Young farmers jump into direct marketing with on-farm stores

Ontario producers see the benefit of events and local food networks, and their hard work is paying off

Some young farmers are making direct-to-consumer sales an important part of their farm business plan.

They’re using creative thinking on events and bringing new skills to the expansion of their businesses.

Why it matters: Direct to consumer marketing can be an effective way for farmers to get more of the food dollar. But they have to have the right skills to make it happen.

Tamaran Mousseau and Emma Butler live in different parts of the province, but their stories are similar. Both have young families and both are venturing, with their husbands, into selling some of the beef they produce to friends and neighbours. They quickly found business opportunities in diversifying their offering and are now selling from newly established on-farm stores.

They are both also beneficiaries of a local food culture trend that they believe continues to grow.

Butler, who farms with her husband, Josh, lives on the border between Chatham-Kent and Lambton County near Croton. She says Chatham-Kent has been later than other larger urban areas in local food growth, but other farmers who have been marketing directly for longer tell her there’s something happening.

“Those who have roadside stands for 10-plus years, even though this growing season has been later, they say it’s taken right off and they’ve done better this spring than they have in years,” she says.

Josh and Emma Butler and their children Maiden and Layne at the new on-farm store.
photo: Emma Butler

The Butlers are one of the rare livestock farmers in Chatham-Kent, an area more known for its diversity of crop production.

J & E Meats (J for Josh, E for Emma) started last December, when they experimented with selling meat directly, mostly marketing it through Facebook. They offered quarters and half orders of beef animals. Many beef farmers have done that for years. They also offered delivery. Then they started filling requests for certain cuts.

“That grew quickly in four months and we really needed a retail location. We had customers asking for a retail location,” says Butler.

It was also challenging to deliver increasing amounts of meat as part of a growing business with two young children under the age of two. Their daughter Maiden is 1½ years old and son Layne is six months.

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The newly opened on-farm store is modelled after a barn, with lots of exposed wood. Butler calls it “super cute” and a “microbarn.”

Their motivation to move into direct marketing was also influenced by a lack of connection by consumers to their food.

“We were talking about the food culture, how consumers are kind of disconnected from food, they don’t know the food story, and are disconnected from local farmers. We wanted to give Chatham-Kent and surrounding area that food story.”

Butler is also becoming increasingly connected to other local food suppliers in her area and sells some of their products in her on-farm store, helping to magnify the reach for those small local food producers. Among them are pickles from the Pickle Station, a nearby family-owned cucumber farm, grading station and processor. They are also expanding the meat they offer, with their own lamb, eggs and soon, chicken.

Butler says they plan to keep the focus on their own produce in their store, while helping out others who are local, contributing to the building of a local food network.

Jessica Kelly, direct farm marketing specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, says sharing of products to sell, along with information is common among those who market local food.

She says that networking can happen on a very local basis, between farmers in a community, or on a regional basis, through a local food map. Those maps not only connect consumers with their food, but local sellers of food from the farm with each other.

Butler also runs a business called 519 Events and Promotions and that experience has helped her to build the marketing side of the business.

She uses Facebook and Instagram to promote J & E Meats and that’s not uncommon for her generation, says Cathy Bartolic, executive director of the Ontario Farm Fresh, the association of direct marketers of farm produce and experiences.

“It’s been really positive the last six years or so,” says Bartolic. “There’s more of the next generation coming back to the farm, or staying on the farm. They are able to see a career for themselves.

“A big part of it is the whole social media skills. It’s a relatively easy and inexpensive way to reach out to the consumer,” she says.

Bringing people to the farm

That outreach can take several forms and Tamaran and Matt Mousseau took it to a whole new level with a dinner on their beef farm.

Mousseau started providing meat to family. “Then it grew to friends, then friends of friends, then in 2017 we opened up to the public.”

They provided partial carcass orders, then 15-pound boxes of beef and then they started going to the Rockwood and Orangeville farmers markets. They farm near Hillsburgh.

The Mousseaus fed 137 people at the Farm to Fork Experience event where attendees ate a meal of locally produced and cooked food.
photo: Neverland Photography

In March they opened their on-farm store with the sales of individual cuts now available.

“It just keeps evolving and getting bigger and bigger,” she says. They have found that customers are now coming to buy year round and they are coming from further away.

They have Longhorn cattle, with their lean meat and also Hereford for those who want more marbling.

The Herefords also help with meat volume, as they can be double the weight of the slender Longhorns when ready for slaughter.

Their store is in a portion of their house they hadn’t yet renovated and which has a separate entrance. They can set particular hours.

“Not meeting people in my garage made this a way better option,” she says. They have a four-year-old son, Hazen.

Like the Butlers, Mousseau and her husband are continuing to feed the appetite for a local farm connection.

“I think people want to come out to the farm. They want to see the cattle out in the field and eating grass and living the comfortable life. A lot of people stop in who are just going out for a drive. They want a destination and we seem like a good one.”

Then they thought, what about inviting a whole lot of people to the farm? Their Farm to Fork Experience was born.

The Mousseaus hosted 137 people for a dinner on the farm June 19.

“It was absolutely fantastic,” she says.

“There were people sitting together who didn’t know each other and by the end of the night were exchanging phone numbers. It was a laid back, fun evening, with people enjoying each other’s company and the farm in general.”

Such an undertaking would be daunting for most farmers, but Mousseau has the connections to make it happen, including other local food providers. The chef lives nearby and he created a menu that included chicken from Brittney Livingston and Andrew Mazurka’s Calehill farm nearby and vegetables from Vandenbroek family farm. Even the alcoholic beverages were as local as possible. Flower arrangements were from a flower farmer near Orangeville.

The aim of the event was about awareness versus creating a new revenue stream as all profits went to a foodbank in Erin.

“That was important to us too. At that time of the year they don’t have as much cash flow as they normally would.”

The promotion of the event and word of mouth from it has, however, had positive business impacts.

“Some are now consistent shoppers every week since then. There were people around the corner who didn’t know we were here that we now see as weekly customers.

“It’s about letting people know the other farmers who are accessible to them as well. We didn’t go into it thinking what will it do just for us. We really thought about the general consumer.”

There were some gut-check moments for her.

“I’m not going to lie, I was so nervous about how things were going to go. You’re opening your farm to a vast amount of people. It was a big deal.”

The event has contributed to the local food network in her area, better connecting farmers who market to consumers directly.

It was also successful enough that they are going to try it again, with a fall-themed event on Oct. 4.

Bartolic says there are no firm numbers on how many young people are direct marketing to farmers, or how many farmers young or old market directly. But the Ontario Farm Fresh members group has been steadily growing, as the local food trend becomes an established part of the market.

Tamaran Mousseau’s hints for hosting on-farm events

photo: Neverland Photography

  • Make sure everyone you’re working with is 100 per cent committed.
  • Stick to your vision. Make it what you want and need it to be.
  • A well-organized website means fewer requests for information.
  • Make sure to remind attendees that they are coming to a farm — heels are not a great idea and there will be bugs.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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