When Tony and Denise Vandenhurk began farming in the 1980s with just three quarters of land, an off-farm income was the only way to make ends meet.
“Farming was not good then, but we just loved the lifestyle,” said Tony. “One of my brothers always said, ‘it’s a very poor living, but it’s a good life.’”
Living the good life was the primary goal in 1980 when Tony bought the family farm from his father Henry who had emigrated from Holland in the 1950s. While Henry had managed to raise a family of 10 on the mixed farm located just west of Macoun, Sask., he too had to find work in the construction trade in order to subsidize the farm income.
Tony followed in his dad’s footsteps both in terms of operating their mixed farm and finding ways to support the operation through outside ventures. With his brother Dan and wife Louise farming in partnership with Tony and Denise (Louise and Denise are siblings as well), the sister-brother couples knew from the beginning that supporting both families on their farm incomes wouldn’t be an option.
“We were continually stuffing the money we raised doing other things into more land and cattle.”
Dan and Tony were both entrepreneurial, always finding oilfield and construction work. Tony said the off-farm work was necessary, but it sometimes presented difficulties in their efforts to expand the farm.
“We were kind of known as the construction guys, so if land came up for rent or sale, we’d often miss out because we weren’t given the first opportunity.”
Operating sideline businesses also presented challenges at home, as Tony recalls working 17 days straight with his crane business and not seeing his three children at all during that time.
“One of the biggest challenges is that I was always gone, but Denise would bring me back to centre and balance things out by making sure we did little trips to the lake and things like that.”
Denise said the only way the two couples were able to operate all of their business ventures, while also taking care of farm duties and supporting growing families, was to pull together.
“The biggest thing that worked for us is that we were a team. If the kids needed to be somewhere or if food needed to be in the field, we worked together to co-ordinate it all.”
In 1998, with the Vandenhurk brothers growing weary of burning the candle at both ends, they decided to pull the pin on their outside ventures and commit to farming full time. Their land base grew 15,000 acres with Tony focusing on the grain side and Dan and his sons managing up to 1,200 head of beef cattle. With the Vandenhurks reaching their goal of establishing a profitable farm that could support both families, the time then came for the brothers to go their separate ways and prepare their operations for the next generation.
In 2008, they divided the joint farm venture, with Dan taking 10,000 acres and the cattle operation in order to help set up his two sons in farming. Tony kept 5,000 acres and is thrilled to have been in the agricultural business long enough to witness the return of higher commodity prices.
“There’s only one thing that kept me in farming all of those years, and that was passion,” said the 54-year-old farmer. “I always wanted to stay in it long enough to see profits like we had in the ’70s again and now that it’s here, my spirits are up.”
With a highly mechanized operation in place, two seasonal hired men and good grain prices, the fun is back in farming for the Vandenhurks.
“My hired men are retired farmers and I always say to them, the minute this isn’t fun any more for everybody, we stop doing it.”
As for Denise, the growth of her children has meant a change in focus to entrepreneurial ventures of her own. In 2005, she partnered with two of her sisters to buy the Dairy Queen in Estevan, successfully operating one of the busiest franchises in Saskatchewan. Challenges finding employees led her to form her own human resources recruitment agency that brings in foreign workers from the Philippines.
Denise’s eyes well up as she recounts the entrepreneurial journey that has turned her into a recruiter, as well as a mentor and mother figure for the many Philippine workers that she has helped bring to Canada. Tony and Denise consider it a privilege to have an integrated local and international staff and they’ve even gone so far as to buy a seven-bedroom house in Estevan in order to provide economical living quarters for their workers.
“They’re my family,” said Denise.
The connection to the Philippines has been strengthened even further after the Vandenhurks visited last year and decided to fund half of a project to build a school. The couple will travel to Manila this year to visit with the children who are now students in the new educational facility. Tears well in their eyes again, as they imagine what it will be like to see the children who have been helped by their generosity.
“You bless someone and they’ll bless you,” said Tony.
“I have a heart for these little guys,” said Denise, holding up a picture of 30 or so Philippine students standing in front of the brand new school. “You’ve got to help whoever is in your path, it’s about good stewardship and paying it forward.” †