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Spirited farming

The ongoing evolution of this Saskatchewan farm proves just how big and worthwhile the opportunities can be for today’s agriculture

It’s an idyllic late summer day at Black Fox Farm and Distillery just south of Saskatoon. Standing on top of the hill that overlooks the distillery, you notice that some of the leaves are just starting to turn. The flower and fruit fields are on the hill’s plateau. The flowers are still in bloom — spikey gladiolus blossoms, nodding sunflowers, petite calendulas all paint the landscape with vivid strokes of yellow, orange, pink, red and white. At the bottom of the hill, pumpkins ripen.

During the growing season, Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote and John Cote also run several festivals, such as the Gladiola and Lily Fests, where customers harvest their own flowers. On Wednesday nights during the summer people gather in the flower fields to listen to live music and sample gin, an event they’ve dubbed G & T in the Field. In the fall, customers pick their own pumpkins and work their way through bale mazes.

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Woman holding lots of money bills

Inside their on-farm store, bottles of vodka, gin and liqueurs nestle on wooden shelves. Behind a glass wall the metal of the distillery gleams. Most of the ingredients for the spirits are grown by Black Fox Farm. The Cotes rent land for the grain crops they need and work with custom operators. They grow other ingredients, such as fruits and calendula, on the same parcel as the distillery.

It’s easy to see why the Cotes are doing what they do. The landscape is beautiful. And running a distillery and u-pick flower farm appeals to people. Plenty of visitors have left Black Fox with visions of their own distilleries dancing in their heads.

But dreaming about launching a business and doing it are two very different things.

The Cotes started out as grain farmers near Leask, in central Saskatchewan. In 2001, they were named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers. One eye-opening moment was finding out that many of the other outstanding young farmers weren’t farming the same land they’d farmed 10 years earlier, says John. They weren’t able to do what they wanted with that land, so they sold it and bought land in a place with more opportunity.

As grain farmers, Barb and John were also curious about agriculture in other parts of the world. “We took a sabbatical from grain farming and we went and we lived in Mexico for a year and Chile for a year,” says Barb.

They also studied agriculture in Europe and East Asia. Barb completed a Nuffield Scholarship 15 years ago, looking at rural depopulation in other parts of the world. Between the two of them, they’ve been on five different continents.

Then they looked at their grain farm, and looked at their family, and realized they would have to expand big-time for all four children to have a chance to be involved in the business. The next generation would have to expand yet again.

So in 2010 the Cotes made a bold move. They sold their entire farm and decided to do something less traditional, near Saskatoon. One criterion was that their new business needed to bring them closer to their customers so they could hear what they were doing well and what people wanted them to do differently. They also wanted to make good use of much more expensive land.

“You can get bigger… you’re not limited by the land base,” says John, who points to their strategy of growing through intensification.
photo: Lisa Guenther

“When you go from thousands of acres of grain farm down to 80, you have to find something that’s very valuable to sell,” says Barb.

Originally the Cotes thought they’d grow vegetables and make wine. They started planting haskaps and raspberries for wine-making.

However, they weren’t big wine fans. Plus they soon realized they didn’t know much about fruit production. That meant more risk, says John.

Ultimately, distilling made more sense for them because they understood grain. “We know how to grow it. We know how to store it and manufacture it,” Barb says.

Distilling has proven to be a perfect fit. It allows them to use their strengths, says John.

“We can show off the grains that we grow,” he says. “We can talk about farming.”

Financing a new venture

One problem the Cotes faced was financing the distillery and flower operation. The Cotes did have money to invest after selling their grain farm. But they were buying extremely expensive land, and they needed to build on that land. The challenge was explaining their long-term vision to bankers.

John says that although the main commercial banks in Saskatchewan are well-versed in land development, they aren’t familiar with the food processing industry, with the exception of Farm Credit Canada.

Barb says it’s not just food processing that’s a tough sell. Anything in ag beyond grain farming or traditional livestock production is a tough sell for many bankers. “They didn’t understand flowers. They didn’t understand distilling. They didn’t understand the orchards or anything like that.”

Securing financing came down to professionalism, says John. Reputation counts in these situations, he adds, because even if there’s risk in the business model, there’s certainty in the people behind it.

Barb says being transparent and communicative is critical. It’s about explaining what you know, what you don’t know, and what you think is going to happen. It’s also about keeping bankers informed of what’s happening with the business.

John’s first job out of university was working for the Farm Debt Review Board. He’d often hear people say that you shouldn’t ask your banker for advice. But John says you have to view your financial institution as a partner. When a banker is assessing risk, you need to know what parts of the business plan they don’t like, and how you can work on it so it will fit into the bank’s programming.

“And if you’re unwilling to listen to that, then usually it goes south pretty quick,” he says.

“If you want to make a change, the best time is now,” says Barb.
photo: Lisa Guenther

The funny thing, John says, is that it’s hard to get financing in the beginning, when you really need it. “And now that we’re showing those signs of success, everybody is coming to us and saying: ‘Oh, why don’t you switch banks and come deal with us?’”

Going from bottle-washer to business manager

One of the necessary evolutions has been the Cotes’ management style. In the early days of Black Fox, they had to handle everything themselves.

“You are everything from floor-sweeper and washer to bottle-washer to dealing with the banks and selling and social media,” says Barb. “You are everything.”

Then they started bringing in other people, moving into the human resources realm. It wasn’t an area they had much direct experience with, as they’d had one seasonal employee while grain farming.

“Now we’ve got 22 (employees) in the summertime. It’s a totally different thing,” says Barb. But if you get the right people, it’s amazing, she says. They’re not just staff; they’re part of the team. They’re worth keeping.

How did they learn to recruit and retain employees? Barb says they’ve taken courses and gone to workshops, but it’s a role you grow into. John adds that many staff issues are easy to manage if you can get used to the idea of hiring people who are better at the job than you are. For example, he’d look for someone who can make better gin than he can make.

You also need to treat people the way you’d like to be treated, John says. If someone comes into work and can’t do what you’re expecting, you have to reorganize. John thinks people get frustrated because it’s a lot of work to manage staff. But if you’d hurt your back over the weekend, you’d appreciate your boss accommodating you, he says.

“And you have to get to a certain size where you can afford to pay them a decent wage,” says John. That can be a struggle for small businesses and farmers.

As the company grows, things get more complex very quickly. You have to think about how you’ll train people to take over jobs you won’t have time to do. Right now John handles the distilling and his son helps two days a week. He follows John and takes notes. They’ll then write operating manuals so they can teach someone else how to operate the distillery. This winter they hope to do some staff training and finish their operating manuals.

Record-keeping is vital to the business. They also take notes in the flower field. That way, if someone wants purple flowers in July, they can look back at last year’s notes to see whether those flowers will be available.

All that complexity has some advantages for the next generation, if they want to be involved in the family business. For example, there will be jobs in human resources and marketing.

Expansion is different from a traditional grain farm as well. If they need more grain, they can rent more land, and it doesn’t need to be near the main operation. For the rest of the business, expansion is tied to intensity more than acres.

“Here, you can get bigger,” John says. “You’re not limited by the land base you have.”

Bringing folks to the farm

What do people look for when they come to an event at Black Fox Farms? Quality, says John. A unique experience, Barb adds.

They’re also looking to get out of the city. Agri-tourism is something we’re not taking advantage of fully in Saskatchewan, John says. It seems like everyone in Saskatoon knows a farmer, yet they rarely get back to the farm. People are dying for a place where they can let their kids run around.

People are looking for quality and a unique experience when visiting Black Fox Farms, say John and Barb.
photo: Lisa Guenther

Barb agrees. People enjoy the space and being outdoors at their farm events. But, she adds, they also like the fact that it’s close to the city.

Of course, inviting the public to your farm opens up another set of risks. The Bogle family, who opened their sunflower fields near Hamilton, Ont., to the public for photos this summer, paid a steep price. They hired eight people and rented porta-potties to accommodate the crowds. At first everything went well.

Then a few snapshots of people posing in the Bogles’ sunflowers went viral, and, as Barry Bogle told the Globe and Mail, “all of Toronto showed up.” People started ignoring the farm staff and trampling the crop. Sunflower enthusiasts clogged the nearby roads and police arrived to manage traffic. People were crossing a four-lane highway with strollers, the Globe and Mail reports.

When Barb read that story, her biggest take-away was that people didn’t realize they were destroying the sunflower crop. Visitors were intrigued by the crop, but they didn’t know what they were doing.

But is there any way to avoid that type of catastrophe?

The Cotes have been able to grow into their events. Attendance has increased, but at a slow enough rate that they’ve had time to think about logistics such as parking and bathrooms. If they’d had a one-off event where a thousand people suddenly showed up, there probably wouldn’t be a way to be ready for it, John says.

When they are holding a big event, they set limits for how many people can come in during the day, Barb adds. They haven’t hit the limit yet, but they’ve come close to sending someone to the highway to turn back traffic.

Barb and John also brief staff before events to let them know what areas will be off-limits to the public. They make sure employees know that safety is the priority, and that they want customers to have a good experience.

It takes about a year to plan something like Pumpkin Fest, which includes everything from wagon rides to rolling small sugar pumpkins at a target at the bottom of the hill (if you hit the target, you get a free pumpkin).

And the Cotes are still changing how they do things. For example, they’re clearing an area with suitable soil for the flowers, at the bottom of the hill. That will make public events and flower picking more accessible to customers who can’t hike up the steep hill.

Taking on a new project means there will be tons of things you won’t know, Barb says. You have to be willing to learn and delve into it.

John says the learning is the fun part. In fact, John has received a Nuffield Scholarship to learn how to grow a small business like Black Fox and to look at relevant government programming in other countries. At interview time, he hadn’t finalized the destinations, but he was looking at traveling to Central Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and Japan.

What would they like others to know? If you’re 40 years old and you don’t like what you’re doing, there is still plenty of time to change course, says John. “If you want to make a change, the best time is now,’ Barb adds.

Managing risk

Initially the Cotes faced more risk in the flower fields because they were dealing with crops they weren’t familiar with. But, just as with other crops, there are ways to manage those risks.

The beauty of flowers, says Barb, is that if you plant sequentially, then you don’t expose your entire crop to weather risks such as hail all at once. John adds that even if the plants are hit by hail in the summer, they’ll generally recover and bloom again.

Applying micronutrients to the flowers right after hail also helps them recover. There are also good practices common to grain farming, such as using good varieties.

“You have to rotate fields and watch what you’re planting,” says John. The Cotes have also installed drip irrigation to offset drought, a decision that paid off during a dry 2018.

Selling flowers directly to the public is also less risky than filling contracts, Barb adds. If they don’t have flowers one week, they simply don’t sell any.

In some ways, there’s less risk on the distilling side. Once you make the product, you know what you have, John says, and it has a good shelf life.

“If you don’t sell your whiskey this year it’s just worth more next year,” he says.

But there is marketing risk. Before you even open the doors, you have to be focused on what your brand is, and where you’re going with it, says John. “Because after you’ve gone down one path you really can’t change course very easily.”

Public scrutiny is more intense now than ever, and that comes with risks such as safety, quality and social media reviews.

“Those are the kinds of risks that you’re exposing yourself to that you never had before,” says Barb.

Those risks don’t disappear. As their profile grows, so does the scrutiny from government agencies. Distilling alcohol is a highly regulated agency, which John compares to running a dairy farm.

“There are food safety concerns. You have quotas that you have to live within and all that kind of stuff,” he says.

The glass wall in front of the distillery is a tangible example of the Cotes’ risk management policy. “It’s all about transparency. You want to know how we farm? We’ll tell you exactly how we farm. You want to come out and help us do it? You’re more than welcome to,” John says, chuckling.

For all the talk about how people are interested in where their food is coming from, Barb says they don’t get many questions about farming. “If you produce a good product and you’re transparent in what you do, I think that’s sufficient,” she says.

They do get questions about where their product comes from. Although most of their distillery’s ingredients are grown locally, John says their approach it to be realistic.

The 100-mile diet is an interesting concept, but John doesn’t think people should limit the ways they live by following that diet. When he speaks with consumers, his take is that it’s more important to make sure farmers are able to make a living.

The Cotes also get some questions on organic versus conventional farming. John and Barb’s perspective is that there are very good farming techniques that may be organic or conventional and farmers should adopt them.

Sometimes improving farming practices requires a big investment, and so farmers may be stuck with old equipment for a while. Irrigation is an example everyone can understand, John says. But when they can, farmers will buy more efficient, environment-friendly equipment. It’s about communicating that plan to consumers and letting them know it takes time to move towards best practices.

“People understand that,” says John.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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