Trevor Schriemer is used to his neighbours hitting him with a little good-natured ribbing. After all, he farms in the heart of Manitoba’s Red River Valley on what could be some of the best grain-producing land on the planet. But he isn’t growing a single acre of wheat or canola.
Tiny by Prairie standards, Schriemer is planting his farm near the village of Otterbourne with sweet corn, pumpkins, tomatoes, cabbages and much, much more.
“I’m that weird vegetable guy,” Schriemer says with a laugh. “They’re always teasing me ‘Trevor, why don’t you come to the coffee shop with us?’ I tell them I’ve got no time — I’ve got real farming to do.”
Schriemer competes in one of the most competitive agriculture sectors in the world, the North American horticulture market. In a business that’s dominated by enormous industrial growers across the southern U. S., to say nothing of Central and South American imports, it would be impossible to compete on price.
Better to compete on quality, Schriemer says, which is something he knows a thing or two about from first-hand experience.
Schriemer began his working life in the family business, Vic’s Fruit Mart, an institution in south Winnipeg that his father Vic Schriemer started while Trevor was still in high school. At 25, Trevor bought the business from his father, and ran it for the next decade.
After a decade, however, he felt he was ready for a new challenge, and he began to think life on the farm would be a good fit for his growing family. He sold the store and bought the farm and began raising kids and vegetables full-time eight years ago.
“I came at it with a fair bit of experience from the retail side,” Schriemer says. “I knew that customers wanted quality and I was able to use my contacts in the industry to get my product in the stores.”
Schriemer correctly calculated that while he couldn’t compete on price, distant growers would never be able to compete with him on quality. No matter
ter how you sliced it, their game was to produce low-priced commodities, which meant mechanical harvesting, time spent on loading docks, trucks and distribution centres and an inevitable degradation of the produce’s quality.
“You just can’t compare the two,” Schriemer says.
The quality difference quickly shows up at the till when a retailer is willing to put the product in their store and — even more importantly — market it as a local product. One major national grocer recently gave local stores the green light to source some produce locally after customers began requesting it, so Schriemer was able to get some of his sweet corn prominently displayed in the produce aisle, along with a grown-in-Manitoba label.
Customers quickly began voting with their wallets.
“Corn sales didn’t go up 10 or 15 per cent,” Schriemer says. “They doubled.”
That’s translated into a bulging order book for Schriemer and growing interest from major retailers like Federated Cooperatives, who recognize that their customers want and are willing to pay for a quality product.
Schriemer’s model also calls for intensive management of his 250 acres of irrigated cropland and several commercial greenhouses. There are several plantings of everything to stagger the harvest and guarantee continuity of supply, and he pays a lot of attention to looking for microclimates that let him push the window a bit futher.
This year he’s trying a very late planting of corn in a very few sheltered acres in the corner of one field, hoping he can
Whatever you think about buzzwords like “organic,” “local food,” and “eco-friendly,” many of today’s next-generation small farms are building their markets on them, and the farms are doing just fine.
These smaller operations have discovered it can pay to entirely bypass the commodity food system, Kirschenmann says. “They’ve found markets for their products that are willing to pay more for certain perceived benefits.”
Within agriculture, these farms suffer from a certain chauvinism (the is-that-a-real-farm debate, for example), but Kirschenmann encourages more conventional farmers to consider any operation that produces food and demonstrates a healthy bottom line to be a successful farm.
Kirschenmann points to a suburb of the rust belt city of Milwaukee, where there is an innovative farm known as Growing Power (www.growingpower.org).Growing Power began when Will Allen, a former college basketball star who grew up on a farm in Maryland felt the call of his rural roots in the 1990s after a career with consumer products company Procter & Gamble.
Allen bought a two-acre plot in the city’s greenhouse alley. Would it be just another vanity operation by a rich guy with more money than brains? You might think so, except for the impressive record of economic success. Using a unique system that combines aquaculture and horticulture, the operation has grown to cover about six acres of greenhouses and supplies a number of local food retailers with fresh fish and salad mixes.
“Growing Power is producing about $500,000 a year in products on six acres,” Kirschenmann says. “You tell me — is that a real farm?”
translate that production into an end-of-season premium for the product.
“It’s always at least five degrees warmer than any other part of the farm in there,” he explains.
During COUNTRY GUIDE’s visit to his operation, Schriemer’s phone didn’t stop ringing. Retailers called looking for more product, employees sought direction and other growers called about business deals.
It’s a life of controlled chaos that Schriemer concedes can at times be exhausting.
Then in the next breath, like most farmers, he insists there isn’t a thing in the world he’d rather be doing.
“I think I’m basically ruined for anything else,” Schriemer says with a laugh. “I love working outside in the summer. I love going out to the greenhouse in February when it’s freezing and there’s snow everywhere.”
The next step for the operation represents a bit of a full-circle for Schriemer. He plans to open a farm-themed retail outlet and greenhouse in a nearby town.
“I guess,” he says, “you could say I’m going back to my roots as a retailer.” CG