The challenge of optimism

A look inside a modern Ontario hort operation finds a farm family wrestling with issues that may soon dominate the farm agenda coast to coast

Some days, farming is more fun than others. Although he’s driven by a belief in agriculture, and although he’s working hard to keep building their farm enterprise, Shawn Brenn, president of Brenn B Farms Ltd. at Waterdown, Ont., admits there are also days when the frustrations can make him wonder.

Every farmer knows the feeling. The question is, does everyone else who works on the farm know it, or everyone who does business with it?

“The days that I want the farm to be a lot smaller are generally days that we have compiling issues such as breakdowns with equipment, new regulations being implemented, employee issues, or retailers flexing their muscles,” says 38-year-old Shawn. “They all can be very demanding.”

“It’s frustrating.” he adds, explaining by example. “When we suddenly get a price increase from our suppliers because the exchange rate has pushed their raw input costs up, we can’t go to our retail customers and pass that cost on. I still have to price our products competitive to the market.”

Then there are also the shifting regulatory burdens, like new or modified food safety policies or product reviews from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency that seem to be imposed sometimes without any real idea of what they mean for the farmer.

“These things can have a massive impact on our ability as producers to grow crops that meet aggressive, chain-store quality expectations, which are often stronger than those of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency,” says Shawn.

“Or to top it off, we might receive a non-compliance charge if our truck happens to be late due to weather or traffic… the charge could range as high as $1,000.”

When all those frustrations rush in, one on top of the other, those are the days, Shawn says, when he steps back and thinks that farming isn’t as much fun as it used to be.

Yet Shawn is also an optimist. He wants to maintain the strong farm legacy that the family has built over four generations, and he is convinced the agricultural sector is in a good position. While he believes there will always be struggles, he also believes the future is going to offer up a lot of opportunities.

“The next generation is going to see the population boom and more of a demand for food,” Shawn says.

So it all boils down to one question: how does he organize the farm to deal with the complications that arise today while keeping it pointed toward what he is sure will be a better future.

It’s a question he’s given a lot of thought to.

Knowing what’s on people’s plates

Shawn, his brother Chris and father, David, run a number of different businesses on the farm, including potato production, a processing plant, and a packaging facility. They sell fresh potatoes to retailers and wholesalers, and also provide processed potato products to various customers.

“We started experimenting with processed potato products because we were trying to find a home for byproduct potatoes back in the early 1990s, so we began peeling and processing some of our byproduct,” says Shawn. “Every year it just grew, and now we grow around 300 acres to process ourselves and we contract another four million pounds with other growing partners.”

Increasingly, the Brenns’ success hinges not just on family members, but on attracting and retaining the best employees. That means creating jobs those employees want to have, Shawn says.
photo: Daniel Weylie

The Brenns are good at identifying new marketing opportunities and they keep a close eye on eating trends so they don’t find themselves stuck in a rut. “We used to grow broccoli, sweet corn, cabbage, and cauliflower but every generation that comes along analyzes the business, and looks at the demographics and realizes that there’s a change in people’s buying and eating patterns,” says Shawn.

So, in addition to the 900 acres of grain crops they plant to support a healthy crop rotation, they also grow Swiss chard, parsley, dill, arugula, spinach, bunching beets and cilantro.

In other words, flexibility has become a cornerstone, and no opportunity gets ignored, even if it means looking at a crop they’ve never seen themselves as growing. Every year they experiment with a couple of new crops, and it doesn’t always work out. Last year they grew eight acres of celery, which they won’t likely be doing again, but they’re always open minded about what they can add to their crop portfolio.

It’s a tradition that began in the 1940s when Shawn’s late Grandpa Carl took over what had basically been a subsistence farm run by his great grandfather. Grandpa Carl began to produce more food than the household needed, and took the surplus to the Hamilton Farmers Market to sell. Although potatoes have always been a staple of the farm, Grandpa Carl also grew crops like sweet corn and strawberries, and raised mixed livestock.

When Shawn’s dad, David, took over in the late ’70s, he was responsible for ramping up the potato acres, delivering to more than 100 stores. At this time, David also started growing cauliflower, cabbage and peppers, while increasing the sweet corn production in line with the eating habits of the day.

Then came the next generation, with Shawn earning diplomas in both horticulture and agricultural business from the University of Guelph, and he and his brother Chris becoming majority owners of the family business alongside their father.

While Shawn handles the business side of things, Chris does the farming.

They started buying into the business shortly after completing post-secondary education and are still in the process of executing a fairly complex succession. It’s a work in progress that often takes a back seat to the needs of the business, and wouldn’t be possible without the flexibility of their parents, David and Wendy, who are both still active in the business. Shawn says he and Chris both appreciate the experience, knowledge and value their parents continually bring to the farm.

Once she had started a family, Nicole, the youngest of the Brenn siblings, also decided to come back to the farm after working for a bank for a number of years. She heads up the quality control and food safety programs and is beginning to assist her brothers with other management duties that are crowding their schedule.

Flexibility is essential

Keeping all the various businesses going on the 1,850-acre farm requires a lot of people. Last season they had 44 temporary foreign workers, 20 full-time staff and about 10 seasonal people from April to December. Managing all those employees presents a number of challenges.

Employee flexibility — including family members — is essential for the farm to function year-round. In the late spring and early summer, the processing side of the business, which goes under the company name of Brenn B & Company, is busy with processed potatoes for the barbecue season, when demand is highest. The new crop potatoes are ready late July or early August, so employees from the processing plant often need to overlap into packaging when harvesting is in full swing.

Shawn attempts to move some staff between companies and different areas of production to better utilize the staff and help maintain full-time hours. However, he quickly realized this was more problematic than he’d originally planned, and it didn’t always work out the way he’d pictured. Some staff became accustomed to shorter days and welcomed the transition into different areas only when it worked out with their personal schedule. This proved to be very challenging and hard to manage.

As a result, Shawn has started writing job descriptions to make roles and responsibilities for employees clearer. “When we are writing job descriptions, they have to be worded so that employees understand they’re going to have production responsibilities in both companies,” says Shawn. “I have found these job descriptions difficult to prepare and even more difficult to implement. Agriculture is very different from most other industries. We rely heavily on Mother Nature to deliver to the bottom line, and in the most challenging years, when employees work the hardest to achieve specific goals, Mother Nature can quickly ruin it.”

It’s not always possible to measure performance goals through results, says Shawn, but rather on overall business improvement. “Some people believe they are entitled to a wage increase equivalent to that of the cost of living every year,” he says. “If the farm could simply increase our cost of goods sold equal to that of inflation, things would be much simpler, but unfortunately this is not the case in farming or a lot of other businesses.”

Part of the rationale for creating job descriptions was to open up an avenue to do individual employee evaluations. “I can sit down and say this is what’s happened over the year, this was your job description, this is what I thought you did very well and this is what I think needs improvement,” says Shawn. “That’s the linkage that I haven’t got to yet; we do have informal discussions, but it’s about so much more than just the job responsibilities.”

Shawn knows it’s important that employees share the family’s vision for the business, and it’s important too that they have space to grow, and feel engaged and invested in the company.

“When I was younger, I had a hard time trying to put a plan in place that would give an existing employee room to grow in the company,” says Shawn. “We’re now to a size that I can see that more clearly, and I understand continued growth will make this goal realistic. I never want to lose a team member, and not having a long-term plan can sometimes be daunting.”

So he has a set of objectives for building retention. They include making their companies a fun and enjoyable place to work, keeping up with current technology that helps the team be successful, and working with employees to give them the right balance of supervision and responsibility to help them love their jobs.

“It’s is a scary retention plan,” Shawn admits. “But at times it may be the best you have.”

Questions about the future

Shawn has learned to look at the whole farm on a cost-average basis. “We used to look at profitability on a load-by-load basis and say well, we can’t sell this load of potatoes because it’s flirting close to below cost,” he says. “You just don’t always have the flexibility to sit on a load and hope to get more from somebody else. You need to look at it as a cost average throughout the year. We try and work with our customers as best as possible and there’s certain times where you know it’s just not the best deal, but perhaps the best deal on the table.”

Now, that same sort of sophistication is coming to dominate all aspects of their farm and financial management.

Even so, Shawn and his siblings have many questions about the future and how the farm will evolve given the fact that their business environment has changed considerably over the years.

“You used to be able to grow and sell what you wanted, but that’s not the case anymore. If you are growing fruits and vegetables and dealing with retailers, it’s a very structured environment now and it’s extremely difficult to gain market access,” says Shawn. “I don’t know that I necessarily want to get our farm a lot bigger. We’re close to 2,000 acres now, and a lot of our production is spread out over 26 different farms, and we only own a few of those, so land rent is an ongoing battle.”

As much as securing land is a yearly challenge, going out and buying new land doesn’t always provide the best return on investment, says Shawn. “Land is a solid, long-term investment but it does nothing to improve cash flow,” he says. “We have to look at the risks, and land is one of those risks. If we don’t have land, we can’t do what we do.”

Access to water — so crucial in vegetable production — presents another challenge and may well be the determining factor in whether the farm invests in more land or not. “It’s impossible to have irrigation on 26 different farms; it’s just not financially feasible,” says Shawn. “You can’t go and dig a pond on someone else’s farm, get a permit to pump water and go buy the irrigation equipment for 26 different farms; it will never happen. So we’re hugely at risk by dryland production.”

To mitigate some risks, Shawn says finding land closer to the home farm with access to water will help. “Minimizing risk whenever possible and continuing to experiment with varieties that show some dry land promise are all key focus points for us,” he adds.

Optimism wins

Shawn has three children — Alisha, 14, Addison, eight, and Charlie, already the diehard farmer, is six. “Every single day he gets off the bus, he calls me and says, ‘what tractor can I go in? Is the combine running?’” Shawn beams. “I would love to be in a position to see the next generation carry on the family legacy. In addition to my kids, my brother has two and my sister has two, and to see them carry on the tradition in some capacity would be pretty awesome.”

“Margins are generally pretty tight in agriculture and most people would ask why we keep doing this year after year,” Shawn acknowledges. “To me the challenges associated with farming will never end. Overcoming the challenges as they are presented is a rewarding accomplishment in itself, but seeing a beautiful crop of spud roll off the end of the harvester, packed and delivered… when this happens, it all seems worth the grind.”

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