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Fired up for farming

Agriculture.com Staff 05/10/2007 @ 1:10pm

Loren Van Wyk grew up in his dad's shadow in a farm shop near Pella, Iowa.

"When Dad wasn't in the field, he was in the shop," Loren says. "He was always modifying equipment. He'd buy something new and take a torch to it. As a kid, it would frustrate me. Later on, I understood he was using his own vision to make it better."

During those years, his dad, Dan, rented ground from the founder of Pella-based Vermeer Manufacturing.

"Gary Vermeer loaned one of the first prototype round balers to me when I was 16, told me to run it until it broke and bring it back," Loren says. "I used to hang around Vermeer's R&D department. Gary was a farmer at heart and never put himself on a pedestal. I learned that I could figure out how to do things."

Today a third generation of Van Wyks is building on a solid farm foundation, using new tools to create a more diversified base. Loren and his wife, Jean, are joined by sons Luke, 26, and Chad, 24. A third son, Lance, 22, graduates from college this year.

Loren was eager to spring from the starting blocks into farming. "When I got out of high school, all I wanted to do was farm," he says. He began by farming with his dad.

Jean grew up on a nearby dairy farm. She and Loren married in 1978, renting 100 acres and raising hogs and feeder cattle. Loren converted to no-till in 1979.

"I had to sell no-till to my landlords," he says. "Then I did FSA seminars on it. It involved constant experimentation on our equipment because seed placement is critical. No-till is the basis of our operation."

In the early years, Jean and Loren moved from one rental farm to the next to grow their operation. Their family also grew, with the birth of a fourth son, Chess, 15. Ten years later, they adopted daughter, Chanae, now 11, from Russia.

In 1993, 1,200 acres of their cropland below a new dam (Red Rock Dam) on the Des Moines River were flooded. Jean went to work at Pella Corporation to pay for health insurance and to increase cash flow.

"The next year, we had the opportunity to buy a farm," Loren says. "We sold corn for $5.42 and made the down payment."

In 1995, the Van Wyks made the decision not to expand their livestock operation. By then, the farm had grown to 2,600 rented and owned acres. Loren agreed to do some contract manufacturing.

"Without livestock, manufacturing was a necessity to keep our employee year-round," Loren says. Jean adds, "We were blessed that we didn't have to go out to look for the contracts. They came to us."

The big transition came in 1999. "We made a phone call to buy corn furnaces, and we ended up buying the rights to manufacture corn furnaces ourselves," Loren says.

He became immersed in research to develop and market the product. "We made 23 improvements to get a more competitive product," he says.

Luke and Chad worked part time while in college, then joined the business full time in 2000 and they incorporated LDJ Manufacturing.

They built a 7,500-square-foot factory on the farm. LDJ continued to expand, adding product lines including a mobile picnic table. They built a 37,000 square-foot addition to the factory in 2006.

"We doubled our facility," Loren says. The workforce also expanded, and they hired a plant manager for their 36 employees. Jean quit her job and returned to manage the office.

"Corn prices have slowed sales since then, but it would have to get over $7 a bushel to equal the cost of alternatives," Loren says. "At $4, corn is only half the cost of propane or natural gas. Our furnaces are helping create a new demand for farm crops."

Following the 2005 harvest, the Van Wyks went through another major transition. The corn furnace business was hot, with customers on a waiting list. But harvest could not be put on hold. "Things slowed to a crawl in the office," Loren says.

Luke agrees. "I was wearing a phone headset in the combine returning sales and marketing calls," he says. "Dad was not able to be in the field but was trying to keep up with the factory."

Jean adds, "Loren and the boys were working from 5 a.m. until midnight every day. When harvest was over, they still had to catch up on the factory work."

In 2006, the Van Wyks formed an LLC partnership with two local farmers for their farm operation.

"Our families have been friends and competitors for 20 years," Loren says. "We still go out to the fields evenings and weekends, but they actively control the day-to-day operation. We jointly work together.

"We started buying inputs together eight years ago, and we found it was cheaper. Now we've combined our grain storage. We find it gives us a better margin," Loren says.

"Instead of competing with our neighbors, we should group up," he says. "In my heart, I think this will be a necessity for agriculture to grow larger and be stronger."

In their farm operation as well as the manufacturing business, the Van Wyks say they're fortunate to have formed good partnerships.

Family is at the core of their values. They work at communicating and setting goals. "You can't have good communication without an open mind," Jean says.

Loren agrees, "If we disagree, we talk about why and back it up with our reasons. Then we come back to try to find a way to put our ideas together."

Loren and Jean credit their parents and grandparents for allowing them to pursue a new vision. "They could have said, 'We don't like what you're doing,' "Loren says.

They admit that reinventing the family business is challenging at times. But it's also exciting.

"I believe we'll never let go of our farming," Jean says. "It gives us an extra layer of diversity."

Loren Van Wyk grew up in his dad's shadow in a farm shop near Pella, Iowa.

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