Farm business management program helps focus Ontario sweet corn business

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By Lilian Schaer

Snyder’s Sweet Corn in Caledonia isn’t like most other direct farm marketers in Ontario. Instead of growing a season’s worth of crops from spring asparagus to fall pumpkins, they’ve chosen to concentrate on a single crop and focus their energies on building their sweet corn business.

Brenda and Tom Snyder dedicate 85 of their farm’s 160 acres to growing fresh market sweet corn. About two years ago they began talking about moving away from servicing multiple area corn stands to selling 100 per cent of their sweet corn directly from their own farm stand location.

It was Tom’s father who had started with sweet corn in 1981, selling to a predominately wholesale market. The Snyder family sold their dairy herd in 1997, and Tom and Brenda took over the sweet corn business from Tom’s parents, Charlie and Lily, in 2003.

As the local food movement grew, the Snyders moved away from volatile wholesale markets, opening corn stands in their local communities, selling at the St. Jacob’s market, and servicing fruit stands in the Niagara Region. It was a lot of work, though, and as their local customer base grew, their transition to retail on the farm began.

Challenging weather and labour shortages in 2017 caused them to fast track their five-year plan into a one-year transition into on-farm retail.

“Now, after not quite 40 years in the business, we are 100 per cent retail at our single farm stand location. We stick to our mandate of “fresh picked today” and anything that doesn’t sell the day it gets picked is donated to Hamilton Food Share,” Brenda says. “We’re a real family farm – Tom’s dad is still a part of the operation and we rely on our extended family, including our seven children, to help make this work.”

It was at a Farm Credit Canada event that they heard a presentation about farm business management by Rob Hannam, President of Synthesis Agri-Food Network and lead instructor of the Agri-Food Management Institute’s (AMI) popular Advanced Farm Management Program (AFMP).

His talk made them start thinking about their farm, and the importance of finding a direction and creating a road map for their business. So when AMI launched an AFMP last year specifically adapted to the needs of Ontario’s direct farm marketing operations, Brenda and Tom became part of the program’s first cohort.

“We like to do things as a couple on the farm, but after a difficult season we weren’t able to do some of the more expensive business management training programs. However, we found we could make AFMP work,” she says. “If we are investing our time and financial resources in training, it needs to be valuable and provide two to three good takeaways to make it worthwhile.”

It was an experience Brenda says had numerous benefits for their business, especially because the content was different for each session and was very directed to farmers marketing their products directly to consumers.

AFMP helped give the Snyders direction to prioritize the improvements they want to make to their retail operation this year, but according to Brenda, the most important takeaway was business analysis and understanding financial ratios for the very first time.

Gauging profitability can be particularly challenging in direct marketing where farmers are handling a lot of cash on a daily basis – it can be hard to determine whether they’re actually making money.

“We both had a-ha moments with this – the ratios are independent of what is happening in the operation so we can gauge our growth better on ratios than on numbers,” she explains. “Analyzing numbers properly helps you realize if you have to raise prices, for example. The numbers don’t lie: if we want to be here in the long run, we have to charge enough to make a profit.”

Another useful learning opportunity for Brenda was around social media. Although she’d been active on Facebook since 2011, she had never expanded into other social media networks, like Instagram where she discovered users were already posting about Snyder’s Sweet Corn.

After AFMP, she and Tom have refocused on having regular weekly meetings and treating the farm like a business.

“I’m really glad we did this course and would encourage others to do it as well. The course is only as good as the effort you put into doing your homework, but it’s important for farmers to treat their farms more like businesses and make the time to do this kind of training,” she believes.

The next AFMP for direct farm marketers will run over five days from November 2018 until January 2019. More information is available at advancedfarmmanagement.ca.

AMI receives funding from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. Visit www.takeanewapproach.ca.