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Sticking together

Sometimes the only way to actually make the most challenging of succession dreams come true may be to commit to the oldest of values

Most farmers hope to pass their farm to the next generation. Not many consider how to set up not one, not two, but five sons in dairy farming.

That was the prospect facing Jake and Frederika Wesselius in the early 1980s. They were dairy farming in Friesland, a northern province in the Netherlands, and with the first two of their sons already starting into their teenage years and showing an interest in farming, Jake knew the 65-acre land base they had for their 80 cows wouldn’t be enough and he decided they would need to expand their horizons.

Today, you can see the results when you drive southwest of Moncton, N.B. There are now five Wesselius dairy farms.

As I chatted with Frederika about their journey from the Netherlands to Canada and their start as dairy farmers, it was hard to miss the strong family ties, pride and optimism of this family — those core values that the family built its succession plan on. I only wish that Jake could have been part of the conversation too. He passed away March 5, 2011.

Frederika speaks of how Jake grew up working beside his dad on a farm owned by an uncle. Jake was a true cow man and business man, but not much for machinery or as a handyman. While in his early 20s and with dreams of growing that small dairy farm, Jake was insistent that they should buy the farm from the uncle. With the title finally in their name, they began to grow and shape the farm, which then milked 20 to 30 cows.

In the years that followed, Jake would meet and marry Frederika. Together they would have seven children — five sons and two daughters.

In the early years, when a neighbouring property came up for sale Jake used his banker as a sounding board and was advised against buying the land. It was a decision he would later regret as it grew apparent that their small land base was a major growth limitation. After that Jake used his keen business sense to track the farm finances and used a “buy now, ask the banker’s permission later” philosophy, says Frederika.

With that spirit they were able to buy land, travelling up the 20 kilometres to reach some fields, and kept expanding until the herd reached 80 cows. Their innovative spirit showed through early — they were the first dairy farm in their Dutch village to build a freestall barn in 1974.

In the early 1980s, a friend from Canada was in the Netherlands for a visit. He told the Wesselius’s about a dairy farm that he knew was for sale in Canada. With the future of their kids in mind, Jake and Frederika took an option on the farm, but they were not quite ready to take the leap and immigrate. Their seventh child was also on the way.

“I was scared to death,” remembers Frederika of the thought of emigrating. “I had to get used to the idea of being without our family and friends. Jake told me: ‘If you don’t want to go, we’re not going.’”

The Wesselius family, including all seven children then ages 16 years to six months, emigrated to Canada on May 2, 1983. They settled into their new farm in River Glade, N.B. with 49 cows, 12 heifers and a bull on about 230 acres cleared farm land (leased and bought). There was also about 120 acres of woodland. Frederika remembers there were 658 litres of fluid quota and 93,515 litres of market sharing quota with the farm.

It was hard going on their Canadian farm. As with others, what the family lacked in money, they made up for with hard work, sacrifice and perseverance. For the first six weeks in the country they had no income until the milk cheque finally came. “Jake had what little money we had left marked on a piece of paper and any time we needed to buy something he kept subtracting and scratching it off,” remembers Frederika.

Sons George and John remember when their dad changed their job description from farmers to lumberjacks and sent them into the woods. “We needed fence posts for our farm,” says George, “but we couldn’t afford to buy them, and we couldn’t afford a chain saw either. So dad sent us with the hand saw and axe to the woods and we worked until we had made 300 fence posts by hand.” John laughs at the irony of how after all the work was done the neighbour offered up his chainsaw for the job.

Everyone in the family learned to pitch in, including the girls. One of the first two years Frederika unloaded 32,000 square bales off wagons as the kids stacked them in the hay mow. “We were so happy when we could finally afford the first upright silo the third year,” says George.

In those early years everyone did their best to save what extra money they could to buy quota. The family also worked on their English. The family laughs at the irony of how Jake, with such poor English, was elected as secretary (and a founding member) of the Southeastern Farmer’s Co-op. George, who had already been to trade school in the Netherlands, went back to high school for two years to practice his English and get his Canadian diploma. All the other kids would complete their schooling and move on to post-secondary studies; the youngest four sons all went to the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.

The plans to start what would turn out to be all five sons dairy farming evolved as the years went by, said Frederika.

Jake was a firm believer that two brothers should not farm the same property together. “He always said it might work for the first bit, but someone would always want to still be boss,” says John. So it made logical sense that another farm site was needed to start a second son.

When a farm came available, the family had a hard time getting the money from lenders to buy the second location. The concept of starting a second farm was outside-the-box thinking then. Frederika remembers their lender saying to Jake that his determination to buy the second farm was likely to cost the family both farms in the end.

In 1986 the family bought their second farm, just down the road from the first. It took some creative financing — including the savings that the kids had and the original farm owner leaving some equity in the place. “We bought it for the land,” says George of the 250 acres cleared, plus woodland. “All the buildings were run down, and we never even looked inside the house.”

Figuring that George, as the oldest, had the most experience, Jake placed him on the second farm. The first number of years they housed 40 head of young cattle in that barn, cleaning it out by hand by tossing the manure out the windows. “It was a real treat,” says George with a smile, “but we made do with what we had.” Meanwhile, Jake and his second son, John, focused on building the herd size on the main farm.

With money tight in 1988, the family headed back to the woods. They hauled pieces out tree length and cut all their lumber with a little sawmill they setup. Over the next two years they would work together to build their first freestall barn by themselves with space for 75 cows at the second farm site. By this time, the next two brothers — Ron and Albert — were heading to agriculture college and while they were away, the rest of the family stepped up to the building task with even the girls slinging hammers. Eventually, the family split the original milking herd in half so George could start milking at the second location in November 1990.

Jake always told his sons that as long as they kept the milk flowing into the tank, the rest of the farm would look after itself.

It took a few years after Ron and Albert were finished school before the family could set up more sites. Albert took a job at another farm for a couple of years; he would be the only son to work off-farm. Meanwhile, the Wesselius family started buying herds and quota — when the milk marketing board rules still allowed this — to build the cow numbers on their two farms. In fact, the family would be the first to ever purchase another farm’s complete cows and quota in New Brunswick.

Finally, the opportunity came to start Ron farming when the family purchased a former dairy farm in Canaan from Ron’s in-laws. The older brothers’ herds were milking 90 to 100 cows, and they split off animals to start Ron milking in October 1994. Ron would relocate later at an easier-to-farm property a bit farther away in Head of Millstream.

A few years later the family bought a fourth farm down the road in Intervale and Albert started milking there in November 1996 with cows and quota that the family had purchased through dispersals.

When there were three farms, the family shared one set of farm equipment. It got to the point that they were running 24 hours a day from the start of June until September to get all the cropping done. “John and I had the privilege of cropping in the night hours,” says George. “It made for long days and the challenge was that we were never done.” It wasn’t a whole lot of fun at that point, so when fourth brother Albert started farming, the family established a second set of equipment. The two sets would each be rotated between only two farms.

In October 2000, the family started Fred, their last son, at Elgin, N.B., 36 kilometres away. George and John had been building up their herd numbers to the point where they had overcrowded their 70-stall barns with about 130 cows. “We each took the latest ADLIC report (monthly milk recording) and numbered off every third cow to give to Fred to start his farm,” says George. “That was the fairest way we could think of to do it.”

By this time, Frederika and Jake owned five farms — with each one managed by one of their sons. None of the farms they had purchased came with cows and quota, and because the buildings were run down, the family built freestalls on each site over time. “By the time we built Fred’s barn, we really had the hang of it and knew what worked best,” says George.

Frederika looked after the momentous task of managing one set of books for all the farms. The sons brought receipts for their particular farm to weekly family bowling nights. Every couple of weeks the family would also meet to discuss farm management. “Everyone was allowed to voice their opinion,” says John. “But at the end of the day, it was mom and dad’s decision because they were still in charge.”

Over time as the farms grew it became harder for Jake and Frederika to manage the farms as one large group. With 10 years age difference between the sons, the oldest sons were chomping at the bit to branch out with their own ideas, yet the youngest ones were still finding their footing in the industry.

After 18 years together in Canada, the time came to cut the strings and let each son stand on his own. For two years leading up to the separation date, the family worked with their long-time accountant and lawyer, and also involved a tax specialist to advise them on how to split the farm as efficiently as possible.

Jake and Frederika wanted to split the business fairly among their sons. Each one had about the same amount of quota, newer barns, a place to live, and hired hands. The machinery on each farm was evaluated and balanced until everyone had the same cash value, and the sons each had to invest an equal amount to purchase some additional pieces so that each farm had a complete set of machinery to use. The debt load was split among the sons, with some accommodation made for those sons that had been farming up to 10 years longer in the family dynamic.

“We all felt like we were put on even playing ground, and no one complained,” says George. Now, the sons share just a corn planter and sprayer between the five farms.

Jake always said that as soon as he had started all their kids that were interested in farming he would retire. First, he and Frederika bought a “retirement farm” on the same road as his oldest two sons, then he officially retired on January 4, 2001, the date when all the sons were separated into their own business entities. They finally were able to travel and spend time with family, friends and hobbies.

Jake was often heard saying, “farming is my hobby, and my hobby is farming.” So it was no surprise that he kept at this hobby even in retirement. Jake enjoyed helping his sons with milking and field-work, including running the 1978 tractor that they brought from Holland when they immigrated.

Today, each son farms 500 to 600 acres with support from their wives and children, and each milks somewhere between 120 and 260 cows.

The brothers that farm closest to each other have a gentlemen’s agreement in which they equally split any farm property that might come up for sale in the neighbourhood. In fact, George, John and Albert share 300 acres of leased land, co-ordinating each year so they all get together to work the land on the same dates. “There’s not much point fighting with your own brother for land,” says George.

Frederika shares that folks who hear their story are always amazed at the sacrifices she and Jake made for their family. She’s quick to point out that their children also sacrificed a lot. “They had to put in a lot of long hours and hard work when their friends were out having fun,” she says. “We promised them that if they kept with it, in the end it would all come to them and they would get their own farm. That made it worth it for them.” CG

Maybe it doesn’t seem like a story of today, when farmers are told to start at their accountant’s and lawyer’s offices if they hope to help the next generation get started.

But it worked.

Against the odds, the Wesselius family executed their ambitious succession plan — to get all five sons established on farms of their own — by agreeing on two “old-fashioned” but strategic commitments.

First, there was always one head guy. “Dad was always the boss. No question, that’s how it had to be,” says son John. “We would never have succeeded without him.”

Second, the family also had one common goal — to farm. That solidarity kept squabbles to a minimum, says older brother George. “Dad said from the beginning, ‘if you fight, I will sell everything and you will have nothing.’”

They may not be trendy sentiments, but the results are easy to see when you meet the family. The five Wesselius sons, each on their own farm, now have their own sets of children. In fact, there are 25 grandchildren today, including 17 boys and eight girls.

“If they want to farm,” John says, “we’ll do what mom and dad did for us.”

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