A customized start to grain farming

THE INNOVATIVE STORY OF ONE YOUNG FARMER

he graduated among a class of 177 aggies from the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown Campus with just as much passion for farming as the others; but he was one of the few that didn’t have a viable farm waiting at home. DJ Wassenaar had the heart to be a farmer – he just needed to find a way to make it a reality.

PHOTO: DJ WASSENAAR

Four years ago, Wassenaar, then 19 and fresh out of college, purchased 25 cows and raised them alongside the 25-head herd his father had built since emigrating from the Netherlands. Wassenaar also took a job with a feed company and helped as a farm hand for others locally.

It was at one of those local farms where he discovered an opportunity to branch out. Wassenaar noticed the custom operator was not in his usual routine preparing for hay season and heard he was planning to step away from the business. Wassenaar made a few phone calls to family members to raise investment dollars and within two weeks had purchased the custom haying business – comprising eight pieces of equipment and a client list.  

“Since then, it’s been amazing how far it’s come,” says Wassenaar of his County Line Farms – on the line between Haldimand and Norfolk counties. He says it’s been a steep learning curve but he is slowly inching his way into his dream career of growing crops and working the land.

diversification
Today, Wassenaar credits his survival in agriculture to diversification. Initially he had his beef cows and then he took on the custom haying. He’s since realized he prefers working the land versus raising animals, so he sold his cattle to his dad and started branching into other work with his existing farm machinery. His goal is to build up his own cash crop acres so they can be the focus. 

It hasn’t been easy. The first year with his custom haying he noticed that others in his new business were busy tallying up equipment hours in the fields while his own pair of tractors sat idle. “I realized quickly the secret to success was to keep the wheels turning,” he says.

Wassenaar set out to minimize slow days and maximize his equipment. Between April and the end of October you’ll find him somewhere in the countryside. He’s a one-stop shop for hay customers – offering cutting, raking, baling and individual bale wrapping. He’s also taken on a contract to keep 780 kilometers of county roadsides trim and neat. The contract has meant additional work at down times for equipment he already owns. His goal is to put more than a thousand hours of work on each piece of machinery each year.

“I need to make sure it all pays,” he says, adding that while he’s upgraded some pieces, he still keeps the same eight equipment types he began with.

When he’s not busy with all that, he’s also a seed salesman, and markets twine and plastic wrap to local farmers. He says the seed sales enable him to keep connected with other farmers. Wassenaar uses the winter ‘down time’ to line up sales and meet with clients for the following season, do equipment maintenance, and keep snow plowed in the cities of Hamilton and Milton.

To help keep track of all the moving pieces that make up his business, Wassenaar has built excel spreadsheets to track expenses. He also records as much information as he can from acres completed per client, to bales wrapped, to twine amounts, to field yields, to repairs on equipment, and other expenses. Wassenaar then uses the information to make management decisions.

expansion
Initially, Wassenaar completed all the work himself. But, as his business has grown – it’s tripled in workload – he hired on his brother full-time for the summer, and has eight part-time employees helping with ditch cutting and six part-time workers (including subcontracts) for snow removal.

Wassenaar hasn’t lost sight of his ultimate goal to build up his own cash crop acres. He currently rents because the higher land prices in his area mean land purchases are just out of his reach. As a young farmer he says the biggest challenge is the financial aspect. He appreciates the support he’s received from his lenders.

Wassenaar now rents nine farms, totalling 440 acres. He runs a corn, soybean and forage rotation, and at any given time his acres are equally divided between the three crops.

He really likes that all the equipment needed to work his cash crops he already owns and can repurpose from the custom haying business. “It all ties in together,” he says. “Everything gets used more, and in a more diversified way.” The only part of the crop cycle he currently hires out is the combining.

The downside of renting in his area is that it can mean travelling greater distances to find land. Wassenaar can be travelling upwards of 45 minutes to reach his farther fields. Trying to access land has also meant he looks for what he calls “makeover farms”. “The ones with eight-foot tall weeds and old fence rows that haven’t seen tractor tires in some time,” he says, noting it’s some of the only land available, and he’s not going to upset anyone by taking over existing rental agreements on prime land.

Wassenaar hopes to establish himself with his first owned acres next year. Ultimately, he wants to work enough crop land that he can cut back on snow removal. “Snow removal is really hard on my equipment.”

In time, Wassenaar will also need to reassess his custom haying commitments. He’s finding that logging more than 120 hours a week for months on end takes its toll.

learning
For now, Wassenaar is learning as he goes and is keen to adopt new technologies and ideas. He taps into the knowledge and experience of farming friends, dealers and his accountant. He’s also planning to hire an agronomist next year, and his wife Caitlin, a fellow Ridgetown graduate, is keen to help more with the business. He is excited to use his newly-purchased GPS unit next season, and anticipates efficiencies from tracking acres and improved fertilizer, spraying and seed use.

When he started four years ago, Wassenaar would never have guessed how far he would progress in such a short time. He’s proud to make his living farming and looks forward to raising a family with Caitlin on their crop land. “I’m living my dream.” •