment that can do 7,000, I fill that void. He comes and rents the other 3,000 (acres) from me. He’s (now) utilizing his equipment fully,” Andjelic said.
“My friend, who works for me right now, used to sell equipment. He said when most of the equipment comes back it’s only 40 to 50 percent or 60 percent maxed utilized …. The only ones who utilize (equipment) fully are Hutterites.”
The farmer in this example could purchase the additional 3,000 acres but that would probably require financing and debt. Rather than take on debt it often makes more sense for the producer to partner with Andjelic.
That’s why Andjelic gets 20 to 40 calls a month from producers who want to partner with him.
“They come to me. I don’t go to them. I get phone calls all the time saying there’s a section or two here for sale…. And they come to me saying, ‘can you buy it?’ ”
This type of scenario, where Andjelic helps a producer expand, represents a fair chunk of his land holdings in Saskatchewan.
Overall, he has several farmland lease and operating models:
A straight lease where a tenant pays rent per acre.
Reduced rent where Andjelic Land gets a share of crop production.
A crop-share agreement where Andjelic Land pays for crop inputs and the operator provides the equipment and manpower.
Andjelic Land hires a custom operator and the company keeps all the grain produced.
One of Andjelic’s 300 partners in Saskatchewan is Travis Heide, who farms near Waldron, Sask.
Heide, who is younger then 40, grew up on a farm near Moosomin. After exploring a few career options in the 2000s Heide decided he wanted to farm full-time around 2012.
Heide met Andjelic through a real estate agent in eastern Saskatchewan, which led to a crop share agreement.
Heide now farms 40,000 acres with his brother, Garrett. He remains grateful for Andjelic’s help.
“Our parents got their dream to see us all back farming.”
With 35 to 40 million acres of arable land, Saskatchewan should have enough farmland for investors inside and outside the province. But many dislike the idea of outsiders buying land and taking it out of the hands of family farmers.
Some argue that out of province investors don’t care about the sustainability of the land or the viability of Saskatchewan communities.
“The huge investment of care and labour that farm families put into land is in some ways overlooked or maybe even completely devalued when you only prioritize financial investment,” Nettie Wiebe, former National Farmers Union president, said in 2015.
“We (on our farm) planted thousands of trees around the yard and built buildings which will way outlast our own farming career, (with) the hope is that the next generation will find it useful.”
Andjelic rejected the idea that he’s a corporate bigshot from downtown Calgary who only thinks about profits and losses.
At Archibald’s Diner he pointed to himself and his simple clothes to make the point that he’s the farthest thing from a “big, bad investor out of Alberta.”
“Look at me … and tell me that I should be in some office tower,” he said with a laugh.
Andjelic also rejects the notion that he’s investing in agriculture to “mine the land.”
“I’m very passionate about the land. We will not lease to anybody that mines it. (I’m) about sustainability and bettering agriculture in the province.”
Andjelic takes a hands-on approach with his farmer-partners. He encourages them to make the land more productive by removing rock piles and small stands of bush.
At the same time, he also promotes sustainable practices and natural habitat on his land.
South of Whitewood, he showed off a 40 to 50 acre patch of wetland and trees that was deliberately left untouched for wildlife habitat.
As for the idea that outside investors destroy local communities, Andjelic doesn’t buy that either.
“I would argue that my investment and my being in the game is better for the community.”
If a local producer is larger and more financially stable, that farmer can afford to have employees.
“Travis (Heide) and his 20 people that he hires … they’ve got to live someplace. So that doesn’t go away. They can become consumers in those communities.”
While he fully believes in the future of Canadian agriculture and Saskatchewan, Andjelic is concerned about the resistance to change in farming.
Traditionally, western Canadian producers have passed the farm to the next generation.
Andjelic thinks it’s time to shake up that model.
In his decades of business experience, he learned the next generation can succeed, but typically they do not.
“I’ve (seen) a lot of young sons and daughters take over the family operation…. A very small percentage, five to 10 percent, could take (the business) to the next level,” he said. “My point being, farming is no different.”
This is the first of a two part series. The next part will be about why Robert Andjelic thinks family succession is a poor business practice.