By Natalie Noble

In 1918 Arthur (Art) Wildfong, traveled west to Saskatchewan from Ontario as part of a threshing crew. Although likely not yet on his mind, this journey would soon change his family’s destiny for generations to come. Settling down to start a farm near Craik, Sask., Art soon met and married his now-wife Ella. As they started their family, they created a legacy of bold farmers, talented manufacturers and a spirit of entrepreneurialism that carries through today.

“Art and Ella were the first generation of our family here,” says Art’s great grandson, Russell (Russ) Wildfong, who farms that original farmland and runs Wildfong Enterprises along with his sister Danielle and their father Rick. “We’ve fixed up their original homestead and an employee lives there now.”

Russ and Danielle’s grandfather Bert was Art and Ella’s third child. In 1947, Bert joined his brother Vern to combine down in the U.S. Years later, Rick would carry on his father’s custom combining tradition, with Russ and Danielle joining for a couple of summers during their university studies. “It’s so much fun, you’re on the road and meeting new people,” says Russ. “It’s also challenging at times moving five trucks and big equipment down the highway.”

In addition, Bert built up his own farm near Craik and added satellite farms in the Riceton and Rouleau areas. He also ventured into the manufacturing business, a tradition Rick and Russ continue today with Danielle’s marketing expertise. “Grandpa Bert started building concaves and combine parts in the late 1970s. He formed Harvest Services and ran that until 1995,” says Danielle. “His manufacturing business succession was to transition the business to its key employees and it’s still running.”

Today, Russ and Rick farm 10,000 acres of red lentils, yellow peas, spring wheat and canola. “In our area, we have guys a lot larger than us, and others about half our size. I’d describe it as ‘manageable,’” says Russ.

That manageability speaks to the sensible practicality Russ takes to both his farm management and his business. At one point, Bert had farmed many acres in Canada and down in Colorado during a popular ‘80s trend that saw Canadian farmers buy up U.S. farmland. As inflation rates spiked, Russ says it became a debacle. “So, if anything, we’ve actually shrunk our acreage over the years from where our apex was,” he says. “We’ve also gone down to one air seeder. We find it easier to focus on and manage one seeder running more hours.”

They also run one sprayer and three combines, avoiding shiny new iron and opting for used equipment they can more practically maintain on their own. “With these new combines, you can still lose an entire day unplugging them or doing software repairs,” says Russ. “When you get these expensive pieces of equipment, you want them to operate smoothly, not to be unplugging and fixing them all the time.”

While Russ sees the logic in larger farms challenged with securing seasonal help using newer combines that are easy to run, because he has the capacity to maintain his own equipment on the fly, the heavy price tag doesn’t make sense on his farm. “I think the price of a new combine is outrageous,” he says. “Maybe I’m just stubborn but I’m not willing to pay that. The last round of combines we bought close to new was very expensive and we spent years paying them off. Two of them burnt down and one was a lemon I had to trade in on a different brand. That aggravates me to no end when I feel like I’m being taken advantage of.”

And the equipment will last a lifetime with the right set of hands keeping them in tip-top shape.

“Russell is an engineer. He designs and fixes pretty much anything on the farm,” adds Danielle. “We pay very close attention to our fixed costs and keep them lower than average. We don’t see the need for new iron. It becomes one of the biggest problems for farms when fixed costs get too high, especially when they buy too much equipment. We have the capabilities to make used equipment run like new.”

In the small community of farming, it doesn’t take long for people to notice what’s going on over the fence. As neighbours took note of the ways Russ was upgrading his equipment, they soon had requests for him to build them parts, too. Just like that, the Wildfongs were back in the manufacturing business and Wildfong Enterprises was born.

Back in business

In 2014, Russ scored his first official sale and started making concaves for customers. Launched as an ad-mail campaign, a brochure was sent out to Saskatchewan farmers. The uptake was so phenomenal they struggled to keep up with orders. “It was a learning experience,” says Danielle. “You want to get the word out and supply as many people as you can, but we had a bottleneck when it came to getting the steel and enough help.”

A good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless when a bright idea turns out to be on everyone’s wish list.

“We were figuring it out,” adds Russ. “We had to build the workspace for welding at the same time we had to design everything from scratch. When Harvest Services sold, I was only nine years old and I had no idea how any of it worked.”

Two shops that originally housed Harvest Services in Bert’s day were repurposed into a new manufacturing and packing space. The shop foreman and journeyman welder, Wade Tait, is a B-pressure welder and CWB level 1 welding inspector who does phenomenal work, according to everyone at the farm. “He’s an ex-pipeline worker with years of experience, a natural leader in this position and we fluked out finding him,” says Russ. “We also like to hire high school students to run the wires in the concaves, build the display cans, paint products, and help out with shipping.”

That first year of business was solely spent overcoming growing pains. “Our number one rule is we will not sell anything without a warranty,” says Russ. “I built so many concaves that had a design flaw, any money I made was totally used up replacing them in the second year. I learned from my mistake, we got through it, and we didn’t have one upset customer at the end of it.”

Most customers are like-minded farmers who believe in keeping good used equipment around with easy fixes rather than investing in new equipment every couple of years. “The majority of my customers are trying to get the most out of what they have,” says Russ. “Everything we develop is with the farmer in mind. That’s our goal: to make our customer’s day and life a lot easier while getting their performance up.”

While the concaves practically sell themselves with repeat and referral customers, Russ says their business model showcases the entrepreneurial nature the Wildfong family has exhibited over generations. “Danielle tries to get us more focused on how we do things,” he says. “Rick is the visionary and I integrate systems at the farm to ensure it runs smoothly while he travels and does market development and sales. I recently started doing radio ads, which in Saskatchewan are really effective. They get to a broader audience and I really saw a bump in sales with consistent radio ads.”

While the main driver in creating the business was to keep employees who could work year-round, the other big return has been helping farmers who experience difficulties with their combines and don’t know where to turn for affordable help. “When they call to say these concaves are working great for them, that means a lot,” says Russ. “My grain cart operator dropped off a set of concaves last fall and the cheque came in the mail with a note thanking us for excellent service. Things like that put a little pep in our step and confirm we’re doing a great job. We’re making things better for people and making their lives easier just like we set out to do in the beginning.”

Coming home

The Wildfong family’s path to this successful business may have been destined, but it wasn’t exactly direct. Danielle credits Rick for encouraging both siblings to make their own journey. “Our dad is very passionate and will always take a stand for what he believes in,” she says. “He’ll inspire you to follow your dream and he certainly did that for us.”

Russ’s plan involved working in the energy sector with a one-year stint in the field and behind a desk at the Canadian Natural Resources (CNRL) head office in Calgary, Alta. He quickly realized it was not for him, returning home to work the farm.

Danielle took the business track, eventually leading up to her current and meaningful farm consulting and coaching business, Your Legacy Coach. “Earlier on, I traveled a lot in business development for an agtech start up, presenting and attending farm shows,” she says.

Aligning with her desire to help is a widespread need across Prairie farm families for support to initiate and facilitate the tough conversations.  “A lot of people tell me they don’t know how to have these conversations,” she says. “I saw great opportunity in working with farm families on their continuity planning, helping them to see it as a process rather than a one-time event. I’ve created a three-phase process to handle continuity and implement a system to ensure transparency and accountability across the enterprise.”

At the foundation of her work is a priority to protect relationships on the farm. “Relationships are the new bottom line of farms,” says Danielle. “We don’t always think on those terms but 60 per cent of times a farm falls apart, it’s due to lack of communication. Seventy per cent of times the farm’s wealth transference fails is because of lack of planning, follow through and general communications issues. We cannot change people, but we can work on changing our relationships.”

It’s also important to her that the younger generation tell their parents what they appreciate about their parents and why. “Our generation sometimes forget to ask what Mom and Dad want. Did anyone ask them?” says Danielle. “I work hard to understand and relate to the founders of the farm. I want to protect their retirement and ensure they really think about what they want before diving into a transaction.”

Throughout the process, Danielle also connects with the family’s lawyer and accountant, acting as the general contractor to keep things on track and communication lines open. “My core values—transparency, intimacy and connection—run through every aspect of my business,” she says. “Connecting with people, and connecting them to the right people, energizes and motivates me.”

Learning is a constant pursuit for Danielle so she recently completed her Family Enterprise Advisor designation (FEA) course, working with accountants, investment professionals and learning from top family enterprise consultants.
While she continues working with farm families across the Prairies, Russ credits Danielle for her organizational and marketing skills at Wildfong Enterprises. He adds one more talent to the list, “She’s also very tech savvy.”

In fact, Danielle’s latest pursuit involves a tech pitch she made in true farmer style from the combine last fall to Connexus Credit Union’s Cultivator program, the Agtech Accelerator. “I proposed a virtual continuity and succession planning binder families can use in real time to connect all the players involved in their process,” she says. “I’m building an online platform to write down plans, communicate and track progress. Sometimes it’s easier for us to write things down first before discussing them.”

Danielle still farms, too, running combine for harvest each year at her partner’s grain farm near Leask, Sask., a couple hours’ drive north of Craik. “We live on small lake 15 minutes away from his family’s home farm,” says Danielle. “It’s a whole other world north of the Palliser Triangle. We enjoy snowmobiling, fishing, flying and family time at home and in the field.”

Meanwhile down in Craik, Rick and Debbie are happily enjoying their growing family as Russ, his wife Beth and their two children are just a mile away. Every great farm family has a central force behind them and this one is no different. The Wildfongs unanimously agree that in this case, it’s Debbie, who taught at the local school for 40 years and now teaches at Saskatchewan Polytechnic in Saskatoon, Sask. “She kept us running all these years and continues to cook for everyone during seeding and harvest while working full time,” says Danielle. “She’s the hardest worker on this farm and we all attest to that.”

Down the road, Russ and Beth are raising their two children, Art, 5, named after his great-great grandfather and grandfather, and Claire, 3, on Bert and Reg’s original farm from 1950. Russ’ wife Beth comes from an entrepreneurial family herself and has taken over her family’s real estate development business. “Beth has a strong business acumen that keeps me on topic and focused. She supports me in keeping the farm running smoothly,” says Russ. “We’ve spent a lot of time teaching our children the values and stories of our elders. It’s important to continue their legacy.”