by Hugh Maynard, from March/April 2015 AgriSuccess
It’s not easy to get started as a young farmer, even when your family owns a farm. It’s a rarer feat to become established when you have to start from scratch.
But that’s what Véronique Bouchard and François Handfield have done in establishing Ferme aux petits oignons near Mont-Tremblant, Que. Starting from scratch is not an exaggeration given that the six hectares they purchased from a retiring dairy farmer was a hay field without any buildings.
Today, eight years after they first leased the patch of farmland just outside one of Quebec’s iconic tourist destinations, they are certified organic and producing 60 different types of vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers in the field as well as in greenhouses. They sell directly from the farm, and supply 400-plus community-supported agriculture (CSA) baskets and two farmers markets weekly with more than 160,000 pounds of produce.
There’s no success in any farming operation – whether with employees, parents or customers – without a passion for agriculture.
Their 2014 gross revenue topped $500,000 and they have eight full-time employees, hiring another three or more on a seasonal basis. They’re set for the next phase of development with a new two-story cold storage building completed in fall 2014. It also houses a garage, machinery shed and apartment for employees so they can keep their success story moving in the right direction.
Every farm has its unique story, and even though Handfield describes their becoming established in farming as a mix of circumstance (finishing school with student debt didn’t give them much room to manoeuvre for financing) and opportunity (a retiring farmer ready to part with the farm), he and Bouchard have identified six factors key in their starting-from-scratch success.
Management takeaways for every farm:
Both have science degrees – Handfield in bio-resource engineering and Bouchard in agronomy. As well, Bouchard earned a Masters in environmental science. “University gave us the theory, and continuing education has given us the technical expertise and practical experience, including learning from other farmers,” Handfield says, emphasizing the importance of training as a life-long pursuit as much for themselves as for the farm’s employees.
“Even if it’s easier because it’s in your character, it’s still something you need to develop. You need to acquire the intuition for entrepreneurship,” Bouchard says, adding that entrepreneurship is something they try to transmit to their employees as well. She notes entrepreneurship is not just about being bold and daring, but also about working with the numbers to be able to take calculated risks and have a long-term outlook for planning and projects.
3. Capable management
Just having an accountant is not enough, according to Bouchard: a farmer has to understand all the ins and outs of the operation to assess professional advice, whether it’s for accounting, taxes or the best choice of legal status for the farm operation. “When you put time into your management system, you get lots out,” she says. Handfield developed spreadsheets to help manage the complex task of organizing rotations, harvesting schedules and produce allocations for an organic farm with hundreds of customers.
In a role reversal from most operations, Handfield’s parents left their restaurant in Mont-Tremblant to work on the farm. Ghislaine and Léopold brought 31 years of experience managing a small business in the food industry, which has helped with everything from bookkeeping to construction planning. Still, the farm used commonly accessible financing strategies, starting with $500 and re-investing profits every year.
To an outsider, the farm model that the couple chose – intensive management of a small acreage with high-value sales directly to consumers – may seem novel, and Handfield sees innovation even beyond that. “It wasn’t just that we offered CSA baskets. Our key innovation was that we gave purchasers a choice,” he says. This helped them keep their customers, overcoming one of the common challenges of CSA baskets: buyers getting what’s available, not what they want. The farm’s website lists the different types of produce available during each season so consumers can see what’s ahead on the menu, from lettuce and green beans to potatoes and parsley.
Naturally, no farm has succeeded without the determination to overcome obstacles. Bouchard notes it took a year of working with regulators to separate the six hectares they planned to buy from the neighbouring dairy farm. The answer could just as easily have been no. The Commission, fearing that small lots of farmland can become unviable, generally had declined such requests. Ferme aux petits oignons was the first to succeed in this regard, and has proven the request to be well-justified.
They also persevered to successfully overcome the challenges presented by distributing produce baskets in towns.
The term has almost become a cliché among farm families, and Bouchard and Handfield don’t mince words on the need for it. They describe their sector as one that demands performance, even in their difficult climate. “It’s a clientele that wants the best quality at the lowest price,” Handfield says. “It’s tough work.”
There’s no success in any farming operation – whether with employees, parents or customers – without a passion for agriculture. A passion that’s obvious in both Bouchard and Handfield.