Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

Features Production Profiles
Marketing Matters: November-December 2016


November 11, 2016
By Cathy Bartolic

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Earlier this year, Willowtree Farm opened the doors to its new 8,300 square foot building, a beautiful, well planned, authentic, and inviting building featuring a 4,300 square foot retail market. To those who are not in the know, it may look like an overnight success story, but this story has been in the making for more than 25 years.

It all began with Rod MacKay. Always a farmer at heart, Rod bought the land where the market is located, just outside of Port Perry, Ont., when he was 19. Upon graduating from the University of Guelph, Rod became a full-time dairy farmer for more than 20 years. He also met, fell in love with, and married Marlene. Marlene grew up on a strawberry farm and was passionate about the tasty berries. In 1979, Rod surprised Marlene by planting four acres of strawberry plants. She was thrilled and started selling her beloved strawberries out of a wagon on the side of the road. Gradually, the number of acres of strawberries grew and other fruits and vegetables were introduced.

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In order to sell all this produce, Marlene explored the concept of going to farmers’ markets. She was a true marketer at heart and thrived in this setting. As the acres of produce grew, so did the number of farmers’ markets they attended. At its peak, Willowtree was participating in 15 markets throughout the Greater Toronto Area. In 1990, Marlene and Rod decided to build a proper market building on the farm.

As the focus on fruits and vegetables continued, there was less time for the dairy cows. In 1993, the herd was sold.

Marlene and Rod had two sons – Jordan and Alex. From a young age, they helped out at markets but did not see a future for themselves on the farm. For several years, both travelled the world for business and pleasure but eventually returned when they were needed and settled back on the farm. Jordan and Alex perfectly complement each other’s strengths. Alex is passionate about growing great food and Jordan is a marketer by nature and enjoys dealing with the details that come with selling food.

As both sons married, the farm needed to support three families. They started growing more produce, going to more farmers’ markets, implementing a Community Shared Agriculture program, developing a maple syrup operation, and raising sheep. Today, they grow more than 30 crops on approximately 600 acres.

In 2015, Marlene passed away from a rare form of cancer. But her dream was only just beginning to blossom.

Working with John Stanley, a direct marketing consultant, a plan was developed for a new market building. Willowtree desperately needed more space and a better venue from which to sell the meat that was raised on the farm. Jordan had participated in OFFMA’s bus tour to England in 2011 and was inspired by the on-farm markets that also had a fresh meat counter.

“If they could do it, so can we,” he thought.

One of the key features of the new market is a fresh meat counter and a full-time butcher. The certified kitchen prepares fresh and frozen entrees as well as baking. By adding these elements, the family made the commitment to be open year round. This was a critical decision that enabled them to hire key staff on a full-time basis. It was also a big shift in their business model.

Both Jordan and Alex’s wives are involved in the market on a daily basis. Neither one came from a farming background but they both have an incredible work ethic. Definitely an asset if you marry a farmer. Kelty’s responsibilities include both field and retail work. Alyson has a great flair for design and can be found merchandising the products in the market.

Everyone has been able to build on strengths and work towards a common goal. But how do you keep all the balls in the air and make sure you are moving forward as a team? Communication is key. They have family meetings on a regular basis, approximately twice a month. Rod is still the patriarch but he has accepted the fact that his sons bring new ideas to the business and has allowed them to try out their ideas, whether they are in the field or the market. The meetings are attended by all five family members, plus their bookkeeper, and chaired by a person outside of the business.

“It is important for everyone to feel in the loop and included, especially for a family run business where the lines between business and family can easily become blurred,” said Jordan.

There is still much learning that needs to happen with an expanded operation of this size but the McKays are well on their way to becoming a direct farm marketing success story.