Opportunity Seized

After emigrating from Germany, two brothers seized the moment and put in the hours, building a successful contract-farming business from scratch.

By BOYCE UPHOLT | Photos By Yvonne Duivenvoorden

As another August morning dawns bright and sunny over the hills of western Ontario, Sonke and Hauke Claussen figure this will be a slow and pleasant day—spray a bit of corn, disk a field, catch up on paperwork. It’s a provincial holiday, and most of their employees are off.

Then the clouds begin to muster. Sonke’s phone begins to ring.

This always happens when rain is coming, says Sonke. Customers worry that the world is going to end, so everything needs to be done right now. Though he likes to joke that if the world ends, then farm work won’t much matter.

Welcome to the life of a contract farmer. Over the course of a year, the Claussens dispatch their 10 tractors to nearly 50 farms spread across 30 kilometers, planting more than 7,500 acres and, thanks to multiple cuts, harvesting more than 11,000 acres. And that’s just the farming. The brothers also tackle up to 80 road-conditioning projects a year and deal seeds to 120 customers.

The operation requires seven full-time employees and a gaggle of part-time operators, not counting the two brothers and their wives—plus a half-time controller, who deals with the endless cascade of invoices and work orders. This is not the farming life the Claussens expected when they emigrated from Germany—but they grabbed the opportunities they found.

Running, Not Walking

The Claussen Clan: (standing, left to right) Kai, Anne, Sonke, Hauke and Susanne; (seated, left to right): Vica, George and Hilma

The Claussens’ ancestors had been farming for generations. But when Sonke graduated from university and Hauke from ag college, they found there was little land left in Germany. So, the brothers toured Canada.

“We were at this farm and said, ‘That’s it,’” Sonke says. In 1994, they bought 400 acres just outside the hamlet of Brucefield. The next year, they arrived with their parents and with Anne, Sonke’s wife. (Hauke’s fiancée, Susanne, emigrated in 2001, and the couple married in 2003.) The brothers adjusted to new terrain. They moved from winter crops to soybeans and corn, from pre-season plowing to no-tillage farming. Within a year, they expanded to 1,000 acres. But it was clear that simply farming the land they owned would not support their families.

Other European immigrants were arriving at the same time, many from Holland, starting dairy farms. In 1997, one neighbor, wanting to focus his energy on livestock, asked if the Claussens would take on his fieldwork. “And it kind of spiraled from there,” Hauke says.

The Claussens do it all: combining, spraying, hauling, mowing, packing—even trimming treelines. In 2003, when the brothers bought their first Fendt® tractor, it opened a new line of business: The adaptability of the CVT Vario transmission meant that it could run an asphalt grinder. Now, during the off-season, three of the brothers’ Fendt tractors are dispatched across Ontario—as far as 250 kilometers—to work on public roads.

Contract work—both farming and other jobs—granted access to a classic economy of scale, allowing the cost of their equipment to be spread over a greater amount of work. But almost as soon as they launched, the scale skyrocketed. “It was not walking, it was running,” Sonke says. “We probably grew too fast at some points.”

Navigating The Hurdles

In 2012, feeling spread too thin, the brothers decided to downsize their equipment holdings (for instance, they dropped from 14 tractors to 10 and from two harvesters to one), knowing that advances in equipment meant they could do more with less. In 2015, Sonke was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery, which offered another opportunity to rethink. Whereas once they had been farming across a 100-kilometer radius, the brothers pared down to just 30 kilometers. They also sold off a part of their business—and some of the equipment—to an employee who had worked for them for 12 years and was ready for a business of his own. Now he, too, is a committed Fendt customer.

Sonke, who is now happily cancer-free, says the business still offers challenges. The Claussens have multiple clients who need the same services at the same time. They also have clients who occasionally have different visions about what chemicals to spray. (The Claussens generally avoid dicamba, for example, given the potential for drift, but did spray at one customer’s request.)

But issues are rare, thanks to the constant use of the brothers’ cell phones. “The openness, that’s the secret,” Sonke says. “Once you start talking to the people and explain what you’re doing—most of the time, it’s really no problem at all.” It helps, too, that over years of working with the same customers, the Claussens have come to know their farms well. According to Sonke, most customers don’t even need to call to request spraying, for instance, or for their second cut—the Claussens already know what is desired when.

Summertime employee Johann Sieber runs one of the Claussens’ Fendt tractors.

In 2014, in order to fight the outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea, the federal government offered funding for farmers to clean their equipment. But the program did not include contractors—who, by Sonke’s estimate, were responsible for 50% of Ontario’s manure hauling and, therefore, also needed support fighting the spread of the disease. To address such issues, the brothers helped launch the Ontario Professional Agri-Contractors Association (OPACA), for which Sonke serves as president—one more duty to slot into a busy day.

Which, really, is the main constant in this life: There is always something to do. That August morning, Hauke speeds through the disking while thunder rumbles on the horizon. Sonke, meanwhile, decides to postpone cutting the alfalfa. Nervous customers notwithstanding, he knows the silage needs two good days to dry before it’s put in the bunk, and rain after a cut could lessen its quality.

After a quick lunch, the brothers meet outside their workshop to plan the rest of the day. Even without the alfalfa cuts, even on this holiday, still there is plenty to do. Sonke notices the clouds are dissipating. He turns to his brother and says, “I guess we’d better get back to work.”