Well, here we are, over five months since my last blog post, finally getting around to writing something about how the thick of our farming season went. I started this blog back in April, with the intention of providing much more regular updates than this, yet I’m not too surprised at my own failure to live up to my expectations. The reality of our business model is that we run an enterprise that must both produce a product, and deal with all the outreach that direct sales require. And we cover these two halves of our operation with basically a team of two (myself and Geneviève) – with some key targeted help from a handful of very part-time workers.
What I’m about to write will probably annoy retail entrepreneurs, and I send my apologies in advance to them; I’m sure they work very hard and their businesses have all sorts of challenges I can’t even imagine – especially in these COVID times. But when I think about just buying products wholesale, displaying them nicely, and selling them for a 30 – 40% markup, I think, “How easy!” To not have to worry about the whole production side of things! You just order from a catalogue and sell stuff!
There are of course some other businesses that both produce and sell direct to customers. Restaurants come to mind. Yet even here, all but the smallest mom and pop operations usually have divisions of responsibilities between ownership, front of house, and back of house. And very rare indeed is the restaurant that grows even a tenth of its own food. We often grow food, then process it into a ready-to-eat product (like pies), and then sell it. Heck, we even get into the recycling business a bit, taking back some of our used packaging, washing it, and reusing it!
As if that’s not enough, we also have an agro-touristic side to our business. So we produce maple syrup, transform it into pies and other things, sell it bottle by bottle and pie by pie through multiple sales outlets, and then invite the public to come visit our farm and give them a nice experience here.
I won’t even get into the fact that, unlike in a factory or a restaurant kitchen, our production is hugely influenced by the weather.
It’s a crazy business model, actually, but it works. In the old agricultural business model, farmers sold wholesale to food processors and other middlemen, and tried to make up for declining margins by increasing output. The “get big or get out” mantra. Food was dirt cheap for the masses, but farmers just scraped by or went bust, and quality suffered. Then consumers started waking up to the fact that processed food from multinational corporations might not be the healthiest option, for themselves or the planet, and their demand started carving out a market for the kind of small farm direct marketing that we see cropping up around the Gatineau Hills and beyond today.
This market demand and business model have made Ferme et Forêt what it is today. We are making a reasonable living. We are not working ourselves to death. We have a pretty regular 40 hour workweek, to the surprise of many, given the reputation of farming. We are employees in our own business, and we provide pretty good benefits – four weeks vacation annually, for instance. Unlike many other farming operations, we are more year-round, because of our processed foods, eggs, and maple syrup. While a vegetable farm with greenhouses might be active from March to November, with three to four months largely off in the winter, things don’t really slow down for us until just before Christmas, what with many Christmas markets to attend and sell syrup and other processed products at. And then things get going for us again around February 10, tapping maple trees. And even during those eight weeks of relative quiet, there’s still granola to make, eggs to collect, and ongoing sales to deal with, not to mention annual administrative tasks like taxes and business planning for the coming year.
The upside of this more year-round activity is that our summers are somewhat more relaxed than a typical farm. We actually have time to go away on short summer vacations – an impossible dream for most farmers.
No, I’m not complaining in the least. We could hire more help, but so far at least we’ve found that we both prefer to keep our hands fully in the day to day of our various productions than to spend more time managing people. And this multifaceted, crazy business model, where we wear more hats than we have hooks to put them all on, is what has allowed us to make a living doing what we love, which is a dream I know far too few people get to live.
All of the above is basically just an excuse for why I haven’t felt I had time to write a blog post for the past five months. In my remaining self-imposed space, I’ll touch on just one of the things that kept me busy this past summer.
When COVID hit in the spring, we had no idea what the Wakefield Market would look like. I’m on the board of the market, so had a front row seat to the evolving conversations between the market and vendors, the municipality, the Wakefield Centre, and the Quebec government. One of our Facebook posts went viral in the wrong way when people outside of the Wakefield community picked up a post announcing the market opening that was posted before the pandemic, and assumed that we were plowing ahead with the market as if no pandemic existed. I had to wade into a stream of social media vitriol to calm the waters and assure the purveyors of outrage that we were taking the pandemic seriously, and that if we opened, it would be closely following government regulations and recommendations.
In the end we were given the go-ahead to open, but as a very different event than we were used to. No music, no special events, no craft vendors…no fun. Just food, and, of course, soap for sale. A rope around the perimeter, one entrance and exit. A cop even kept an eye on things for the first couple of weeks. Us vendors still permitted to sell stared at the seemingly vast empty space in the middle of the reduced circle of tents, a gaping hole where there used to be vibrant community life every Saturday morning. It felt like the soul had been ripped out of the market.
And yet, people came. And they bought. In the end, I think most vendors felt their sales were as good as previous years. And I know personally, I looked forward to my outings to the market as one of the only social outlets available.
As someone involved in promoting the market, I always felt like I had a tightrope to walk: promote the market enough that the vendors can make some money, but not so much that we might get a dreaded crowd forming. We wanted people to come, buy, and scurry back home, and in the first few weeks, that’s what they did. But I remember the week when I first noticed a few people lingering around to chat with a neighbour they had perhaps bumped into for the first time in months. They were masked, keeping a distance, outside, and the market was not too crowded, so it seemed harmless. I had to smile (behind my mask) at Wakefielders’ irrepressible drive to commune with each other.
It’s this human yearning for connection that also propels our business forward. Increasingly, people don’t want anonymous food from a store anymore. They want food with a story, a story that helps them feel connected to the people who grew it, and maybe even to the biosphere from which it all came. In these times when the simple act of connecting through face-to-face speech is dangerous, at least we can still all connect to the food we eat every day. All the farmers I know have noticed a definite uptick in interest in local food since the pandemic started, and I suspect at least part of this is people redirecting their COVID-thwarted need for connection towards their mouths and bellies. We can connect emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually with other people, but through food, we get to connect physically with the rest of the world. And maybe COVID will shine a more lasting light on this often overlooked form of connection.