Starting from Scratch, Seed Sales & Succession Planning – Vitucci Farms
Cathy and Bill Vitucci are first generation farmers in Wellandport. Bill’s grandparents always farmed, and he enjoyed spending time there growing up. He started in the mid-90’s with some land and a small beef herd while working in the ag industry but always knew that he wanted to farm fulltime.
Cathy’s great grandfather farmed in Smithville, and Cathy grew up on that 100 acre patch of land, but her father and grandfather were carpenters. She was a dental assistant for 15 years and growing up on the edge of town, saw herself as more of a city girl. Cathy met Bill in 1998 and grew into the farming life. Together they took a leap of faith, buying their first property together in 2000, getting married soon after and buying four more farms in a very short time.
Now, Vitucci Farms is a mid-sized grains and oilseeds family farm, with a farm-based Pride Seeds dealership. They sold the cows when BSE hit, and focus just on crops. They grew by strategically purchasing land at the right time and making the right deal. They farm a mix of owned and rented land with most being close, travelling up to 15km for the furthest farm.
Initially Bill did a fair bit of custom work, to make the economics work. Over the last five years, a shift to doing less custom work has allowed more time to manage their acres more intensely. They hire out their side-dressing for corn, and some spraying to allow for timely applications.
Cathy and Bill have four children. Callen, who will be 18 in September, enjoys working on the farm and another neighbouring farm, and learning about precision ag technology but also how to do things old school. Emma is 16 and does lots to help behind the scenes at the farm while working at a local grocery store to support her desire to drive and be out and about. Cooper, 13, happily spends his days with his dad on the farm doing everything, never missing a chance to drive a tractor in the field. Addison is 10 and a big animal lover who enjoys learning new skills at home and is missing spending time with her friends right now. Callen is thinking about working with his mom and dad on the farm while Emma is thinking about an off-farm career close to home. It is a bit too early for the youngest two to know about their farming careers, but Addison would love to see some cows or horses added to the farm.
They farm clay soils – from blue clay to clay loam – which can do well if you are patient. It is not forgiving ground, Bill says, so if you mess up in the spring it will hurt you all year long. But he likes his ground. He has customers on sand to black loam to clay, so he hears what goes on across the different soils. He knows there are benefits and downfalls to all soil types. With crop rotation and continuing to build soil fertility, organic matter, manage pH and adding tile drainage, along with patience, their soils produce well.
Vitucci Farms grows a typical corn, wheat, soy rotation, but with all winter wheat under-seeded to red clover – Bill says he wouldn’t farm without it. He typically works the red clover down in fall to be ready for spring planting, or will leave some to overwinter, cut it for a year of forage, and then put the field back into the rotation. They are seeing a huge soil benefit to keeping the rotation and under seeding the red clover. Water infiltration is improved, organic matter levels are increasing and generally there is more life in the soil. They also see a yield advantage the following year, particularly in a field left in red clover for a season. While they can’t do this over all their acres, Bill tries to work it into the rotation, so that every farm gets a break from the more intensive crop production practices.
Bill is firm in his rotation, other than if extreme weather gets in the way. Wheat ground is tilled in the fall and all corn ground is tilled prior to planting. Most soybeans are no tilled into corn stalks and wheat is also no till. The red clover eventually is worked. Bill and Cathy have had a deep ripper for two years now and have found that’s made a huge difference with water infiltration, breaking up deep hardpan. Bill believes that tillage and no till each have their place.
The couple try to use manure from neighbours where they can, to increase organic matter and for added nutrients. Manure is typically applied after wheat comes off in the early fall. All acres are fertilized every year, with corn getting the most fertilizer. They broadcast most soybean fertilizer in the spring because they have the spreader and the time, especially with help from the boys. They have used biosolids regularly for the last 10 to 15 years. Seeing good results, they plan to continue with this practice.
A regular soil testing program started about 10 years ago for Vitucci Farms. It has taken some time to be able to invest in the extra fertilizer to build soil values, lime fields every year and keep soil test levels up. The work with some fertilizer suppliers and Pride agronomists for advice but do a lot of the agronomic work themselves.
Cathy and Bill are tiling land as they go and have tiled most of what they deal with now. Tile pays dividends, they find. They farmed a lot of less desirable land when starting out and as they grew, they realized how nice it is to farm a well-drained rectangular piece you can just drive up and down. They have tiled some rented land too, where they are very comfortable with the agreement, and like how it shows stewardship to the landowner.
Cathy and Bill became Pride Seeds dealers in the fall of 2012. Bill enjoys working with local farmers and the addition of seed sales allowed Cathy to give up her off-farm job as a dental assistant and be full time at the farm. The couple like that Pride Seeds is a family-oriented company that has had tremendous growth recently. They service a large area covering the Niagara Region, and are comfortable with the size they are at, allowing them to provide good customer service. The couple feel fortunate to have great customers.
The seed business adds a different dynamic to their farm business. There’s customer calls in the fall, where Bill tries to meet with everyone as much as possible. Lots of the business is conducted in the combine cab, over lunch on rainy days and get togethers through the winter. In spring, seed arrives and Cathy manages the flow and paperwork of deliveries. Meeting customers continues through the summer as well as signage for local fields. Bill and Cathy find the seed business fits nicely into the gaps of their grains and oilseeds farm and provides for great connections with customers over the winter. Bill says it keeps you engaged in your farm with a focus on what’s coming next.
Bringing Cathy home was a big advantage for their own farm, making bookwork and record keeping more efficient, and for the family, too. This had a big, positive impact on their lifestyle, especially with four kids needing to go places. Cathy also does all the paperwork, billing and reporting for the seed business including seed orders and deliveries. In 2015, Jim Yungblut came on board as a seed representative to help service more of the region. Jim brings many years of agricultural knowledge to the table and has been a great addition to the team, helping with many aspects of the seed dealership.
The couple also enjoy attending the seed sales meetings and training, allowing them to meet with other dealers and hear about growing on different soil types while enhancing learning and bouncing ideas around. Pride Seeds does a great job supporting their dealer network with technical information. The dealership fits well with Bill’s hands-on learning style and has the side benefit of a close working relationship with Pride’s agronomists – a service that’s available for all their customers. The couple also hold an annual customer appreciation dinner which they quite enjoy, featuring a bit of agronomy talk but mostly a simple thank you to their clients.
Plot work is another important aspect of the seed business. They like to try stuff on their own farm before selling to others, providing more confidence in the products. The couple put in as many plots as time allows. It can be hard to fit in and time consuming, especially to collect the data, but it’s an important part of the business. Cathy would like to see more on-farm trials rather than small plot work. Side by side trials work well in a whole field, over 20-40 acres, demonstrating variability across the field.
The family lives in Bill’s parent’s house, the home Bill grew up in. Interestingly, the house was built by Cathy’s father and grandfather. They live on a two-acre property and run the seed business from there, while a bigger property one road over is the secondary farmyard which houses most of the bigger equipment. Cathy enjoys change and tackling challenges, so when they bought their first farm and decided to sever the house and one acre to make the mortgage work, the mysterious, complicated process intrigued her. She made it a mission to learn about the process of severances, even holding a position on the Committee of Adjustment for several years. Now the process is more streamlined and staff-supported in their municipality, a welcomed change!
Even though the severance process has been demystified locally, lately Cathy and Bill have been keeping houses as they purchase new properties to farm. Initially they had to sever to make the economics work. Sometimes it is easier to think about severing off the housing and letting go, but they still have those properties as neighbours. Ultimately economics still drive the decision and they are hoping some of the kids will stay in the business, so the extra dwellings may come in handy.
Vitucci Farms is at a point where succession planning is the next project at hand. Callen still needs a year or two to determine if farming is definitely for him, and the plan can account for the decisions of the other three children. That will allow Cathy and Bill to decide if they diversify into new things and expand into custom work. They know it is hard to grow on just grains and oilseeds. Since they can’t get too much bigger, something will likely need to change to bring the kids into the business, perhaps livestock and maybe supply managed commodities.
As a business, they are always evolving and looking to do better but they don’t need to keep growing the business for themselves. The family side of the business is top of mind at this point as they make each decision. They take more time to examine how each decision can play out, as they are farming 100% for their kids. They know that it’s not going to get easier for the next generation, particularly with rapidly increasing land values. Bill is pretty confident that it wouldn’t work now to start from scratch as he did.
At the start, Bill was young, focused and determined to be a farmer starting from scratch. He and Cathy worked hard and made a lot of sacrifices to build their successful farm business. They made strategic land purchases and smart soil management and crop decisions. Expanding into the seed business fit well with their grains and oilseeds farming while also allowing Cathy to be on the farm for the family and to work together with Bill. Now that they have this, the want to pass it onto the kids. Cathy and Bill can’t see a better lifestyle than farming to hand to the next generation.