Farm-owned stores a growing trend in food marketing, says Andrew Coppolino

The food landscape, made up of many niche markets in southwestern Ontario, is evolving. Growth in business for on-farm stores reflects that, writes food columnist Andrew Coppolino.

Farmers expand skillset to include retail operations, as economies and markets shift

Direct from the farm to a farm-owned retail outlet on the premises is a growing trend that bypasses traditional food-chain marketing. (Hacienda Sarria/ Twitter)

The discovery of a single cow in northern Alberta infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in 2003 shut down the Canadian beef industry and resulted in a radical change in how Ayr cattle farmers Mark and Cindy Gerber did business.

"We had left the corporate world and were going to sell our cattle. A month later, BSE hit and the value of our herd was zero. So we put a freezer in the garage and starting selling friends'  lamb and chicken," said Cindy Gerber of the Oakridge Acres Country Meat Store

That was the start of the on-farm store that is now a mini-farmers' market.

The Gerbers sell their certified organic Black Angus beef and bison and a wide range of products, from proteins, eggs and fresh produce to cheese and baked goods from neighbouring producers and colleagues — all clearly labelled as to which farm they come from.

The food landscape, made up of many niche markets in southwestern Ontario, is evolving, and growth in the business at on-farm stores reflects that.

At Mosborough Country Market on Wellington Road 32 in Guelph, necessity was a similar mother of invention for the fourth generation farming family. 

"Years ago, there were changes to the dairy quota system, and alternative revenue streams were needed," said Mosborough manager Matt Oxley, who married into the Dickieson family.

Mosborough started selling corn out of a drive shed in the late 1990s and business grew.

"The shed was renovated and more products added for sale. We found it was better to work with our farm neighbours than try to do everything ourselves," Oxley said. 

While such on-farm stores run by farm families aren't new, they are seeing increased business in Waterloo Region, Wellington County and elsewhere.

There are several other farms doing similar business. For instance, Barrie's Asparagus Farm.

These smaller venues — started by farm families who continue to farm — offer easy parking access, nearby location for specific communities, are often less congested and open more hours than traditional farmers' markets. And they highlight local products and partnerships between farmers and growers. 

Both Oakridge Acres and Mosborough buy directly from farmers. Gerber calls Oakridge a "fair trade" meat store.

"We ask the farmers what they need to make a living," said Gerber.

In-town or out?

Howard and Elsie Herrle started selling corn and other produce they grew in their fields out of their garage in mid-1960s.

Business was more than brisk on Erb's Road, and by the late-1980s the farm family had to make a decision, according to Trevor Herrle-Braun. 

"The township said there's too much traffic. Either build a parking lot or an on-farm market," said Herrle-Braun.

So they built a store, Herrle's Country Farm Market, and every 10 years have added to the business when they've gotten busier. That's especially true, he adds, as the City of Waterloo grows westward toward the store. 

Like Mosborough and Oakridge Acres, products that Herrle's doesn't grow are purchased directly from local producers: it's a connection that their consumers want regarding their food.

"It's an element of trust that there's a family behind what they're buying. It's something we'd feed our own family," Herrle-Braun said.

Like the other country markets, Mosborough purchases goods at the Elmira Produce Auction Cooperative — another business that grew out of the BSE catastrophe — and visit local farms for produce they don't grow. 

Strom's Farm and Bakery is a similar operation mere minutes down the road from Mosborough.

Field is growing

These businesses are increasing and much of the growth comes through word-of-mouth, as well as the quest by more and more shoppers to know where their food comes from.

The on-farm store is one step closer than a stall at the farmers' market.

"Over the past few years, our customer base has expanded," said Oxley. "We have served a middle-aged and older clientele, but a more, younger people have been visiting with their families." 

Martin's Family Fruit Farm, adjacent to St. Jacobs Market, starting selling apples off the family farm over four decades ago.

At that time, the store was the drive shed, said Steve Martin, co-owner and manager of on-farm store operations.

"In the early 1970s, we put a sign at the end of the lane, and we've never really stopped doing that," he said.

In addition to apples, the family was growing much of its own produce then but gradually specialized in apples and now source local products for the store from farms they know.

They're clear about where the food comes from and their customers know that, Martin said.

"They like the fact that it's always from Ontario," said Martin.

While their current retail business is a smaller percentage than Martin's national wholesale business. 

Martin has seen a steady increase in store customers buying local fruit preserves, maple syrup, cheeses, dairy and whatever Ontario fruits and vegetables, much of it from the Elmira auction, that are in season year round.

They've been buying from their blueberry grower in Blenheim for over 40 years.

"The store allows us to stay in touch with the consumer," Martin said.

There has been an increased emphasis on the on-farm store by the company since Martin's left the St. Jacobs Market in 2011.

Customer traffic to the store dictated that the market numbers just didn't work given labour costs and time for setting up and tearing down a large market stand, according to Martin.

"Today, our store sales are very close to the combined sales of the store and the market back then and with quite a bit less in labour costs," he said.