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Farming On Demand

Is there such a thing as “double custom farming”? Because it seems like Robert Jantzi takes the idea at least one step further.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole

Custom farmer Robert Jantzi breaks into a quick, silent laugh when asked about his “busiest time of year.”

“Spring. Summer. Fall,” he says, pausing for a smile between each word. He’s not pausing for much else these days, even though we’ve caught up with him just as winter starts to show itself in the central Ontario township of Wellesley. He and son Randell have just wrapped up some large, square baling and have put up some haylage. They’re a couple of weeks into working corn silage.

Jantzi and crew make quick work of corn silage.

Jantzi and crew make quick work of corn silage.

Corn silage is his favorite work. “There’s less pressure,” he says, but “less” is relative. As we talk, his phone buzzes and he finally interrupts our talk to answer. After the call, he pauses again—for just one, barely affordable moment—to calculate how many silos he will need to fill before the end of the week. Robert’s son/business partner/mechanic, Randell, has already baled untold acres of hay this season and has at least one more weekend of baling ahead of him.

None of this work is on their own land, but all of it is within about 30 miles of the family farm. All of it is for unique clients that set the Jantzis apart even in the notably frantic sub-profession of custom farming. And pretty much all of it is ready to go. Now.

“So that’s kind of where we’re at,” Jantzi says, and with another quick, silent laugh, he climbs back into a tractor cab he may not leave again for 12 hours.

•••

“Where we’re at” turns out to be an open question when trying to catch up with the Jantzis for an interview. They’re somewhere in the field, sharing location via text message and GPS coordinates. Looking for Robert makes for a very nice drive, though. Wellesley’s topography seems created to show off its family farmsteads, most of them about 100 acres in size. Almost every low hill is topped with a red barn and green silo, some of them generations old.

The Jantzi farm is similar, but not the same. Similar because of its appearance and size, about 150 acres, and its makeup: small tracts of corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa, along with 80 stockers. Not the same, because Jantzi’s modern farm with modern equipment is surrounded for miles on all sides by non-mechanized Mennonite and Amish farms.

A Mennonite farmer watches his silo fill to the top as Jantzi and his crew bring in the crop.

A Mennonite farmer watches his silo fill to the top as Jantzi and his crew bring in the crop.

Similar again, though, because Jantzi’s opportunity is to work as many of those farms as he can, with the same care as he would work his own. “90% of my work is for the horse-and-buggy set,” says Jantzi, referring to the groups’ preferred method of highway travel, so familiar in this part of Ontario that yellow road signs alert motorists of the practice with a horse-and-buggy icon.

Mennonite and Amish orders are on something of a spectrum concerning their views toward technology, says Fred Lichti, pastor of the Mennonite church in the neighboring town of Elmira. Lichti, who grew up on a Mennonite farm, says these orders share a theological framework but might accept different levels of “culturation,” as Lichti calls it.

The consistent theological framework is one of “separation from the world,” set forth by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:17. “These orders limit technology and assess its impact on the family, the community, and their own values,” Lichti says.

So, while that might mean a Mennonite or Amish farmer can’t own a combine or a tractor, they can hire someone who does. And those who use cell phones—Lichti says wireless cell phones are not literally connected to the outside world and therefore acceptable to some—might find their “someone” in Robert.

These Mennonite farms—a few hundred of them—are a short drive from the booming twin cities of Waterloo and Kitchener, where tech giant Google is planning to double the size of a downtown campus. Technology is creating a more prosperous living even for those who might reject it personally. Mennonite farmers spend time in their shops making furniture, tools and other products for city folk, “and they say it pays for them to get the farming custom-done than to do it with their horses,” says Robert. “That’s where I come in.”

Jantzi's cell phone is his connection to the Mennonite farming world.

Jantzi’s cell phone is his connection to the Mennonite farming world.

“I’d say that’s a unique business,” says Lynn Prevost, executive secretary of the Association of Canadian Custom Harvesters, Inc. (ACCHI). She and her husband are custom harvesters themselves, and typify what most would recognize about the vocation: fleets of combines, trailer trucks and RVs, stretching at harvest time from Texas to the northern plains of Canada. There is the same uncertainty for custom farmers around weather and field conditions that any farmer would face, but arrangements for work are often made well in advance and might involve hundreds, even thousands, of miles of travel.

Prevost says she doesn’t know of any ACCHI members that do the kind of custom work Jantzi does. In the States, a sister organization, U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc. (USCHI), conducts yearly surveys that collect data from members on the type of work they do, what they charge for it and how it impacts them economically. Again, no data are collected on custom work done for non-mechanized farms.

The Jantzis don’t collect data in the cab, either; their ultra-modern equipment would certainly allow for it, “but our clients don’t demand it,” says Jantzi. They do keep their own tallies, though. In a given year, Jantzi and son will plant 2,000 acres for Mennonite farms and cultivate another 2,000. They’ll put up 10,000 bales of hay and fill 60 silos. “17 this week,” says Robert, reminding us of the immediacy of his work and, likely, the brevity of this interview.

•••

It’s not that Robert is being short with us. It’s that time is short and the clients are demanding. Those yellow horse-and-buggy road signs around Wellesley might look like dollar signs to Jantzi, who—while not revealing rates for custom work—compliments this unique clientele for their honest dealings by way of repeat business and quick payment. (The newest survey results from USCHI show an average of $41.55 of revenue per acre of custom harvesters.) Jantzi says his willingness to be on call for work and his “reasonable rates” keep him busy, and close to home, given the proximity of his clientele.

It’s custom farming by definition, but so very different from the norm in that business. “So, I’m guaranteed work for quite a while,” Robert says.

It’s good work, but Jantzi isn’t the only custom operator working this tiny but potentially lucrative niche. High above us, a Mennonite client has climbed his silo to watch as corn silage fills it to the top. We only get this moment with Robert as the trailer empties into the silo, and Robert already has his next client lined up, just down the road. “They call you, and if you’re available, you go. If you’re not, they get somebody else.”

It’s go time. Interview done. “So that’s where we’re at,” Robert says again, and heads toward the next silo.