Edda sat at my kitchen table, the tears streaming down her face. A young innovator from the Netherlands, she seemed to have it all — a successful business, access to land, her own cattle herd, and a fabulous boyfriend.
What could be the problem?
Like many young and passionate innovators I’ve met and mentored in agriculture, there comes a time when the reality of the relationships in which you live kick in. And when it does, it can take the wind from a person’s sails, leaving our future agricultural leaders confused, hurt and unsure. Pulling the rug out from young folks in farming is not new — I hear it every week from every corner of the world.
In the case of Edda (not her real name), the production portion of the farm was to be sold to her by her parents, with a similar verbal promise to the urban sibling to have a home given to her, also on the same property. The details were spelled out and the papers were to be signed and all three parties were in full agreement. Dad and sister did not expect things to change, farming was tough and Edda could have it.
Knowing that there was little in the future in selling apples en masse to be juiced, Edda worked with retail leaders to find out where apples could be sold at a premium. Then she set out to develop a premium apple and set up a trading company to sell her apples.
The research project on apples yielded some fresh and startling results. Without changing the species or location of the trees, it was discovered that the apples on the sunny side of the tree had higher sugar content than the apples on the shade side. Leaving the sunny-side apples on just a little longer resulted in a premium fresh eating apple. Those apples were sold individually in a beautiful presentation through her trading company. The retail price was 10 euros per apple (about C$14), with many of these apples being shipped to Japan.
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On a Dutch farm, depending on your location, it is not unusual to have 2,000 persons pass by on their bicycles or cars every day. After looking at market models here in Canada, Edda also started a value-added enterprise: apple pie production. The pies were sold at the farm gate, her trading company marketed the juicing apples and what weren’t sold were enjoyed by her beloved cattle.
Soon Edda had an established business with sales of one million euros, and she began adding other fruit production and further expanding her markets.
This young woman was clearly a success. And that was the problem.
Suddenly, sister had a renewed interest in the orchard and wanted her share of the profits and convinced her dad that she was right. Long story short — Edda was told the deal was now off and Dad would take things back in hand.
From a moral and ethical perspective, this is a tragic case. From a business perspective these manoeuvres are devastating. The company cannot support a three-way split nor do the other two parties have the contacts to sell the apples in a value model.
Edda wisely started the trading company outside the farm. It was her work and her relationships; her risk and her reward. But not delivering on apple contracts was not an option. The stress was palatable.
Edda found apples in other orchards to sell to keep the contracts afloat, while her family discovered it was a lot of work to differentiate product. In the interim, Edda developed an international presence and won the nation’s highest award in innovation. Eventually it became clear to the family that they could not do what Edda did and she was successful without them. The discussion was renewed. Sister got her house and Edda bought her orchard.
The tears Edda shared with me that day were not for her own failure — she most certainly was not a failure — they were from shock and the loss of support from the people she loved and respected. Greed overpowered common sense, commitment, and the future of the business. Edda was a victim to it.
Not one to be derailed, Edda continues to grow her business and is looking out at her orchards and processing facilities surrounded by a lovely stone wall that gives her a sense of private space and says to the family on both sides, ‘This I did alone. I have passion, drive, intelligence, connections, ideas and commitment. You cannot have all of me.’
On farms in every nation, young passionate innovators grieve when family fails and not every family comes back to the table. When they do, it is important to put it in writing, set boundaries, and define yourself inside and outside of the farm.