Forging deep bonds — one customer at a time

It’s a whole different world, but these Alberta farm entrepreneurs 
say direct marketing gets in your blood

Black Diamond rancher Ben Campbell doesn’t know what the future holds for his fledgling beef business — but he’s confident enough to leave his engineering career to pursue it.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Grazed Right Grass Fed Beef / Black Diamond

As one of four children of one of seven brothers who jointly own the family ranch, Ben Campbell knew a farming career was simply out of reach.

Even if he had the land base, the cost of starting a commercial-size herd is huge.

“Cattle are so expensive — to buy one cow-calf pair is around $3,000,” said Campbell. “My dad (who manages the family farm) has around $700,000 in cow-calf pairs — who’s going to give me a loan for $700,000?”

The third-generation farmer got a civil engineering degree and after a stint with Engineers Without Borders Canada, a job in Calgary. But an office job was never what he wanted, so two years ago he raised four cows on grass and sold them on Facebook.

“I think that’s why a lot of people get into direct marketing — you don’t need to be big from the start, said Campbell, who along with his wife Stephanie runs Grazed Right Grass Fed Beef.

They’ve since built their herd to around 50 cows — a slow, manageable growth for the young farmers.

“Direct marketing gives you a bit more control and security in the price,” he said. “I know when I buy these cattle, I can set my prices now and I can pre-sell them, and I know I’m not going to get hosed two years from now. I know they’ll always be worth something.”

The learning curve has been steep, though.

“For direct marketing, you’re doing a different product. That’s the sell of the product — that it’s different than whatever the conventional product is,” he said. “But when you produce something different, all of a sudden you’re outside of the realm of normal and it’s more difficult to figure out how to produce it.”

In his first year, for instance, Campbell butchered his yearling cattle at the age grain-finished cattle are — not realizing that that’s too young for grass-fed cattle.

“If you butcher a grass-fed animal at 18 months of age, likely it’s not going to be a good-tasting animal,” he said, adding that just under 30 months is the ideal age.

But getting help on the production end of things isn’t the big challenge.

“My whiskey budget is gigantic,” he said with a laugh. “I buy so much whiskey and beer and give it out to everyone who’s willing to give me some advice.”

However, marketing is another story.

“I have no trouble finding someone who’s excellent at giving me advice on what kind of bull to get or how to graze my grass,” he said. “But if I produce 40 head of cattle this year, how do I sell that? The guy who gives me grazing advice has no idea. They don’t do any of this stuff.”

So the priority these days is to find that expertise.

“The margins are so thin that I don’t have time to do trial and error. I just have to do it the right way.”

Part of that effort involves attending farmers’ markets — and it’s the personal contact with customers that has convinced him that there’s a bright future ahead.

“A lot of my customers don’t know what grass-fed beef is, but they don’t care because they’re buying me and buying into what I’m doing,” said Campbell. “They’re not buying grass-fed beef. They’re buying Ben’s beef. That’s how they see it.”

Seeds to Greens CSA / Just outside Calgary’s southeast boundary

Forging one-on-one connections with customers has helped Dick and Sue Pearson create Seeds to Greens, a successful community-supported agriculture program.
Forging one-on-one connections with customers has helped Dick and Sue Pearson create Seeds to Greens, a successful community-supported agriculture program. photo: Shannon Van Raes

That connection with customers was also the reason Dick and Sue Pearson switched from grain farming to a vegetable CSA five years ago — even though they weren’t growing veggies at the time.

“We were selling small square (hay) bales, and part of what I really enjoyed was that one-on-one contact with my customers,” said Dick. “It created loyalty with our customers, and there was a sense that we could get to know them, too.”

CSA stands for community-supported agriculture and the Pearsons had just five customers who pre-bought a weekly share of their garden vegetables that first year. Today, they produce around 25 crops for 105 customers.

“What we’re always trying to do is have variety for our CSA members. We have that many crops to take some of the risk out,” said Dick.

But that many crops keeps the couple, along with their small staff and numerous volunteers, running all season long.

“It is so many vegetables at so many different times,” said Sue. “Nobody wants a bunch of greens in one week, so it is about staggering everything. That’s so complicated.”

“It’s all about juggling the complexity,” added Dick.

That’s not the half of it. The couple learned about website design (seedstogreens.ca); the power of Facebook and Twitter; staging their thrice-weekly deliveries to Calgary drop-off points; dealing with customers’ holidays (their share goes to food banks); wash station regulations; and on and on.

They’ve tapped into a variety of provincial government-funded workshops, educational events, and online resources, but the magic ingredient to success is “a lot of work” and creating a strong connection with your customers, they say.

“People are asking questions about where their food comes from and what we do to grow that food,” said Dick. “It’s a fairly steep learning curve, but if you work hard, you’ll enjoy the one-on-one relationships that you create.”

Chinook Honey Company and Meadery / Okotoks

A convenient location and strong online presence has drawn agri-tourists to Chinook Honey and Meadery, owned by Cherie and Art Andrews.
A convenient location and strong online presence has drawn agri-tourists to Chinook Honey and Meadery, owned by Cherie and Art Andrews. photo: Shannon Van Raes

Twenty years ago, Art Andrews got a “little hobby” — a few hives of bees — that the commercial airline pilot figured would be a good way to relax.

The problem was he kept adding more hives. So he and wife Cherie built a store and what is now Chinook Honey Company and Meadery was born.

“It was only 12×12 — it was very tiny,” said Cherie. “We had room for expansion, but no real set order of expansion. It’s not necessarily a good business model, but it worked.”

Then in 2003, the couple joined a provincially funded tour of Quebec honey farms and meaderies. It was an eye-opening experience.

“There were some really good examples of on-farm value added, particularly aimed at honey, bees, and mead,” said Cherie. “That was our first experience with mead, and the idea of making this a small on-farm business really came to the fore.”

Two key learnings from the tour was that one size doesn’t fit all and making a good first impression is critical.

“The good thing about that tour was we could see the variety of sizes,” she said. “There were some that were really huge, but then there were some that were pretty small and humble. But all were done well.”

That helped the Andrews create a business that was the right size for their needs.

“You aren’t faced with a huge capital expenditure right away when you take everything in small steps.”

The Andrews started out selling their honey products — including mead — at farmers’ markets and in their small store.

“The farmers’ market system is a really good one to progress through. It gets you up and running,” said Cherie. “It’s not a long-term business model for somebody who’s planning to go really big to be selling at a farmers’ market. It’s way too labour intensive. When you are small and in that growing stage, it does work.”

Today, the couple sells roughly 20,000 bottles of mead each year. Roughly 90 per cent is sold in their on-farm store and they’ve worked hard to make it a tourist destination.

“Mead is a very unique item. It’s something you have to educate people about,” said Cherie. “If they have heard about it, they may have some misconceptions about how sweet it is.”

Tourism Calgary and TripAdvisor have been key resources for attracting customers, as have school tours, summer camps, and drop-in tours.

“It’s really been word of mouth,” she said. “We’re open basically year round, and people get to depend on you.”

They’ve also learned to keep an open mind.

“The first time somebody said I should be on Facebook, I said, ‘No way.’ But here I am,” said Cherie. “I’ve moved away from doing a lot of print. Facebook advertising is huge — so much easier and cheaper.”

Spirit Hills Honey Winery / Millarville

Ilse De Wit and Hugo Bonjean have grown a successful honey winery through “guerrilla marketing” — and plenty of wine tastings.
Ilse De Wit and Hugo Bonjean have grown a successful honey winery through “guerrilla marketing” — and plenty of wine tastings. photo: Shannon Van Raes

Ilse De Wit and Hugo Bonjean decided to do things a little differently when they opened Spirit Hills Honey Winery in 2012.

“Farmers’ markets are often seasonal, which is not a very sustainable way to run a business,” said Bonjean. “The other alternative was to turn it into a tourist place, which we didn’t want to do and the M.D. never would have allowed us to do. Automatically, by elimination, we were left with selling in stores.”

The couple got their very first four hives in 2011, but opening a honey winery was always their goal. Now, they have over 140 hives, and last year, the winery sold around 14,000 bottles of honey wine in liquor stores across central and southern Alberta.

Their goal for this year is 28,000 bottles.

“There’s lots of room within Alberta to grow,” said De Wit. “We definitely have people who are very excited about what we’re doing in Alberta.”

The couple had faith in their product, but getting into liquor stores was “the key” — which is why De Wit’s knees were shaking when the pair first approached the biggest liquor store in Calgary.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, we’ve spent all this money and made this huge investment — what if they don’t like it?’”

But her fears were all for naught.

“The first one they tried was a red, and they just couldn’t get over it,” she said. “Pretty much all of the liquor stores we went to with the wines brought them in.”

But getting a listing is the first step. The couple does as many wine tastings as they can, something Bonjean calls “guerrilla marketing.”

“If people taste it, they often buy it, and they keep buying it,” he said.

“We’re not really interested in just throwing our wines in the stores and hoping that they’re going to trickle out,” De Wit added.

“We feel a case of wine is not sold just by us getting it in the store. It isn’t sold until the customer takes it home.”

The couple has been “very strategic” in their growth, careful not to let demand outstrip supply.

“Last year, we had really good sales to 35 stores,” said Bonjean. “We’re now up to 82 stores, building up the consumer base in those markets. Next year, we should have more honey and more bees, and we’re getting four more wine tanks. So next year, we can probably handle more.”

But while connecting with customers in stores remains key, becoming a tourist destination is “not really what we’re about,” said Bonjean.

“People are welcome to visit, but we’re not going to specifically focus on that,” added De Wit.

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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