Online sales can help drive specialty crop products

Camelina is being tested in Ontario to see if it works in crop rotations here

More often than not, the first instinct of consumers today is to head online when they’re looking to buy something.

That’s less the case when it comes to the traditional agricultural market of inputs and supplies. And it certainly wasn’t on Jack Grushcow’s mind when his company, Linneaus Plant Sciences Inc., first discovered somewhat by accident that horse owners were an ideal target market for the new camelina oil they were developing.

Now, he’s firmly convinced online marketing and selling is the way of the future, not just for Linneaus but for agriculture in general.

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“We know that traditional media is dying and people are buying things on Amazon, searching on Google, and looking at their Facebook feeds, so you have to switch gears to get with the program,” Grushcow said.

Why it matters: According to VL Omni, Canadian businesses sold $136 billion in goods and services online in 2017, a 42 per cent increase over the year before. In 2018, estimates Statista.com, 22.5 million Canadians are expected to do some manner of digital shopping.

Camelina is a source of petroleum-replacing oils and British Columbia-based Linneaus is a global leader in camelina development, creating new varieties that are high yielding and disease resistant. The resulting oil from the crop is high in omega-3 fatty acid, which is what first caught the attention of Canada’s equine industry.

The oil gives horses’ coats a nice glossy sheen, which is particularly important for competitive equestrians. It also encourages healthy hair growth, and improves horses’ gastrointestinal health.

woman grooming horse

The oil gives horses’ coats a nice glossy sheen, which is particularly important for competitive equestrians. It also encourages hair growth and improves horses’ gastrointestinal health.
photo: jari hindström/Getty Images

Grushcow realized camelina oil’s equine potential after he noticed several customers ordering bulk camelina oil for equine products. Today, the company has its own branding and online marketing channels to sell its own products directly to the horse industry through the internet.

It was Grushcow’s son Adam who was working with someone who had quite a bit of experience in Facebook marketing that helped bring the products online. Linneaus uses Shopify as its online store platform, markets primarily through Facebook, and also partners with Amazon for sales and fulfillment.

“Our primary focus is advertising through Facebook. We expand our ad placements to Instagram as well and the content is consistent across both platforms,” said Adam. “Our social media team handles all posting through our social media channels and the focus of those posts is engagement, versus our advertising campaigns that focus on generating online sales.”

For Grushcow, what’s exciting is the potential market growth offered by data mining – encouraging people to buy and monitoring their online behaviour to see how many view a product versus actually making a purchase, or simply leave an item in their shopping basket without completing the checkout.

“All of these things can be developed and optimized if you know what you’re doing. That’s the exciting frontier, mining people’s online behaviour to see what they might be interested in,” he added.

Equally intriguing for him is how Linneaus has been able to marry the old technology of traditional plant breeding with 21st century tools of online sales and marketing that aren’t standard issue in the agricultural business world.

He anticipates using social media to help the company find contract growers too, as Linneaus’ need for camelina acres increases in tandem with its growing online sales.

The oil’s biggest application is in aquaculture as a fish oil replacement in Atlantic salmon production. Camelina meal has been approved as a feed ingredient for poultry, replacing up to 12 per cent of meal in broiler and 10 per cent in laying hen diets. It can also be used in swine and beef cattle rations.

The crop is mainly grown in Western Canada, but researchers from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and the University of Guelph have been running trials to evaluate camelina’s performance in Ontario and how it might fit into a typical Ontario crop rotation.

Camelina lends itself well to inter- and relay-cropping as it can be planted in late September, early October or in late March to early April, depending on the variety selected.

According to OMAFRA industrial crops specialist Jim Todd, camelina has a shorter growing season, and more frost and drought tolerance than its fellow brassica, canola. Pest management can be an issue, though, with few product registrations, as is lack of local oil extraction capacity – camelina grown in western Canada is currently shipped to the U.S. for crushing.

– With files from Oilseed Innovation Partners and AgInnovation Ontario.

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