from the Farmer's Forum July 2007

Talk about growth!

Market garden takes off

Japanese concept paying off

By Darren Matte

MERRICKVILLE — An innovative direct-selling business, in which clients pledge to support a farm’s operation by purchasing its produce and meat, is proving a success for New Terra Farm owner Scott Kelland.

Since he started the business last year, Kelland’s Community Supported Agriculture project has quadrupled its number of clients to 46 from 10.

Kelland is not alone in turning to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation to expand his farming operations. CSA businesses are popping up across Ontario, and there are now an estimated 1,000 operating in Canada and the U.S.

The foundation of a CSA begins with the customers who pledge to support a farm operation with the grower and commit to the purchase of its produce. The CSA concept originated in Japan where it is called “Teikei” or “putting the farmers’ face on the food.” The concept eventually made its way to Europe and, ultimately, North America where in 1985 in Massachusetts it earned its current name.

Kelland can testify to the popularity of the CSA concept. Hours after sending out flyers announcing his foray into the business, the phone started ringing. After that, it was a matter of visiting every potential customer to find out what fresh organic vegetables and meat they wanted delivered to their homes twice a week.

Kelland, a strategic planning and performance management consultant, and his family, started the business in February 2006.

The concept was an instant hit and the Kellands received the Ontario Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence and a $5,000 award that came with it.

He earned the award for his small farm marketing and management model, which he calls “the bootstrap model for a small farm.” There are two key components. First, they got advance payments from all their clients to pay for part-time help, equipment and erect a greenhouse. “We call it marketing before management and management before production.”

Second, their main management tool is an Excel spreadsheet, listing 90 herbs and vegetables. They are constantly inputting new data and running the numbers to determine what they need to grow to feed their customers weekly. They’ll replant lettuce 15 times in a season to keep up with demand. After his initial success, Kelland began to prepare for 2007. “We learned a lot from 2006. We created more efficient operating methods such as intensive planting and integrating computer technology to organize crop schedules and to create a website which our members use to see the progress being made.”

Kelland says he uses simple, but effective, growing techniques. He adopts drip irrigation, raises the seed beds, rotates crops and plants decoy crops of Mizuna, an Asian green vegetable, to lure bugs away from the vegetables he shares with the members and, most importantly, he covers all of his crops to prevent bugs from getting at them.

Kelland and his family work the farm and hires a small staff to help out during the spring and summer months. Hired labour is the main financial outlay, but as clients pay $850 at the beginning of the season, this allows Kelland to factor in the cost of labour, seeds and additional expenses.

He is aiming for sales of $45,000 this year and believes that with increasing demand he will be able to double sales next year and devote all his time to the farm project. Until then, it must remain part-time while he still splits his hours in his consultancy profession.

His goal is to reach $250,000 in sales in six years and with customers on the waiting list he does not consider that overly ambitious. But before that happens, he says, he will have to expand his 52-acre farming operation on which he has set aside three acres for produce and 15 acres for livestock.“I have received great response to my products and I attribute that to people wanting to support the local economy and becoming more food conscience,” Kelland says.

A well-organized marketing campaign, spearheaded by flyers, was one of the keys to the inaugural success. “Knowing how to sell a product is crucial,” Kelland points out. He distributed flyers everywhere around town, a move he made when he helped his daughter start a home-cleaning business. Flyers are cost efficient, carry lots of information and can be used to target areas that, hopefully, will bring the highest response rate. And it worked this time.

“We sent out the flyers at 8 a.m. and started getting phone calls at 4 p.m.,” he says. After getting input from his customers, Kelland decided what to plant. His product list includes herbs, vegetables, as well as pork, eggs and chickens, beef and lamb.“The customer base is so important. I want people to know that they eat the same products I eat. If it is not good enough for me I won’t sell it to them.”

Kelland stresses one-on-one marketing and avoids comparing himself to a corporation because he feels it is important to come across as a someone who builds trust with clients.Delivering his baskets twice a week, starting in June and running until late October, Kelland runs a five-month operation.He has a few words of advice for anyone considering getting into the business.

“It is hard work ...growing is one thing, knowing how to sell the product is the challenge.”

So how did two simple farmers grow a nifty website, in our spare time no less? Looking for a way to do the same to support your small business? Check out our Grow a website page (or click on the 'Powered by: Solo Build It! graphic below) and be illuminated!