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Transparency and trust key to on-farm retail

The McKay brothers have leveraged years of direct-marketing experience into an expanding family business

Direct marketing has always been part of brothers Jordan and Alex McKay’s business model. As kids, they sold strawberries from their mother Marlene’s u-pick strawberry fields. They clearly took those early lessons to heart. Today they run an impressive direct-marketing operation near Port Perry, Ont., and were named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers in 2018.

The McKay family has been involved in agriculture for many generations. By the early 1990s, Rod and Marlene McKay had built their first on-farm market to accommodate the wider range of produce they were growing at Willowtree Farm. Their start in the beef industry also came in the early 1990s, when they liquidated their dairy business. The transition from a dairy herd to a purebred Limousin herd came with a steep learning curve. Neighbour and family friend Glen Kerry has been a key mentor on the beef side, especially since Rod’s passing.

With the onset of BSE in the early 2000s, the family business faced many of the same issues plaguing the rest of the industry. Fortunately, the McKay family was already selling their farm produce at local farmers markets and out of their small on-farm market space. With some experience in direct selling and a growing customer base, they were able to add some freezer beef to their list at the on-farm market and pocket that little bit of profit on their beef animals.

Today, Jordan and wife Alyson work with Alex and his wife Kelty to run Willowtree Farm. Alyson and Jordan work on retail and marketing, and Jordan personally takes care of Willowtree Farms’ customers. Alex handles the day-to-day farm operations. Kelty fills her plate with the farm’s community-supported agriculture program, kitchen and farm work, and child care.

The operation has recently expanded, and now includes 600 acres plus an 8,000-square-foot on-farm market with a full butcher shop, commercial kitchen and 4,300 square feet of retail space. This new space means they keep more profit on many of their direct-marketed products, especially beef.

The best part of this recent expansion is that it has allowed them to connect with their customers on a deeper level, says Jordan McKay. This customer connection is a key element in the foundation of any direct-marketing venture, he adds, and is one of the things that Jordan himself is most passionate about.

The McKays and their staff strive for the highest level of transparency with their customers. This creates a level of trust that Jordan feels is greatly lacking between producer and consumer throughout the agriculture and food industries. Their focus on transparency and the level of trust it creates is one thing that keeps their customers coming back on a regular basis.

Willowtree Farm’s butcher shop is one of the fastest growing parts of the business. photo: Supplied by the McKay Family

The wide variety of products on offer has also helped the McKays build their customer base and retain customers. Along with farm-raised beef, they also sell cuts from farm-raised lambs and locally produced chicken and pork from neighbouring producers. They also offer seasonal produce to round out a meal. People want to be able to make a meal and get everything they need in one stop, says McKay, and Willowtree Farm endeavours to be that one-stop shop.

The McKays have taken it to the next level for customers seeking convenience, offering everything thing from frozen dinners such as meat pies to fully cooked, hot dinners for pickup every Thursday evening. They have also offered two-hour cooking classes in their commercial kitchen, which they dubbed the “Soup for the Soul Workshop.” Customers learned how to put together a healthy and delicious pot of soup in their own kitchen with a variety of products available from Willowtree Farm. McKay notes that the chance to interact with customers at this level and educate them is a huge opportunity to grow any direct-marketing business.

Just like any other business, direct marketing has some unique challenges. Dealing with customers’ expectations of food is one of the biggest challenges, says McKay.

“Ideally, consumers want food that looks perfect, lasts indefinitely and has no other inputs besides rain, water and sunlight,” he says. This, of course, is not possible.

Fortunately for Willowtree Farm, McKay thrives on interacting with customers, whether it be at a farmers market, on the farm or even over the telephone. Answering questions about how they produce food or why they use specific management practices provides a great opportunity to educate current and potential customers. It also helps build consumer trust, not just for their own farm and its products, but for the ag industry as a whole.

Another challenge they have encountered is managing the beef supply for the market. To regulate supply, they now have a spring calving herd as well as a fall calving herd. That, along with sourcing stocker animals from neighbouring farms when they run short, has allowed them to stay current with customer demand for locally raised beef.

The McKays also encounter cash-flow issues that come with maintaining a full staff during slower times of the year. Value-added products such as stir-fry mixes and services such as the food education classes add cash flow and keep staff busy during slower times. Willowtree Farm also uses Ontario’s community-supported agriculture program to create cash flow at the beginning of the growing season. With around 300 families currently buying into the program, it provides an influx of cash at a key time in the production cycle.

McKay notes that consistency is key for a direct sales business model. “You have to think long term and have a high level of commitment to your direct-selling business model, especially when cattle prices are high and may tempt you to revert to that route.”

Consistency allows direct marketers to build their brand and steadily grow customer relationships, says McKay. He adds that it can be useful to access government programs, such as Growing Forward 2, from time to time to assist with aspects such as consulting and continuing education to grow the business.

Being a part of producer groups benefits producers through the positive atmosphere and connects like-minded producers, encouraging people to do business better.

The knowledge of locals in a relevant field is another resource to draw on. For example, the Willowtree Farm butcher shop has benefited greatly from a local abattoir owner who has been very open in sharing his expertise.

McKay cautions producers who want to direct market against pricing their product too low. He stresses the importance of taking time to compare your product to similar products available in your locale, along with ensuring that you take your unique input costs into consideration so that you can capitalize on rather than losing that added margin. Location is another aspect to carefully consider, as it has been a major factor in the McKays’ direct-selling success.

Many things have changed at Willowtree Farm since Rod and Marlene planted their first few acres of strawberries forty years ago. Unfortunately, both Rod and Marlene have passed away. But they have left a rich legacy for their sons, their daughters-in-law and their grandchildren.

Looking into the future, these two business-minded brothers intend to continue growing Willowtree Farm for at least the next 10 to 15 years. The butcher shop is one of the fastest-growing parts of their business, so they will focus on increasing their land base in order to support a larger herd to meet the increasing demand for their top quality farm-raised beef.

Mona Howe, owner of Mo Cattle, raises seedstock and commercial Angus cattle in southeastern Alberta and freelances in her spare time.

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