A young Nova Scotia couple, who has pioneered a profitable direct-marketing system for tonnes of organic vegetables, say they hope to expand their program that provides a strong, dependable market, and one-on-one contact with consumers.
Josh Oulton and Patricia Bishop, who farm at Port Williams (about an hour from Halifax) say the Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) marketing program they launched in 2009 is working better than they had hoped.
Oulton and Bishop, who were earlier this year named Atlantic Canada’s 2010 Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF), say the CSA program, through which they market only a portion of vegetables grown on their 400- acre farm, provides a reliable, profitable return and also a great personal connection with their customers.
“It is rewarding to know and get feedback from the people who are consuming your products,” says Oulton. “We make deliveries every week, and often our customers call us, or they visit the farm. They can look at the crops (in season) and I can show them, for example, ‘these are the tomatoes you will be getting in your box at some point during the year.’ It is nice to have that relationship.” They also keep in contact with customers through a newsletter and a website ( www.taprootfarms.ca) with regular blog updates.
CASH FLOW AND STABILITY
Aside from the personal contact, one other important aspect of CSA is the stability it provides to their vegetable business. It provides an early cash flow, and with a set number of customers they know how much product to produce.
Under their CSA program, consumers can take out a paid membership. For that half-year or annual membership they get a box of fresh vegetables every week. Oulton and Bishop’s CSA program has about 400 members. Some vegetable boxes are delivered directly to homes and others are dropped off at six depots set up in Halifax, where members pick up their week’s supply of produce.
“We usually try to include seven different types of vegetables, in season, in each box,” says Oulton. “All boxes have the same amount and same mix. If you are a family of two people it probably means you have a lot of vegetables to eat and if you were a family of eight people, you’d probably need two boxes,” he says.
On their 400-acre vegetable farm about 80 acres have been devoted to organic vegetable production. That 80 acres is called Taproot Farms. It is primarily the Taproot Farms vegetables that go into the CSA program. Memberships are paid in advance in early spring, or on a quarterly basis. “We know how many members we have which helps in knowing how much to grow,” says Oulton. “And being prepaid we have the cash flow to cover the input costs of producing the crop.”
DIVERSITY IN MARKETS
The CSA program is one of three marketing outlets Oulton and Bishop have for the wide range of vegetables they produce. Along with a 30-acre apple and cherry orchard, they have about 290 acres of conventionally farmed vegetables that include sweet corn, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, squash, brussels sprouts and several other vegetables.
Most of the vegetables are marketed through a wholesale company, King’s Produce, which is owned by Bishop’s family. King’s Produce supplies vegetables to larger retailers in Nova Scotia including Sobey’s and Loblaws stores. The third marketing outlet is a large roadside stand called Noggin’s Corner, which is also owned by Bishop’s family. Noggin’s Corner sells directly to consumers and also supplies vegetables wholesale to other roadside stands. They employ 30 people, who are mostly seasonal workers, with five full-time employees.
HOW THEY GOT STARTED
Oulton and Bishop bought their first vegetable farm in 2004, starting with about 150 acres, with a desire to provide healthy, delicious food. Farming gives them opportunities to embrace challenges, and enjoy the independence to make decisions, adapt and grow.
Oulton chose farming for his lifelong career from a very young age, while Bishop took a little longer journey back to the farm.
They both grew up on farms, and for Oulton there was never any other career choice. He spent much of his youth working with his grandparents. And at the age of five, he’d wait at the end of the lane for the local dairy farmer to pick him up to spend the day driving around in the silage truck. He attended the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (NSAC) and worked as a herdsman until he and Patricia bought their own farm.
And although Bishop grew up on a farm, she didn’t initially have plans to return to her roots. She also attended NSAC and then Acadia University for a bachelor of education. And after a short time in Western Canada, working on a grain farm in the B. C. Peace River region, the couple returned home to Nova Scotia to raise a family on a farm.
The appeal of local agriculture and a desire to provide a way of life that feels great and generates enough money to provide for their family has been a strong driver for Josh and Patricia. When they made the decision to farm organically, they thought the organic produce would sell itself. But it didn’t. And that’s when they realized the need for a significantly different business plan if they were going to continue farming organically. That plan hinged on the launch of their Community Shared Agriculture model in February 2009.
Josh and Patricia have established clear, defined goals for their operation. And together with their three children, Izaak, Lily and Frank, they are living their dream to farm for themselves, their children and the health of their communities.
LeeHartisafieldeditorforGrainewsin Calgary.Contacthimat403-592-1964orby emailat [email protected]