Gwen Simpson left a successful career as an international trainer, consultant and business owner in 2004 to buy 160 acres of land in northwestern Alberta.
She wanted to start an herb, flower and vegetable farm.
Today she’s owner of Inspired Market Gardens at Carvel, where she and her husband Pete raise culinary herbs and herb plants, edible and heritage flowers, and gourmet greens and vegetables which they sell through their on-farm country store, at farmers markets, and to high-end restaurants.
Simpson knows trading her heels for a hoe isn’t all that unusual anymore.
More and more Canadians – “a real cross section” – says Simpson, are setting up some kind of business to direct-market an agricultural product. Many are using it as a way to diversify conventional farm income. But it’s also luring urbanites back to rural Canada. In her case, the draw was a whole new way of life.
Simpson grew up on a mixed farm in B. C.’s Fraser Valley but spent her entire adult life off the farm. She’s from that generation that didn’t encourage their daughters to farm. Nor did it leave land to girls either, she said.
“That’s changed,” she said.
“And then there’s women like me now who have a little bit of money and are getting close to retirement and are saying ‘I think I’ll do this.’”
She certainly didn’t pursue this for the money, she told the convention. She did it to have a better life. She made more money at her job. The difference now is “I love what I’m doing,” she told a direct farm marketing conference in Brandon, Manitoba in February.
What works, what doesn’t
The recipient of a 2007 Best Practices Renewal Award from the Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Simpson now takes her know-how on the road to encourage and inspire other direct marketers.
Her presentation detailed the ins and outs of successful direct marketing, focusing on ways to combine best practices with innovation based on good market research.
Don’t start something simply because you know how, then pursue a market when you have something to sell, she stressed.
And don’t keep doing something if there’s no money in it. Simpson said she started out hoping to grow dried flowers, then realized she’d never compete against mass market product found in large craft stores.
She also recently quit growing edible flowers for gourmet salads. She loved growing them, but it wasn’t until a visitor to her farm one day who outright asked “are you making any money at this?”made her stop and think. No, she realized, it was actually costing her.
What’s been more successful has been their demonstration and production gardens, U-pick flowers, greenhouse and a small on-farm store selling Canadian gourmet food and herbal products.
She’s also learned not to apologize for her prices, and has adopted the view that “if nobody’s complaining then it’s too cheap.”
Simpson’s also helped found “cluster marketing groups” (see sidebar) that now helps attract more customers to hers and other agri-tourism businesses in her region. Group marketing has far more reach and appeal with consumers than a solitary business, she said.
Labour shortages being what they are, be realistic about what your time allows, keep a sharp eye on cash flow, and watch infrastructure costs, was other advice Simpson offered. [email protected]