By Lorraine Stevenson
It was a bad bout of fusarium in 2000 that laid the foundation for a Manitoba organic sector success story.
Back then the DeRuyck family was farming conventionally and they’d made their usual inputs in the spring — seed, fertilizer, spray — only to be left with a disappointing harvest and bills to pay.
It caused the family to begin dabbling in organic production, and ultimately resulted in Top of the Hill Farm becoming a value-added processor, Dan told the recent Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Development value added conference in Portage la Prairie, Man.
Farmers are always asking what kind of market is there. We have had a customer base for over 16 years. We know what the demand is. – Dan DeRuyck
He said the reality of taking on risk by relying on expensive inputs with no guarantee of a harvest put their farm on an economic treadmill, and going organic and taking on value-added processing let them step off it.
“We were just finding under the conventional system, there was more outlay of cash and margins were not getting better and yields weren’t getting better either,” he said. “We knew we had to do something different.”
Dan’s mother and father, Gerard and Marie, began taking the farm organic the following season. Gerard broke 25 acres of pasture and sowed oats, the beginning of the organic transition process. Next door Dan and his wife Fran opted to take the same approach. Dan had been sickened by the sprays they’d used, but as much as anything it was the desire to control their own economic fate that piqued their interest.
It was all just the start of an evolution that required a lot of mental preparation, learning and trial and error, he said.
“We weren’t exactly sure what to try, or the best direction to go,” he said, adding the family just understood they needed to “see the writing on the wall.”
But by 2006 the combined 700 acres of both generations of DeRuycks were certified organic and they’d also started to sell small volumes of value-added grains too, after approaching a few bakeries with organic flour they’d milled themselves with a small table-top grain mill.
Their switch to organic was one change. But on-farm processing wasn’t on their minds from the start, Dan said.
Fast forward to 2016 and Top of the Hill Farm, located just south of Treherne, is widely known for it’s value-added variety of grains and oil seeds, cleaned and processed at a commercial scale on-farm plant and packaged as retail-ready bags of organically grown grains, flour and flakes, sold in volumes according to customers’ needs.
They sell to a dozen bakeries in Manitoba including one in B.C. as well as to a steadily growing retail network of independent grocery stores. Their sunflower seeds are sold to the Tall Grass Bakery at the Forks in Winnipeg where the bakery cold presses them into a popular sunflower oil sold in 500 mL bottles.
That switch to organic was essentially their own push back to the ‘get big or get out’ approach, says Dan.
“I didn’t want to get too far into debt,” he said.
That’s the approach with their venture into further processing too. They eventually replaced that home-use grain mill with the larger and more expensive equipment to mill and flake, but only after steadily building up a market and carefully pencilling out the returns they’d receive for all the extra cleaning, grinding, packaging and transporting they were doing.
What they didn’t invest heavily in was fancy packaging or sophisticated marketing, says Dan. They didn’t even sell at farmers’ markets.
“We just didn’t have the time to do that kind of marketing.” he said.
Rather they took their retail flour products on the road, pitching them to smaller independent stores, and sticking with a very simple package — a clear plastic bags affixed with a nutrition label and the farm’s name on it. They stuck with a simple pitch too.
“We just said ‘we’re organic farmers and we process flour and flakes,” says Dan.
They chose to not to try to get their product on the shelves of larger retail grocers too, uninterested in facing the extra financial risk and complications a scale up for that level of supply would involve.
Instead, they kept on the direct-marketing route, joining groups like Harvest Moon Local Foods, a network of 14 other smaller regional farms and selling to buying clubs in Winnipeg and through western Manitoba.
It has been relationship marketing from day one, says Dan.
“A lot of companies spend a lot on advertising. But once you get to know a person’s name that has way more value than anything else.”
Ultimately, their simpler, straightforward, and slower approach paid off, allowing them to build a farm business in a way that kept pace with their own production and capacity to handle growth.
A decade and half since deciding to go organic, the DeRuycks are now preparing for further expansion of their processing plant, and have begun to contract production from other farmers.
“Farmers are always asking what kind of market is there,” said Dan. “We have had a customer base for over 16 years. We know what the demand is.”