By Tom Collins
PORT PERRY — Two East-Central Ontario brothers say selling “the experience” while buying groceries from a farm market is what keeps customers coming back to their store.
Brothers Jordan, 33 and Alex McKay, 37 — who run the farm with their wives Alyson and Kelty — own Willowtree Farm at Port Perry. The business has an on-farm grocery store that is closed only six days a year at Christmas. The farm offers free weekly farm tours, a petting zoo (which has a horse, alpacas, goats, lambs, pigs, rabbits and birds), a maple syrup festival, a grain corn box instead of a sandbox, a customer appreciation corn roast, pumpkin palooza, an outdoor skating rink, photos with Santa and an Easter egg-stravaganza.
“Everything we do, we’re trying to drive traffic to our store,” said Jordan McKay. “People can get food anywhere. But when they come see us, they’re going to get a different experience. They’re going to get better transparency of where their food came from and where it grew.”
The on-farm market — located 10 minutes off Hwy 7 — opened in 2016, replacing a 2,800-sq.-ft. open-air market that had stood for 25 years but was open only five months of the year. There are three full-time butchers currently on site that will cut the meat to meet customers’ demands. The butchers will also take the time to explain how the animal was raised and how to best cook the meat.
The farmers raise beef and lamb and grow grain crops and 30 types of fruits and vegetables on 600 acres. They also sell memberships and provide weekly produce pickup, commonly and awkwardly called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). They sell crops wholesale at the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto and have stands at 13 farmers’ markets. The farm hires 90 employees during peak time in the summer, and keeps a staff of 24 full-time and part-time employees in the winter.
Almost everything in the 4,300 sq. ft. store comes from Ontario. Willowtree Farm supplies about 60 per cent of what is sold, and most everything else is purchased from nearby farms. Extra lamb comes from the neighbour across the road, while extra beef is from a nearby ranch. Pork comes from a farm that is now run by friends that were in 4-H with the McKays when they were kids.
“We turned from a place where you go five months a year to buy your fruits and vegetables and a few other items, to a place where you can do a lot of your grocery shopping on a weekly basis,” said McKay. “We use that education and experience side to try to set ourselves apart. Big box stores just aren’t there to provide that same quality of customer service.”
To make the business viable year-round, the McKays — who were named Ontario’s Outstanding Young Farmers at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in September — create different uses for their products. Some sweet corn, for example, is frozen to be sold in the winter, and is also used to make corn chowder and corn bread. Fruits are turned into smoothies. Products at the in-store café are made from food grown on the farm. The soup specials are available fresh in store or frozen to take home to eat later.
“If you have chili in our café, it’s our own beef, it’s our own vegetables. We grew the onions. We did all the work right on site,” said McKay. “As a business, it gives us a greater opportunity to grab that food dollar.”
The market gets cottage traffic from Toronto on Friday afternoons and Sundays, but for the most part, there aren’t many random visitors. Instead, customers are those who plan to spend a few hours at the farm, shopping and taking in the events.
The brothers advertise in local newspapers and on two Durham Region radio stations that reach the Toronto area and its 5.5-million potential customers. The farm, located just an hour from downtown Toronto, focuses its social media advertising budget on Toronto.
McKay said one of the toughest aspects of running a customer-oriented business is being on call almost 24/7 to deal with the public.
“The challenge with emerging technology is the information people want and the timeliness in which they want it,” he said. “We have questions coming all night about ‘what’s your address’ and ‘how much are your tomatoes’ and ‘can I get three white pumpkins tomorrow.’ They expect a response in hours, if not minutes.”
The farmers plan to keep expanding the business. They are looking to purchase more farmland to improve crop rotation and to expand the livestock aspect of their operation. They would also like to open a second, smaller market at some point, and to build an on-farm event centre to help with their maple syrup festival.
“It’s all done to drive people here,” said McKay. “We want to show people a great time, we want to teach them about their food, but we need them to buy the food too.