When Tyler Ferguson found a distinct gap in Canada’s local food system, he decided to fill it by starting his own sales, marketing and distribution company focused on getting more food products from the farm into retail.
That was the first step. But only the first step.
“I noticed that a lot of local food producers were stuck and unable to get out of their own immediate market,” says the owner of Hamilton-based The Farm Network.
Ferguson had just returned from several years living in the U.K. and in Europe, where there are strong local food systems, and where his background in the marketing and hospitality business had given him all the insight he thought he needed.
“We started by taking products to farmers’ markets and events, and then developed into a distribution company,” Ferguson says.
It made sense. If farmers couldn’t sell enough product through venues like farmer markets, he would set up a company that it would do it for them.
Most of the producers he initially contacted were enthusiastic about what the company was doing, so he and his staff set up shop at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market and did about 70 different events in the first year or so, bringing products to street festivals and fairs.
But then, the company fell victim to the same barriers that its producer partners were hitting. There were only so many hours in a day, only so many events they could physically attend, and only so many people to do the work, so the company hit a threshold, and they just weren’t going to be able to grow beyond it.
That’s when Ferguson started talking to retailers about the possibility of his setting up a service that provided product development, marketing and logistics for local food. Would the industry buy into it? he asked.
“They were right into it, because they said they didn’t have time to go out looking for great local stuff and the producers didn’t have time to get it to them,” Ferguson says.
Having started the business in late 2013, he was planning to launch the distribution service in late 2016, but then recognized that the need was so great, he moved up the timeline and got things rolling in mid-2015.
Like most distributors, The Farm Network makes its money by taking a percentage from the wholesale value of the products.
“There are so many producers who have great products but can’t get them from point A to point B, especially at volume — they needed a central distribution point, which is what we’ve set up,” he says.
“Small scale producers are left out of traditional distribution models,” Ferguson says. “Most distributors and most bigger stores won’t look at them because they’re too small and won’t be able to supply product on a consistent basis.”
The Farm Network scouts out new products at farmers’ markets and on-farm markets and, more recently, has been taking calls from sellers who have heard about its services, including help with warehousing and improved branding, marketing and logistics.
Ferguson is only interested in businesses that are up and running — operating for at least a year or longer — so the prospective partners know their products and markets. He looks for branded and packaged products, the food has to be made in a commercially inspected facility, and the business has to have at least a minimal amount of inventory.
The Farm Network doesn’t deal with startups that are figuring out markets and products, but rather helps existing businesses scale up their production.
Ferguson partners with people who are looking to increase their businesses but don’t have the time or energy to do all the work. He provides advice on how to improve packaging, how to better market the products, how to get attractive in-store signage for products, and more.
Then, there’s the whole logistics side of things, where the company picks up product in volume, brings it to the warehouse, reloads smaller amounts with other products, and trucks it out to retail customers.
“It’s a nice, full-service model and it’s being received well,” Ferguson says.
Among the partners who are happy with his service is Richard Bering, whose family owns White Meadows Farm in the St. Catharines area. The company makes a wide variety of innovative maple syrup products including maple herb dressing, red pepper maple jelly, maple vinegar, maple barbecue sauces and maple popcorn and candies.
While most of the 100-plus products the company makes are sold at the on-farm shop, Bering also feeds into The Farm Network.
“When Tyler got into distribution, it was fantastic for us,” Bering says. “He’s able to take the products from small businesses like ours and distribute them across a much larger area than we could ever do ourselves.”
In turn, Ferguson points to White Meadows as exactly the kind of business he likes to deal with — producing, as he says, “high-quality products at reasonable prices and we’re working on making them more conveniently available — the trifecta of local food.”
After starting in late 2013, The Farm Network has grown to dealing with 17 different producers making about 450 products — everything from jams and hot sauces to salsas, chutney and grapeseed oil. The network sells to 95 stores mostly in Ontario’s Greenbelt — from Mississauga to Niagara, and as far away as Elora, Kitchener-Waterloo and London.
The company has reached a point at which Ferguson is getting choosier about the products he carries and wants to diversify more into locally made snacks and beverages — a market he says is taking off.
The Farm Network is currently run by three full-time and one part-time staff and has two vans for pickup and distribution.
For the early stages of his business, Ferguson maintained relationships with smaller independent retailers. Compared to the bigger corporate stores, he finds them easier to talk to about what they need and want in products. Beginning this way also gave him the opportunity to see which of his producer partners wanted to grow beyond that market.
“We wanted to start small and grow, rather than start big and be overwhelmed,” he says.
Now, he’s moving into the mid-size retail market with some of the producer partners who are ready to go there. He has tapped into Foodland Ontario, Sobeys and independent grocers, and is concentrating on reaching out to stores in the area between Orangeville and Clinton, which for now will be the company’s northern limit. Yet he’s also happy to continue with producers who are content with staying in the independent market, because he’s able to segment his services.
Ferguson is optimistic about the future of The Farm Network and for local food production.
“We will be ramping up and intensifying our focus in the geographic area we’ve defined, and we’ll continue diversifying our catalogue, and providing as much support as we can for our retailers and producers to make their businesses more profitable,” he says. “More and more local producers will increase the scale of their operations and, in turn, will be able to effectively compete with and outperform imports on price, convenience and quality.”