Ben VanDyke, VanDyke Farms
A passion for farming fuels Yamhill, OR grass seed, blueberry, and hazelnut farmer Ben VanDyke. Quick to attribute his farm’s success to the help of 8 full-time employees, strong support from his wife Kassandra (along with their kids Bryce, 12, and Zoey, 10), and a clear succession plan that helped his dad, Jim, and uncle, Mark, retired in 2003, Ben has been an advocate for farming his entire life.
VanDyke Farms dates back to the 1950s when his grandfather, Bud VanDyke, who grew up farming in Verbort, Oregon, moved his wife and family to Yamhill County from Kansas where they homesteaded after returning home from WWII to purchase the farm that was for sale next to his brother, who was already farming a few miles north of McMinnville, Oregon. Nearly 20 years later, his dad and uncle took over their dad’s cereal grain, wheat, oats, clover, and vetch farm and expanded into growing additional crops of tall fescue, orchard grass, and wheat as a rotation crop, along with a little sweet corn.
While working on his family’s farm growing up, Ben leased acreage in high school to grow flower seeds. His interests at the time were farming and volunteer firefighting. After serving as the Oregon State FFA Treasurer in 1998-99, his future path in farming was clear and Ben returned to VanDyke Farms full-time where tall fescue and perennial ryegrass became the main crops, in addition to rotational medium red and crimson clover for seed. Just four years later when Ben was 23 years old his dad and uncle decided they were ready to retire from the day-to-day operations of the farm. Ben took over the farm at that point and has diversified in the 20 years since then.
Ben reflected, “I’m very lucky that my dad and uncle watched my grandfather transition in the same way, where he was always around to guide and jump in a piece of equipment as needed, but left the day-to-day business decisions to the next generation. It was a huge blessing not to be micro-managed. They watched how well that worked for them, and I am blessed that the transition worked the way it did,” he added.
Turf Type Tall Fescue remains their main crop, but in 2009 Ben decided to convert a field from grass seed into blueberries, and in 2010 they started growing radish for seed as part of their crop rotation portfolio. They also diversified into hazelnuts, growing kernel varieties and in-shell, which were first planted in 2015 and continue to be expanded, with a portion being washed and dried by Hazelnut Growers of Oregon (HGO). They also use Valley Ag for most of their fertilizer needs. As a third-generation Wilco co-op member, Ben recognizes the advantages of sharing in the cost of services across a group of farmers, and the purchasing power of buying in volume.
Ben’s philosophy is to grow crops to the best of their ability, without cutting any corners. “We always have a high-quality product to sell, which ultimately helps differentiate ourselves in the marketplace and keeps us profitable,” Ben said. While the unknowns of world markets, weather, and new pests can be challenging, VanDyke tributes his great team of employees to the farm’s success. “It’s a great blessing to work with them every day, and I consider them family and couldn’t farm without them,” Ben said. The main driver in diversifying was to mitigate risk by keeping a crop rotation that creates multiple revenue streams. It also helps spread out labor to maintain year-round employees, so they don’t have to rely solely on short-term labor.
“Diversifying keeps us all sharp and makes things exciting,” Ben added. “I’m a person who likes taking on new things and the fact that we have very different seasonal challenges absolutely drives me. I also don’t take for granted that farming keeps me outside, we are blessed to live in a beautiful part of the world, there is no office that can beat this view,” VanDyke said.