More Canadian farmers are selling more of what they produce directly to consumers than ever before. Customers are keen to shop for locally made products and many are looking for agritourism experiences.
Talking up the farm story
A brand isn’t a Nike swoosh. It’s what the Nike swoosh makes you think. On the farm, it isn’t a…
While direct farm marketing has grown in popularity in recent times, it isn’t new to everybody. Some farmers have years of experience in this field, and if you’re considering starting a new direct-to-consumer business, perhaps this is the group to learn from.
Country Guides recently spoke to three regional winners from Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers, ie farm operators between the ages of 18 and 39 who demonstrate excellence in their profession.
Our go-to sources are the people behind Cutter Ranch, Wholesome Pickins Market & Bakery, and Our Little Farm, and they are recognized for their success in running direct-to-consumer operations with businesses that stack up in head-to-head competition with our top livestock and grain-and-oilseed farms.
With over four decades of experience between them, these farmers reflect on what they’ve learned on the front lines. We asked, what advice would they give someone looking to start a similar direct marketing operation?
Start small, act big
Tyler McNaughton & Sacha Bentall
Cutter Ranch, Fort Steele, BC
2018 BC/Yukon Outstanding Young Farmers
Tucked in the southeast corner of British Columbia at Fort Steele, Tyler McNaughton finds business value in connecting first-hand with customers and making them feel part of the farm.
He and his wife Sacha Bentall started Cutter Ranch nearly 15 years ago. Today, the business provides lamb, beef and pork directly to consumers in the East Kootenays region as well as Vancouver.
In addition to keeping the customer on top of mind, McNaughton encourages new direct farm marketing businesses to start small.
“We started with a very small sheep flock and really focused on learning how to farm the animals correctly, sell the animals and develop a business around that,” he explains. “The smaller your operation starts, the smaller your mistakes are going to be. And there’s definitely going to be challenges, especially with a startup.”
But there’s a vital follow-up. Small business owners don’t have to act according to size. When you behave like a bigger company and do everything with business tenets in mind, you get sharper. And the sharper you can make the business when it’s small, the more success you’ll have when it grows, says McNaughton.
Study your chosen sector, he says, so you have a really clear understanding of everything from how you’ll get the inputs you need in the beginning to how you’ll get the end product to the consumer at the end.
“You can be a small farm, but you still have to behave as if you were a grocery store, to a degree,” McNaughton says. “Continuity of supply is very important because customers are conditioned to want an array of products and convenience. In terms of timing production, we have to make sure we always have supply available.”
He also believes that continual investment is key. Upgrading tools and equipment over time is partly why Cutter Ranch is well positioned for future growth.
In addition, he’s learned that farming and running a meat retail business are two very separate roles. While he and Sacha have always been considered full-time ranchers, the meat business is essentially their second job.
“The food market is evolving,” he says. “We have room to grow and we’ve also been at it long enough to feel confident investing in the farm, developing relationships and going after new opportunities.”
Get the right help
David & Jenn VanDeVelde
Wholesome Pickins Market & Bakery, Delhi, Ont.
2022 Ontario Outstanding Young Farmers
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Jenn VanDeVelde explains. “A lot of people are doing direct farm marketing and almost everyone wants to share ideas and help each other.”
VanDeVelde, who operates Wholesome Pickins Market & Bakery in Delhi, Ont., with her husband David, values community and strongly advises other farmers to get involved in industry groups and associations if they want to get into direct marketing.
Resources available through groups like Farm Fresh Ontario and Berry Growers of Ontario have been invaluable to their operations, VanDeVelde says.
Equally important is seeking support from a farm advisor who has benefited Wholesome Pickins, too. When their business quickly grew from a few employees to more than 20, the VanDeVeldes didn’t have the human resource policies and procedures to handle it. Instead of trying to learn on their own, they hired a consultant to set up a management system that’s easy to follow.
“It’s important to recognize when something isn’t in your wheelhouse and bring in someone who can help you,” she says.
Although their business now has a staff of almost 40, and although it would be easy for Jenn and David to stay behind the scenes attending to their essential managerial roles, the couple are rigorous about spending time getting to know customers.
They call it their key to success in direct farm marketing. Both make a conscious effort to be present in the farm store to speak with shoppers on a regular basis.
Asking for feedback and listening to customers has resulted in new products being added to the market and high customer satisfaction, which has likely played a significant role in the overall growth of the business.
“Word of mouth is your greatest advertisement, every time,” says VanDeVelde. “When people talk about you and tell their friends about you, you’re going to be able to grow and expand just based on that.”
She encourages anyone building a direct farm business to be their authentic selves. What does that mean? In short, be true to your own values and make decisions that align with your beliefs. It will resonate with people, she says.
Wholesome Pickins started in 2006 when the couple began diversifying their fourth-generation tobacco and grain farm by growing strawberries and selling them to consumers out of their driveway.
By 2010, they renovated a shop and gradually added fruits and vegetables, milk, cheeses, meats and more. Another expansion took place when a kitchen was added in 2013.
Today, they offer baked goods and a line of savory meals in addition to their own fruit and 70 to 90 vendor products.
VanDeVelde says every item available in the market has to pass the authenticity test. They source as many products as possible from Norfolk County and the rest from other locations within Ontario.
Although they are known as a “one stop shop” for cottagers traveling to and from Lake Erie, they don’t offer items like pop. “You can go anywhere to buy a can of pop so that doesn’t feel authentic to us. We want you to come here to buy Hitchhiker lemonade and other products that are made in Ontario, because those are stories that matter to us,” she said.
Lay a solid foundation
Jim Thompson & Genevieve Grossenbacher
Our Little Farm, Lochaber-Partie-Ouest, Que.
2021 Québec Outstanding Young Farmers
It’s a question that Jim Thompson has asked before. He’s a Quebec-based farmer who has mentored numerous people interested in organic vegetable production, the sector he has worked in his entire career.
To Thompson, it’s common sense that you shouldn’t start a direct farm marketing business without experience or an education in agriculture. But it’s common sense that he has seen some ignore.
“People seem to think that what we do is easy, and that they can quit their good-paying job to start growing vegetables,” Thompson says. “But this is a business where the capitalization is high and the margins are often small. Without experience, you can quickly lose your shirt.”
Thompson spent six years working on vegetable farms and took a self-learning approach to studying agriculture academically before he and his partner Geneviève Grossenbacher started Our Little Farm in 2011.
Now, they grow 35 different types of vegetables and supply them to 375 families per week during their 16-week season. He credits the success of the farm to the solid foundation he and Grossenbacher were able to build on based on their past experience.
But besides education in agriculture, Thompson’s biggest piece of advice for someone starting out in the direct farm marketing industry is to get to know the customers they want to sell to.
“A general marketing strategy is to segment the market into a target market, but that is hard to do for niche marketing because you might be overmarketing to a group that is actually not interested in your product,” he explains.
If Thompson was to look at the potential market of customers in the Gatineau and Ottawa areas, for example, traditional marketing principles may encourage him to target neighborhoods with higher household incomes. But it’s possible that this demographic frequents restaurants and spends a lot of time traveling, and that there are more families in lower-income areas who are interested in organic vegetables. You have to be careful about making assumptions, he says.
“Talk to potential clients to learn what they want,” advises Thompson. “Don’t expect that they are excited to eat what you’re excited to grow.”
He believes it’s important for customers to feel a connection to the farm. Those who buy from Our Little Farm appreciate that their food baskets come with a newsletter of recipes to make with the included vegetables.
“If you’re going into direct marketing, you have to think about the needs you are fulfilling,” he says. “I’m not selling vegetables, I’m selling what to make for dinner.”