Dairying is in Bill Vanderkooi’s (’91) blood. Born and raised on a dairy farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia, he graduated from Dordt College with a major in both animal science and plant science and went on to earn a master’s degree in animal science with a focus on dairy nutrition and physiology at Michigan State University. When he moved back home, he was hired by a local feed company to develop their dairy program, wearing hats ranging from sales manager to nutritionist. At the same time, he led the growth of the family dairy as it expanded to include one operation in British Columbia and two in Saskatchewan. Today he runs a group of partner companies called Nutriva Group. He and his wife, Helinda, are the parents of five active children.
Bill Vanderkooi came to and left Dordt College as an agriculture major. But as he put what he’d learned to work, he found that his real gifts and passion were entrepreneurial.
“I like starting new things,” he says.
Today he heads a group of companies whose purpose is to produce healthy foods for the world. At both Dordt and MSU, he gained the agricultural knowledge he needed to begin his business. In the 20 years since then, through “the school of hard knocks,” seminars, mentoring, and reading, he’s learned important things about himself that have shaped him as a businessman.
“I’m a pretty driven person. I’ve learned that I’m very task-oriented, organized, and able to focus on big goals and priorities,” he says. He’s also a good manager, candidly admitting that he needs to work at balancing being productive with being relational. He’d like others to see people in his company as modest, kind, and smart.
“I like to accomplish things,” he says.
And he has accomplished much in the past five years.
“I feel like I’ve been up the mountain and am now beginning to come down,” he says, reflecting on what it’s been like building his business.
Vanderkooi wants to make a difference in how people think about health and food. He’s long been interested in nutrition, an interest that grew when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes during his senior year in college and later as he watched a family member fight cancer.
“Being a diabetic and having five young kids, I have a really strong interest in health,” he says.
Being successful in business often seems to go hand-in-hand with being passionate about a product. The more Vanderkooi has learned, the more convinced he’s become that food can have a significant effect on people’s health and how they feel. And, he adds, health care costs in North America are becoming an increasing social and economic burden. His company, Nutriva Group, whose philosophy is “Healthy Planet, Healthy People, Healthy Profit,” has set a goal of having a global impact on food and nutrition by innovatively bringing natural, healthy food to the marketplace.
Along with his commitment to marketing healthy food, he is committed to environmental stewardship—a sense of responsibility to creation that was nurtured in his agriculture courses at Dordt but also in courses like Gen 300, Calling, Task, and Culture (now Core 399.)
“As a farm kid and a science major, having the opportunity to take a broad range of courses in college was very valuable and gave me a better foundation for both my master’s program and my business today,” he says.
Vanderkooi is also committed to having his company practice the values it has set for itself: to be transparent, so that customers know where their food comes from; to have integrity, always doing what they say they’re doing; to be innovative, bringing new healthy foods to market; and to promote good health, helping people learn more about the food they eat.
People’s consumption patterns have changed over the last 50 years, Vander Kooi says. “We’ve moved from whole foods to processed foods, which means that much of our food is cheaper but also less nutritious.
“Research shows that diet is a factor in all major health conditions: heart disease, diabetes, cancer.” His company is based on the premise that giving animals good feed will give people better food. Nutriva Group works through what Vanderkooi calls a value chain, which allows them to control the feed animals are given, the farms they’re raised on, how products are processed, and the selling of natural, healthy, and local products in retail stores.”
“We’re committed to traceable quality control,” he says.
Vanderkooi produces “functional” foods, as they’re called in the industry, which means they are nutritionally enhanced. Under the brand Vitala Foods, his company sells milk, yogurt, and eggs in several grocery stores in southern British Columbia.
By using naturally derived feed products he helped develop, Vanderkooi’s company sells milk with DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid linked to a variety of health benefits, and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which has anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to have anti-cancer effects, Vanderkooi says. Their Sunshine eggs are marketed for their vitamin D content, citing research showing that vitamin D helps prevent a host of health problems, has anti-aging affects, assists in managing diabetes, protects against multiple sclerosis, and boosts the immune system.
At Bakerview EcoDairy, the first demonstration farm of its kind in Canada, visitors can see where Vitala milk comes from. It offers guided tours, animal exhibits, and a learning center. They see the robotic milker, where cows come to be milked when they choose; the swinging cow brush, where cows come to be groomed; the feeding lane and free stalls, designed to keep cows comfortable and well tended. They’ll even see goats on the grassy roof.
“Personally, I feel I am called to take care of creation; that’s just a value that I hold true. Producing functional foods sustainably does, of course, come at a cost. We have invested significantly in new agri-technologies. However, these innovations also bring savings. “Our energy costs are lower thanks to the anaerobic digester, and the robotic milker means our staff is spending fewer hours on milking and more time in other aspects of the running of the farm,” says Vanderkooi.
“I have a passion to do something positive and to make a difference with my life,” Vanderkooi says. He does that through products he sells and the presentations he gives, but also by getting involved with local efforts that bring people together and create positive change.
“Our commitment to wellness begins with healthy foods but we are passionate about healthy physical activity and supporting community initiatives,” he says.
Alumna Ange (Siebring,’89) VanWoerden, whose son is a student at Dordt, wrote to Alumni Director Wes Fopma last year, “Every year our family participates in the Run for Water. This year one of the sponsors was Bill Vander Kooi. It’s a great event and this year raised $260,000 for Ethiopia. I think it’s pretty great that he (Vitala) has gone behind this event to sponsor it.”
Vanderkooi intends to continue to find new ways to make a difference. He’s encouraged that other companies have picked up on what Vitala is doing with its Sunshine eggs. And, as his business begins to stabilize, he hopes to get even more involved in helping address issues related to food and health, both through education and participating, where possible, in setting agricultural and health policies.
“Making a difference is embedded in our DNA,” says Vanderkooi. “We aim to shift people’s value systems around food and educate consumers who are on the verge of making a healthy change. I believe education is the key, whether it be about the nutritional value of the product, the importance of buying local, or knowing your food.”
Everyone wants to stand out in their professional field, but for Calvin Spronk, sprouting success has never been a problem. He's a variety man and something of a pioneer. In 1979, he became one of the first to graduate from Dordt College's agri-business program, a program that didn't even exist when Calvin enrolled as a freshman.
"The coming of the agri-business major helped me see how I could continue my education in an area I was interested in at a Christian college," Calvin said. "You have to do what you're interested in."
And he's done just that. He used what he learned to found Spronk Seed Farm, a seed conditioning plant that distributes bags of seed to farms and businesses. He grew his business out of Edgerton, Minnesota, and today, the company supplies seed to locations more than a hundred miles away.
Calvin is thankful that Dordt required him to study a wide range of topics, including marketing, business, writing, and speech. These courses aren't usually required for an agricultural degree, but this unique combination was the starting point for his success. He offers nothing but praise for what he learned in his business and biology courses at Dordt.
"Chemistry, botany, zoology, and genetics gave me a good background and knowledge base, which helped me keep up with changes in today's agricultural advancements, including technology," Calvin said.
In addition to successfully managing his seed company, Calvin has been a supervisor for the Pipestone County Soil and Water Conservation District and a member of the board of directors for the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association.