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B2B strategic partnering

For the Martin farm in Ontario, building connections with other businesses is a winning formula

At nine years old Quentin Martin became one of five siblings who were shareholders of their family’s Master Breeder pedigreed Holstein farm, which his parents incorporated in 1965.

“They gave all of us common shares,” says Martin,“which meant at nine years old I was sitting at the table with the feed salesman and the banker asking goofy questions.”

His father, Abner, had a deep curiosity and a willingness to try new things, says Martin, so he often partnered with other businesses and left the dairy farming to the children. By the time Martin graduated with two degrees and came home to farm with his siblings, the power of trusted partnerships and being open to opportunities was fully engrained in their farm.

The strategy was clear. Begin with a strong core business. Then find solutions and partner with good people where few tend to tread.

Now, building with others is in their blood and a part of how they operate, and it has become a launching pad for their farm and their value-added businesses. Martin says over the years relationships have been the number one reason for their successes, enabling them to build and grow.

“Follow the people, not the money,” he says.

Today Cribit Seeds and Wintermar Grains are registered businesses inside the corporate parent business called Wintermar Farms (1989) Ltd. The 1,500-acre seed farm near Waterloo, Ont., and its several value-added businesses support 15 employees and a few seasonal staff. Brothers Quentin and Keith Martin, Keith’s sons Craig and Jason, and son-in-law Andrew are all part of the ownership/management team.

The original business has undergone five ownership transformations over the years. First, two sisters were bought out and in 1989 one of the brothers, Denis, and his wife Helen decided to go dairy farming on their own, so the family butterflied off the dairy.

Although it took two years to settle, the transition was amicable and legal. That guideline of putting the family relations first became their anchor and their starting point for how to do business. “Denis said, however we do this, let’s all be able to go to the family dinner together,” says Martin.

Martin and brother Keith began focusing more on cropping and decided to expand seed production and the processing plant, which at the time was a secondary enterprise to the dairy farm in a small shed duct-taped to the side of a Quonset. “All along the dairy enterprise was still the focal point that gave us the opportunity to incubate other enterprises,” says Martin. “… beef in the ’60s, cow-calf in the ’70s and corn cribs did not stick long term… but seed did.”

A few years later Cribit Seeds became a shareholder in a little soybean seed company in Guelph named First Line Seeds. “We were a fledgling seed company displaying in a little tent at the plowing match in Bruce County. I still remember Peter Hannam (from First Line) came in and asked if we could talk.”

It was a turning point for them and for crop farmers in this part of Ontario with First Line Seeds developing some of the first Roundup Ready shorter-season soybeans. Eventually, the shareholders sold First Line seeds to Monsanto.

However, Cribit Seeds kept its partnership with DeKalb and today is still both a dealer and a processor. They’re also members of Secan and a few years ago Martin was chair of this national seed organization.

Craig and brother Quentin Martin saw a gap in small-grains research that they could build into a business opportunity.
photo: David Charlesworth

By hiring people and or having arrangements with other businesses to do the bulk of sales and marketing for them, they are able to remain focused on their core strengths of production and processing, earning a reputation for the quality and cleanliness of their grain and seed.

Also crucial is their partnership strategy.

Ed Rigsbee, in his book The Art of Partnering asks: “Do I see the world as a zero-sum game — meaning for me to win, you have to lose? Or, do I see the world as full of possibility, where we can work together and build a bigger pie?”

The Martins believe in this win-win approach. For example, they identified their niche as spring grains rather than trying to squeeze into the saturated commercial soybean and corn seed business. “We are not trying to get it all,” says Martin. “We don’t need everything to be able to make money, we just need to do our part well.”

Last year’s gross revenues from farming activities, including custom and contract work for their growers, was about 20 per cent of their total farm revenues and about 40 per cent of their gross came from processing and marketing seed. They grow about 1,500 acres of pedigreed seed — soybeans, oats, barley and soft white wheat and contract some rye production.

Their biggest area of growth has been a value-added business, largely due to the blossoming craft-brewery business in Ontario. Over the last 15 years the food-grade processing unit has grown to be 40 per cent of their gross revenues.

Relationships and timing

Many years ago Martin remembers having a discussion with Keith and Craig about their long-term strategy and how the seed business was great, but the season was too limited and the risks too high with inventory and unpredictable weather. They concluded that if they focused only on grain farming, their risk exposure would be too high. Nor would they be getting maximum use of their capital investments.

Shortly after this discussion, they had an opportunity to buy the roasting and processing equipment from a company they were supplying with cleaned whole grains. “We made the move into the 98 per cent,” says Martin.

In 2004, they built a new facility, bought the processing equipment and made a five-year deal with the small company in Fergus, Ont., that it would continue to do the marketing. Eventually, that legal agreement evolved into a hug-and-handshake deal because of their long, close relationship and both parties knew they needed each other to be successful.

Martin Gooch, CEO of VCM International in Oakville, Ont., says value chains are about meaningful relationships and farmers should look for partners with the same attitude as them. “They look to solutions. They’re visionary and they don’t get stuck on the negative. They’re the type of people you want to partner with,” says Gooch.

Eventually, the small Fergus marketing company sold to a larger company with whom Wintermar Farms now has a legal business agreement to continue to process and sell them barley, oats, rye, soft wheat and oats.

photo: David Charlesworth

A key business strategy — to go where few were, namely spring grains in Ontario — enabled this niche value-added business. This year, between the seed and the food processing plant, they will contract and take in production from over 10,000 acres, including their own production.

Plus sometimes good business is just good timing. University of Guelph researchers, Alfons Weersink, Mike Von Massow and Kevin Probyn-Smith found between 1985 and 2015 the number of breweries rose to 640 from 10. Most were craft breweries due to the demand for local anchored food experiences and tax rules that provided a further disincentive for growth beyond a certain size in most Canadian jurisdictions.

“We stumbled into the industry 10 years ago and have ridden the wave,” says Martin.

On-farm research

Early in the ’80s, the Martin brothers began looking harder at spring grain research in Ontario. “There was little work being done in breeding oats and barley, and we were losing the genetic race to keep these crops as viable alternatives to soybeans and corn,” says Martin.

So a dozen years ago they started doing their own on-farm small plot research. In 2011 they took on a significant two-year seed treatment and foliar study with some support from Grain Farmers of Ontario and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada GF2 grant money. Although it was complicated and difficult, they learned a lot and it opened doors to more partnerships in research with OMAFRA, the University of Guelph, SeCan and other companies.

Perseverance and determination are other characteristics Martin says they’ve needed as seed growers. “I’ve learned with growing seed that it really takes three crop years to see if something will work. The first years could be outliers,” he says.

Although sometimes things don’t work out, there’s always a lesson in the failure, he says.

And you need to know when to call it quits even though you’ve invested into the concept and the relationships. Such as the Martins’ failed side business of making and selling prefab corncribs to dairy farmers back in the ’80s. That experience taught them how important business structure was to liability mitigation and gave them the “Cribit” name.

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