Beck Farms took an unorthodox approach to getting into the wholesale market when it was starting out in the mid-1980s — by selling directly to consumers.
“We actually went to a few small farmers’ markets and had people try our carrots,” said Shelley Bradshaw, who owns Beck Farms with husband Rod.
“We would say, ‘If you’d like to have our carrots again, go to your local Co-op or IGA and ask your produce manager for them.’
“We ended up in every major wholesaler in Western Canada that way. It worked really well.”
It worked so well, in fact, that Bradshaw went to more farmers’ markets, but she also convinced her neighbours to grow other products so they would have more than just carrots on the table to sell. As demand for their products grew, the group began to see a different way of marketing their produce, a way to bypass the wholesale market altogether.
And in that roundabout way, Innisfail Growers was born.
“Over the years, it became so successful that we actually quit doing wholesale altogether,” said Bradshaw. “We only do direct marketing at farmers’ markets through Innisfail Growers now.”
Innisfail Growers is a co-operative of five farm families from the Innisfail area that work together to grow and direct market farm fresh produce and preserves.
“We have everything from asparagus to zucchini,” said Bradshaw. “If you can grow it in central Alberta, we have it.”
Working with a group has allowed each individual farm to specialize in one or two products, said Bradshaw. That lightens the workload and prevents competition within the group.
“We all grow something different. If I grow carrots, nobody else can grow carrots for Innisfail Growers,” she said.
“We’re each able to grow specific products and do a better job of each product, rather than trying to grow everything.”
Today, Innisfail Growers operates year round, sending staff to more than 20 markets across central Alberta during the busy summer season and to the Calgary Farmers’ Market four days a week all year. A staff of roughly 30 people man the Innisfail Growers booths, but the demand is there to justify it, said Bradshaw.
“We’ve noticed a shift in the last few years. Consumers really want to know where their food comes from and to be able to talk to the farmer,” she said.
“We only sell what we grow, and consumers really respond to that. If we don’t make, bake, or grow it ourselves, it’s not in our booth. Customers know it came from our farms.”
And they’re able to charge a premium for that, she added.
“We’ve found the profitability to be much better selling direct to consumer when you don’t have the wholesaler in the middle,” said Bradshaw.
That wasn’t always the case, said Elna Edgar, owner of Edgar Farms.
“Way back then, there wasn’t such a thing as this whole locally grown movement,” said Edgar, who produces asparagus (among other things) for Innisfail Growers.
“That was a challenge — convincing people that our product was indeed worth that extra money.”
Edgar always knew she would need to sell direct to consumers when she began growing asparagus in 1986 with husband Doug.
“Because we chose asparagus, which is a very unusual crop and the labour is so expensive, we knew that we would have to charge a premium over what the grocery stores charge if we were going to make a go of it,” she said.
In those early days, farmers’ markets were a testing ground to see what kind of demand there might be for locally grown asparagus sold at a premium. Soon, Edgar saw that customers loved the sweet flavour of her asparagus, and joining Innisfail Growers in 1993 was the logical next step in increasing her reach.
But it hasn’t always been easy, Edgar added
“Growing vegetables and going to farmers’ markets — it’s not for the faint of heart,” said Edgar. “You’ve got to have a lot of determination and really believe in what you’re doing.”
“It’s a lot more work,” she said. “It’s a whole lot easier to ship a trailer-load of carrots to a wholesaler than it is to go to 10 different farmers’ markets.”
There’s also a trade-off between being at the markets and being on the farm.
“If you’re at the market, you’re not at home growing, so you have to decide where your priorities are,” said Edgar. “Should you be at the market selling, or should you be at home doing a better job of growing the product?”
Innisfail Growers celebrated 25 years together last year — an impressive milestone because farmers traditionally prize their independence. And while the moral support within the group is a plus, it can be tricky navigating the compromises that come with working with a group.
“With five different personalities, of course there are challenges,” Edgar said with a laugh.
“If you’re a person who likes to work on your own, this probably isn’t for you,” Bradshaw added. “It’s not going to work for everyone, but it’s worked well for us.”
That’s because everyone involved in Innisfail Growers understands that the group is stronger together, said Edgar.
“We’ve been doing this for so long and we’re all so heavily into it that we need it to succeed. It’s such a big part of all of our businesses,” she said.
“You’ve got to have the attitude that what’s good for the group is good for you in the long run.”