In 1981, as a young Steve Cooper helped his brother drag the little red wagon laden with sweet corn to the end of the lane he never dreamt that he would end up as one of Ontario’s Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF).
But it was those early experiences of selling the farm produce, that he helped his father grow and then market direct to customers, that led him and his wife Lisa to evolve into the diversified farming operation they now own and operate in Zephyr, about an hour north of Toronto.
Exceptional customer service is one of main factors that led judges to name the Coopers as 2010 Outstanding Young Farmers for Ontario. It’s a theme that has taken them from selling sweet corn at a roadside stand to providing weekly food boxes to 500 families in the greater Toronto area through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative.
The Coopers are also regular vendors at four local farmers markets. Although the markets were very successful for the Coopers, they were increasingly thinking about how they would like to attract customers to the farm itself.
BRING ING CUSTOMERS TO THE FARM
In 2005, they added a 100-acre corn maze to bring people to the farm. A couple of years later they added an on-farm store, where visitors can buy an assortment of home-grown vegetables, fruit and goat meat, which they began raising in 2000, having decided to get out of cattle.
Taking a wagon ride around the farm with Steve gives him the opportunity to tell the story behind the food that his customers are buying, and it was during one of those wagon rides that a chance comment from a customer led to the community-supported agriculture scheme that the farm now offers.
“A person stood up and said ‘this is awesome, how do I become part of the farm,’” says Lisa. “That was basically a light bulb moment. Steve had been thinking about getting involved in CSA for years, and when he realized that people were willing to give him money right then and there to grow products for them for the following season, that made us take the step into community-supported agriculture.”
THELO CAL FOO D MOVEMENT
The Coopers have definitely been at the leading edge of a growing local-food movement. “Local food and CSA’s aren’t for everyone,” says Lisa. “But there are a lot of people who are trying to make a better decision for the health of themselves and their families.”
Raising two children, son Trenton (14) and daughter Cayla (15), the Coopers are well aware of the importance of their own family health, and that plays a role in the way they farm. They grow as much as possible without the use of pesticides or herbicides.
“My kids pick food from the fields and eat it every day,” says Lisa. “I don’t want there to be anything out there that could hurt them or Steve. But it’s also important to get a crop. If we are going to risk serious damage of a crop where there is a huge investment, like the strawberries, we are going to spray.”
The fact that the Coopers have learned how to view their farm as a business is something that has made a huge difference to their operation over the past 10 years. And that process began by re-educating themselves to start thinking out of the box, says Lisa.
Steve and Lisa both took an Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program, and then Steve followed it up with the Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management program at the George Morris Centre at Guelph. “That really made him open his eyes to running a proper farm business,” says Lisa. “He learned what factors to be looking at, how things should be progressing, and what bottom line to look for.”
Attention to the business side of the farm means they have an eye to future expansion. The goal is to have 1,000 weekly customers for the CSA within five years. They have already taken the next step by adding additional storage capacity, including a large walk-in cooler and a couple of barns, so they can provide a winter share for CSA customers in addition to the summer share.
“Our summer share is 23 weeks from the first week in June to the first week in November,” says Lisa “And last year we added a winter share from mid-November to the first week in May. It has worked out quite well and we have made it bigger again this year again. We want to keep growing and implementing new ideas.”
It was one of the Coopers’ customers that nominated them for the OYF competition, something that makes them very proud. “It’s really important to be able to make more people aware of what is going on in the agricultural industry,” says Lisa.