Wild Dutchman Sunflower Seeds
Friday, November 1, 2013
filed under: Utilization/Trade: Confection-Non-oil
We all make plans, expecting our lives will go exactly according to those plans. But often, our plans change — and sometimes, they change for the better. Sometimes a change in plans can even result in a successful family business.
Case in point: Wild Dutchman Sunflower Seeds.
It’s a business that a Mound City, S.D., family started on a whim. They never expected it would become their main source of income. And they also never expected they’d be filling sunflower seed orders from all 50 states.
But despite their success, Wild Dutchman remains a family business, run by grandfather, father and granddaughter. Jody Kerzman visited with the three generations of VanderLaans — Wayne, Tobey and Shellby — about their business.
Tell me how Wild Dutchman got started.
Wayne: It started by accident. We never figured on going into the seed business. We were farmers, not businessmen. And we were never sunflower growers – I farmed my whole life, but only grew wheat and corn. We did a little custom seeding for some people and planted sunflower for others, but we never grew them ourselves.
Tobey: I went to the Vo-tech in Watertown, S.D., and learned about auto mechanics. I thought knowing how to fix equipment would help me be a better farmer. We ended up starting an auto repair shop. We were getting cars out of Minnesota and eating sunflower seeds to stay awake while we drove from our home in Mound City, S.D., to Minnesota to pick up cars. We rent out our farmland, and one day our renters suggested we process sunflower seeds. So Dad took some seeds from the bin, threw them in a pan with salt, dehydrated them, and every 14 hours we had a small batch of seeds to eat.
Wayne:People tasted them and loved them. They asked where I got them, and I told them I made them. I had four dehydrators going in the kitchen.
Tobey: That was in 2001. After a few batches, Mom got mad that her kitchen had been taken over by sunflower seeds.
Wayne: So I made a bigger dehydrator out of a 55-gallon barrel. I also converted an old deep freeze into a dehydrator. We had an old barn, and we turned that into our sunflower seed processing facility. We had homemade equipment: three big dehydrators.
You’ve come a long way since then. What’s changed in the past 12 years, and what’s stayed the same?
Tobey:About the time our business was really starting to take off, our barn where we did all our processing burned down. The bank actually suggested we take out a loan so we could put up a new building and expand our business.
Wayne: My sister worked at the bank and had been taking seeds to work. Everyone there loved what we were doing. So we built a new building and started replacing equipment. As the demand grew, we built more equipment. But we’ve tried to never get ahead of ourselves. We only add equipment when we can afford it.
Tobey: We moved into our new building in 2006. That’s where we do everything today. It’s pretty amazing to look back at this business that we started kind of by accident. During the first three years we barely made enough money to cover our payments. But in 2010, 2011 and 2012, our income doubled.
Wayne: In the beginning, it was a lot of work and it took a lot of time. We had to bag, seal and label by hand.
Tobey: We got boxes from stores, and they were all different sizes. We just filled each box with as many bags of seeds as we could, and we would write on the boxes how many bags were in each box. Our distributors got a little frustrated by that because they never knew how many boxes they’d be getting!
Wayne: One thing that has stayed the same since day one is our recipe. Our seeds have half the salt than other seeds, which means you can eat them all day without getting a sore mouth. It’s a secret recipe. We can’t share that with you!
Tobey: Our equipment has changed, though. When we started, we used equipment my dad had made. Now all the equipment we use is custom made, by people other than us. Our bagging machine has really changed things for us. The bagging machine fills 12 to 18 bags in one minute. We use that to bag the 6.5 oz and 13 oz bags. We still bag the 3.0-lb bags by hand.
Shellby: The bags themselves have come a long way, too. When we first started, we didn’t have labels. We just had smiley face stickers we bought in bulk from Oriental Trading. We used to clean the seeds ourselves. When my sister and I were little, our job was picking sticks out of the seeds. We were paid $3, just enough to pay for a trip to the pool. Now we contract that work out to Advanced Sunflower in Huron. They clean and size them for us.
Wayne: We fooled around with sunflower seeds for three or four years. We thought it was just going to be a hobby or a small sideline business. Now it’s our only business.
Where did the name “Wild Dutchman” come from?
Wayne:It’s kind of a funny story. I have a good friend who is a Norwegian. I am a Dutchman. We’ve always teased each other – I call him the Crazy Norwegian and he calls me the Wild Dutchman. When we started processing sunflower seeds, we couldn’t think of a name. I was visiting with my friend, and he said that’s obvious: call them Wild Dutchman Sunflower Seeds. And I guess the rest is history.
What makes Wild Dutchman Sunflower Seeds stand out?
Wayne: I think our secret recipe, for one thing. We get calls and emails all the time from self-proclaimed “sunflower seed connoisseurs” who say our seeds are the best. When we were first getting started, we took our seeds to a distributor in Mobridge, S.D. He said he would sell them only if his wife liked them. He said she was a very picky about her sunflower seeds, so if she liked them he knew he could sell them. Well, she loved them and has not eaten anything but Wild Dutchman ever since we gave her that first bag.
A lot of our customers say the same thing: Once they try our seeds, they never buy another brand again. As for the recipe, we put the same ingredients in every batch, but there are lots of factors that can make them taste just a little bit different, including how they were grown, the type of seed, where they were grown, fertilizer used. All of that can make a difference.
Tobey: I think another thing that makes us stand out is that we use only seeds grown in the Dakotas. We like to keep things as local as we can.
Where can you buy Wild Dutchman Sunflower Seeds?
Tobey: North Dakota is our most saturated market. We are mostly in central North Dakota, but we are creeping east and west. The oil business in the west has been good for us. Our 3.0 lb bags are popular out there.
You’ll find our seeds mostly in convenience stores, but we are also in some grocery stores. Fargo has been big for us. In South Dakota, we’re all over the state. Mobridge, Aberdeen, Sioux Falls and Rapid City are our biggest markets. We also have a few locations in Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Shellby: We have sent seeds to every state in the union. We keep the post office busy. People who come out here to vacation or to hunt try our seeds. When they get back home, they can’t find them, so they email or call us with an order. We see a spike in out-of-state orders after hunting season. We are also getting a lot of orders from people who have worked in North Dakota’s oil fields. They’ve maybe returned home after working in the Bakken, but they still want our seeds.
What does the future hold for Wild Dutchman?
Tobey: We are now the official sunflower seed of the F-M RedHawks and the Sioux City Explorers. That means Wild Dutchman seeds are the only seeds you can buy at those baseball parks. We’re also the official seed of South Dakota State University. So we’re growing, and we’re getting exposure at big sporting events. We are looking at expanding to other parts of the country, but it’s a complicated process. We don’t want to abandon our little distributors who have been with us since the beginning.
Wayne: We don’t plan on trying new products. We will stick with what we have, unless we have some spare time. Then we might experiment with other things.
Shellby: But there really isn’t much spare time right now. We process seeds a minimum of three days a week; but during our busy season, we process seeds six days a week. My dad works 17-hour days during that time, and I work 12-hour days. In one week alone this summer, we processed 14,000 lbs of sunflower seeds. I’m not complaining, though. This is what we love to do. We enjoy the work. I grew up with this business. I understand how it works, and it’s fun working with my dad.
I’m a sophomore at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., right now, majoring in business management. Neither my dad nor my grandpa have business backgrounds. I’ve already learned things that have helped our business. But I can’t wait to be done with college and be back here full time working the family business. I come home every weekend and summers to work.
I’d like to do more with our website (www.wilddutchman.com) and our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/WildDutchmanSeeds). We get good feedback on both, and we love posting pictures of people enjoying our seeds around the world. The Internet has helped our business. We’ve gotten emails and calls from people who say they’ve researched sunflower seeds and order ours because of all our good reviews.
But no matter what the future brings, we want to stay a family company. We think three generations working together is special, and that’s something we never want to change.