Salt of the Earth Farm
LYNDHURST — As the world’s second oldest profession, turning your land and labour into cash money has been the perennial problem in agriculture for thousands of years. Farmers aren’t afraid of hard work, braving the elements or taking risks, but turning a profit is often elusive. Fetching a price that covers your costs and makes it worth your while comes down, first of all, to careful, frugal husbandry and good yields, but just as importantly, effective marketing of the crop.
For better or worse, farmers are generally price takers, and have to work with what the market will give them. Careful contracting, playing futures markets, and growing specialty grades like distilling, food grade or identity-preserved grains will all potentially enhance and protect one’s bottom line. The main thing is to pay the bills and do it all over again next year. Farming is the opposite of a get rich quick scheme. It’s a war of attrition, primarily a real estate acquisition model, whereby you live poor to die wealthy (and you won’t leave a pretty corpse).
Nowadays, farmers compete against the entire globe in almost every commodity market. Soybean growers compete with Brazilians, lamb producers with Kiwis, produce growers with California and beef farmers against the packing monopoly. The supply-managed sectors are notable exceptions, but even there, market protections are being clawed back.
Multigenerational family farms tend to have the landbase and capital to produce on scale and weather long-term market cycles, but if you are a new entrant to agriculture, between the price of land and equipment, buying dairy quota, or growing corn and soy to send to Johnstown are probably not in the cards.
You also can’t just think to yourself, “Shucks, I saw the price of X in the grocery store, why, if I just grow 10 acres of so and so, I’d surely become rich — and quick!” because unless there is a specific buyer, broker or processor for X fantasy crop nearby, you will wind up with sprouted grain, spoiled fruit and empty pockets. That’s why you see corn and soy everywhere: there are buyers for it.
So, as often as not, if you want to start a farm business in this day and age, you’re going to have to brave something that every farmer dreads. I don’t mean this lightly. You know how Indiana Jones feels about snakes? This is something terrifying… horrific. It’s the sort of thing farmers wake up from nightmares about. Yes, that’s right, you’re going to have to deal with… the general public.
And you know, despite being a price maker, it isn’t all roses. It takes a lot of effort, and like any retail setting, you’ll deal with things like anger and ignorance. I remember a fancy gentleman in a Beamer pull up asking us where our figs were. Figs? I wondered. Why yes of course, he explained, it is fig season in Ontario right now and they are both abundant and in their prime. He turned up his nose at a pile of ripe cantaloupes, and drove off without buying anything — at least he didn’t get irate like the lady that threw a tenderloin at our cashier! After 10 years at this though, I can also say that customers have become some of our best friends, allies and advertisers.
There’s been a great deal of thought put into the matter of direct marketing over the decades and both good and bad ideas have come from it. Community Supported Agriculture arose from the “Local Food” craze of the early 2000s. Essentially, the customer pays in advance for a season’s worth of product (usually vegetables) that gets broken up into smaller increments and delivered/picked up regularly. I’ve seen it done with everything from bread, to honey, to broilers.
These were very popular when we started our business, and although I’d always been extremely skeptical of the model (let’s face it, Community Supported Agriculture sounds like a welfare program for farmers) we adopted it for the very simple reason that it was a way to start a farm with no money. The CSA product itself has actually fallen off in popularity as quickly as it appeared. We still do it to a certain extent, but it turns out that tying up hundreds of dollars in getting a giant box of obscure vegetables every week isn’t for everyone.
Other models have also emerged: online stores, buyers’ clubs, and prepared food all come to mind. Agritourism and u-picks are well established ways to engage the public. What we’ve found success in over the years though, is something you generally don’t hear about at conferences, in magazines or from FCC. It’s deceivingly simple: grow things that people like and sell them on the side of the road. Yes, people will pull over to buy sweet corn and tomatoes and melons. Who knew?
It’s actually a very primitive, almost Third World form of marketing. Some guy is standing next to the highway in Jakarta with papayas as you read this, because it’s simple and it works. It’s been done for thousands of years. Unlike a weekly Farmer’s Market, you don’t ghettoize yourself to a community centre parking lot for four hours a week (although you will miss out on the thrilling drama that often goes along with their committees), and unlike wholesaling, you remain in control of your product. The catch is dealing with people: staff and customers. After you’ve made a bit of money doing it, you might even come to like them!
Charles Summers owns Salt of the Earth Farm, a direct-to-consumer operation selling vegetables at the roadside, near Lyndhurst, Ontario.