One in 20 Alberta farms are selling directly to their customers, and there’s room for plenty more
By Alexis Kienlen and Jennifer Blair
Glacier FarmMedia staff
The year Mark Gibeau started growing heritage grains, a book called The 100-Mile Diet had just come out. Suddenly it seemed everyone was using terms such as ‘local food’ and ‘locavore.’
It was good timing on Gibeau’s part, but would time be his friend? Would local food be one of those ‘here today gone tomorrow’ trends? Or would it prove to be a durable foundation for a long-lasting business?
The owner of Heritage Harvest needs only look at his order book to answer that question.
“There have been a ton more inquiries and more volume,” said Gibeau.
And the party isn’t over yet. In fact, it may be just getting started.
The 2016 Census of Agriculture found only 2,062 farms in Alberta were selling directly to consumers, which is only five per cent of total farms and far below the national average.
“When you talk about what the opportunity is, I would say it is the difference where we are today at five per cent versus the national average at 12 per cent,” said Christine Anderson, local food specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
And that’s despite a 60 per cent increase since the department began tracking local food production in 2004.
The dollar amount of farm products sold directly to Alberta consumers has gone up even faster, doubling since 2008. Last year an estimated $1.2 billion of local food was sold at farmers’ markets and on-farm shops or stands along with community-supported agriculture.
“Local food has moved from being considered somewhat of a niche to being very mainstream and in demand,” said Anderson.
Beef farms are the most common type of operation selling directly to consumers. The 2016 ag census also found that farmers selling direct tend to be younger and their sales volumes are small. (Even the big players aren’t very big. Only one in 10 has sales of more than $250,000.)
That pretty much describes Ben Campbell of Grazed Right, who started out with nine beef cattle five years ago. That’s not, of course, enough to make a living, but it allowed Campbell and wife Steph to start their operation, which has now grown to “medium” size.
“With direct marketing, you can have higher margins, so you can make some money without having millions of dollars,” he said.
Campbell and Gibeau are two of several direct marketers who talked to Alberta Farmer about how they got started. They also offered their insights for those thinking of jumping into this area of agriculture.
It is a very different way of earning a living, one that starts by understanding the people you want to sell to.
When Alberta Ag’s Explore Local team of extension specialists asks consumers about their interest in local food, their No. 1 concern is food safety, said Anderson. This is followed by an interest in local farms, and access to nutritious, high-quality, and tasty food.
“We know that consumers are interested in knowing more about their food and where it comes from,” she said. “Direct consumer marketing is an opportunity for consumers to meet farmers and have that conversation and educate one another about farming. It helps build awareness of the great work that Alberta farmers are doing to produce food.
“It’s that unique place where people who are buying food can come together and meet the people who are producing food.”
Local food is being sold throughout the province and no one geographic area dominates.
“There’s actually a really nice distribution across the province from north to south,” said Anderson. “You tend to see more clusters around large urban centres, and along the Highway 2 corridor. But you’re going to see farmers who are marketing direct to consumer, right from the Grande Prairie region to southern Alberta.”
The sector is also open to all.
The 2016 ag census found 35 per cent were new entrants to direct-to-consumer marketing. Most new entrants had small operations, with annual sales of less than $50,000.
“When you’re looking at new entrants into agriculture who are starting off, being able to start small and farm direct is a good way to do that because it allows you to get into farming on a smaller scale,” said Anderson. “We also know that the profitability and the margins are higher when you are marketing direct.”
This type of farming also has a higher percentage of female operators — 38 per cent versus 31 per cent in conventional operations.
But conventional producers are also direct marketing. Workshops put on by the Explore Local team attract many people who are interested in diversifying their operations.
“We’ve certainly seen that on the beef side,” noted Anderson. “When we had the BSE crisis, producers switched to direct marketing because it was a marketing channel that allowed them to survive through what was a really challenging time in the industry.”
Explore Local has a number of resources for those who are direct marketing or considering it. These include fact sheets and booklets on marketing, HR, finance, and regulations as well as recordings of 20 past webinars. (Both the audio and slides from these webinars — along with the app needed to run them — can be downloaded. That means those without high-speed internet on the farm can download them elsewhere, such as at a Wi-Fi hot spot, and play them at home later.)
These resources, along with upcoming events and webinars, can be found on the ‘Explore Local’ page on the Alberta Agriculture website.
This article was originally published on the Alberta Farmer Express.