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A new farm story

Most of Canada’s farms got their start when previous generations of immigrants made sacrifices and worked hard to gain a toehold, often via truck farming. Is it still happening?

“They were surprised I could do it,” Bob Baloch says, but that’s exactly what he has done, working, dreaming and sweating to become a Canadian farmer.

Bob Baloch has taken what he has learned about logistics and marketing from working in the IT world, married it up with his experiences of growing up on a family farm in Pakistan, and applied it to create a highly diverse and successful fruit and vegetable farm on 23.5 acres of land at Rodney, Ont.

In a very real way, it’s the story of North American farming being told all over again, without a lot of assets but definitely with tons of courage, determination and smarts.

When the American tech company Baloch had been working for posted him to Sarnia, Ont., 20 years ago, he fell in love with Canada, which would eventually become his home, and he began to ask himself whether he really could make good on his dream of one day owning his own farm.

Like a huge number of Canadian immigrants, Baloch had grown up on a farm that produced temperate crops, and like them, and as with any farmer anywhere, he looked at the farm as part of his heritage that he would never totally leave behind.

In his particular case, Baloch had grown up on a mixed farm in Pakistan that grew vegetables, sugar cane, cotton and wheat.

After his tech company needed him to move again, this time to Edmonton, Baloch decided to take charge. For the sake of his young children, he would put down some roots, so he took another IT job in Toronto and began keeping his eyes open for an opportunity to get into farming.

That opportunity finally came in 2008, when Baloch learned about the FarmStart Incubator project. The project, which is a joint venture of FarmStart, Heifer Foundation, and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, leases small plots of land to people who want to start farming and learn from each other.

Starting out with a 100 ft. by 100 ft. leased plot, Baloch surprised everyone by how much he was able to produce on that amount of land. “They were surprised that I could do it, and I joined their incubator program, using my knowledge from previous farm experience to hone my skills to what I needed to farm here,” says Baloch, who continued to work at his full-time IT job as he established his farm.

In 2009, now with a full acre of leased land at Brampton, Ont., Baloch began experimenting with a mix of 82 different vegetable and fruit crops, which he eventually narrowed down to the 10 to 12 that were most profitable for his operation.

Last year, Baloch decided it was time to buy his own land, and so this past March he made a bold move by relocating over 250 kilometres away to Rodney, halfway between the 401 and the Lake Erie shoreline southwest of London.

There were a number of reasons for the move, not least of which is that, this far south, he would gain a full month of growing season.

When it comes to running a successful direct farm marketing business, it’s a question, says Baloch, of knowing what your customers want and looking for gaps in the marketplace that you can fill. photo: Anne de Haas

“I can get close to 30 more days of growing without any infrastructure,” says Baloch. “There is less snow in this area. We are in between the two snow belts, one of which goes from Detroit to Buffalo and New York, and the other from London, Ont., down to the Ottawa Valley and Quebec. We usually get one or two light snows and maybe a few freezing rainy days.”

As it turned out, the day after Baloch arrived at his new farm, the province shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and so he has spent this first season getting his land ready, and building infrastructure like a greenhouse and irrigation system. He is experimenting with various crops at his new farm and still had a few crops like garlic, asparagus and strawberries at his previous location that he could market this year.

Finding the right marketing model

Baloch experimented over the years with different sales models. Initially, he tried to sell from a roadside stand at the farm, but was too close to some big chain grocery stores and he couldn’t compete with their prices.

He also tried a shares-based Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, but finally decided that participating in the farmers market in downtown Toronto was his best option.

“I found out the farmers market is the best option because whatever produce I have, I can take it to the market and sell it,” says Baloch. “What I don’t have, I don’t have to worry about. But when I did a CSA or wholesale business, I needed to guarantee delivery… in farming nothing is guaranteed.”

He does some wholesale orders as well, but mainly for specialty items like red onions, specialty green and yellow beans or okra.

Despite now being two and a half hours from Toronto, Baloch continues to attend the farmers markets there on Mondays and Saturdays. Next year he will continue to sell at the Toronto farmers markets, but also plans to open a booth at the farm to sell freshly harvested produce, and his older children will also begin attending the farmers market in nearby London, Ont.

Logistics training comes in handy

To farmers used to selling huge grain volumes on international markets, maybe selling fruits and vegetables in a farmers market stall sounds nothing like real farming. Nor may it sound anywhere near as sophisticated.

As it turns out, that’s a mistake on both counts. Making it his way takes as many smarts as ever.

In fact, part of Baloch’s IT experience was helping Loblaws handle store logistics, and this has come in valuable for understanding how to arrange and manage his produce offerings and to organize customer flow efficiently and effectively.

“Companies spend a lot of money to create software to do two things: give them the capability to quickly serve a customer and also to tell the company what their customers are spending their money on, what they are buying more of, and how they can reduce their costs,” says Baloch.

He applies the same principle to serving the customers at his stall. “The moment the customer is talking to me or somebody else, the person behind is waiting anxiously and we don’t want that customer to go to the next stall without buying something from us,” says Baloch. “We have got to keep moving the line.”

At the same time, Baloch doesn’t allow efficiency to interfere with building relationships with his customers.

“We have customers who spend $10 to $20 every week, and then there are customers who are spending $50 a week, and you need to know their names,” he says. “Every time they come, you should greet them, and even if they don’t need anything, they will generally buy something unique on the stall, just because it’s on the table when they stop by to say hello.”

When it comes to running a successful direct farm marketing business, it’s a question, says Baloch, of knowing what your customers want and looking for gaps in the marketplace that you can fill, then producing the products for those markets efficiently, without added cost or additional labour.

A lot of that comes down to managing the crops to spread out the workload and timing harvests to have produce available when others don’t.

In a Canadian agriculture that for most farmers is based on just a handful of crops, this is very different thinking, and almost frightening in its potential complexity.

Baloch’s farming system is based on four-acre plot sizes and allocating resources efficiently to give the best returns. “If the question is, should I plant cabbage or radishes, cabbage is going to take three sq. ft. of space, be 60 days in the greenhouse and 120 days in the field,” says Baloch. “In 21 to 30 days, I can have radishes which I can sell in bunches for $3 at the stall. The cabbage I can sell to wholesale for $3, so why should I tie up my land for six months and only get $3 from three sq. ft. when I can get more from radishes on a six-inch square space.”

Know the numbers

Knowing the numbers and calculating exactly what a crop costs to produce — and its potential value in the marketplace — are essential elements that determine the farm plan, says Baloch. How he determines that, though, is by considering not just the cost of production and return on each crop, but also by constantly assessing his market and the demand, and taking a holistic approach to the farm operation, paying special attention to the time and labour components.

He gives an example of three main crops he uses to spread out his workload and his sales throughout the season. Baloch plants garlic in October, when he has harvested most of his other crops and is just concentrating on marketing. He harvests and dries the garlic the following July in a two-week window before the main harvest of the summer produce begins. He then has garlic to sell at the market from August into October or November depending on the yield and demand.

Onions are among the most profitable crops because he approaches them differently than most of his competitors. “The first crop I was excited about was onion,” says Baloch. “It takes anywhere from 30 to 60 days before you can start eating them as scallions. Once they mature you can take the roots and dry them out and store and use all winter long. It’s a crop that has multiple possibilities of marketing, and customers love each and every phase of it.”

“I make less money now than what I used to earn at my job,” Baloch says. “But I am happy.” photo: Anne de Haas

Baloch plants just one crop of onions on a quarter acre in early April, but manages it so he can have onions to sell throughout the year. First, he plants them about two inches deep, so they can tolerate any light snow or late frost. As the crop grows, in early summer, when the plants reach about a foot tall, he harvests and sells a percentage of them as scallions, then as the onion bulbs grow, he can sell some in midsummer as bunching onions, and eventually harvest the remaining largest bulbs to dry and store and sell throughout the fall and winter.

The same goes with potatoes. Baloch plants a number of different varieties all together on May 10 so he has potatoes to sell until at least the end of October, and sometimes into the new year.

“These three crops give me a cushion of cash flow with less effort,” says Baloch.

Offering something unique

Baloch knows it’s important to differentiate his stall from all the others at the market, and so, while it’s important to have the staples people look for every week, he’s always got something unique or interesting for customers to try. It’s a way to build sales because people are curious.

An example is cherry tomatoes, which he calls his “wonder crop.” Every year he grows multiple varieties together and sells them as a mix of different colours and flavours, and by planting in April he is usually the first at the market with them.

“From July to the second week of September we have a lineup at our stall for cherry tomatoes and we sell a mix of six to eight species for $5 a pint,” says Baloch. After his costs for seed, planting, greenhouse costs and harvesting, he clears a 77 per cent profit on this one crop.

“We grow heirloom and unique varieties that nobody else has and I guarantee the flavour. I tell my customers if they don’t like the flavour they can have their money back and so far, this year I have only had one complaint,” says Baloch.

The surprise, though, is that Baloch isn’t growing all the crops he originally intended. Virtually none are what are normally called ethnic crops. He has tried crops including bitter gourd, bottle gourd, red carrots and others, and even began developing them for major retailers, but they’ve proved too variable in Ontario’s climate and it’s been impossible to guarantee delivery.

Moving to year-round production

Still, there seem to be opportunities everywhere he looks. He has been looking, for instance, at Canada’s huge demand for fresh, local produce throughout the winter, and he needs a greenhouse to be able to serve that market year-round, which was another reason for the move. Baloch spent years trying to build a greenhouse on his previous farm, which was close to a major highway. “We couldn’t get a permit to put up a greenhouse because there had recently been a bad storm in the area, with 120-m.p.h. winds that ripped a path through a few greenhouses close to us and blew one of them onto the highway, blocking traffic for a couple of hours,” says Baloch. “After that, we had the frame and everything ready for our greenhouse, but we couldn’t get a permit to put the plastic on it, so that was another reason for moving.”

Baloch plans to expand by adding an orchard with early-season soft fruits like blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and then later-season apples, peaches, plums, and cherries, as well as some premium, perennial crops like asparagus or rhubarb. “I don’t want to keep anything more than an acre or a half-acre at a time and different varieties so there are different buckets of operations which produce cash flow for a longer period,” says Baloch.

He hopes these new ventures could provide better opportunities should any of his children decide they want to get more involved in the farm in the future.

Lessons from childhood

Baloch grew up with a different model of farming in Pakistan, and although one of the largest farmers in their area, growing both commodity cash crops and vegetables, the family always allocated three or four acres to grow produce for the family, the farm’s workers and community members to harvest what they needed. He learned life lessons there that have stuck with him, like the importance of community.

Baloch generally donates between 7,000 and 10,000 lbs. of produce a year to local foodbanks. And now as a full-time farmer, he wouldn’t want to go back to the nine-to-five lifestyle.

On the farm in Ontario, however, he knows his story is an unusual one. He’s often asked why he’s farming, and why he’s growing produce instead of grains or livestock.

He also knows people wonder how he can make it work financially, and he admits it hasn’t been easy. He was able to use equity from his IT years to buy the farm, but he knows that he has to be very focused on costs and to plan very carefully for purchases like a new tractor he’s looking at.

The idea is to focus on balance, but also to be ready for the work.

“I make less money now than what I used to earn at my job, but I am happy,” Baloch says. “It’s a business, but it’s also a lifestyle that gives you open space and a peaceful living.”

“Can it work for someone else?” he asks.

“It may.”

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