Although neither of them had been raised on a farm, Andrew and Jennifer Lovell bought the shares of a farm corporation four years ago. The farm was a small orchard near Keswick Ridge, a half-hour west of Fredericton, N.B., and when they took over, it was only 37 acres of apple trees, a quarter acre of raspberry bushes and a 4 x 6-foot shack for weighing the U-pick produce.
Today, River View Orchards is a bustling farm entertainment and school-trip destination. It has a contract to supply produce to four grocery stores and the Lovells have added snow removal and deer fence-building services for other growers throughout the Maritimes.
Today’s River View also has 50 acres in production, including pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, apples, strawberries, raspberries, sunflowers and even a corn maze.
And on top of that, the Lovells have also become this year’s Outstanding Young Farmers for the Maritime region.
It’s an outcome that Andrew Lovell traces to an initial insight. Buying an existing business, he says, is 10 times easier than starting from scratch.
The insight is based on business experience he had already acquired before he even saw their future farm. After graduating from agricultural college, Lovell had started a cabinet-making business, and later a landscaping business.
Buying an existing business, he decided, would mean he could focus on their primary goal. “At least you’ve got some cash flow and you don’t have to go prove it to everybody, digging and scratching,” Lovell says. “You’ve already got revenues. All you’ve got to do is get some more.”
And get more they did. Lovell projects that next year their gross revenues will be up 500 per cent since they started farming five years ago.
They did that by taking care of details, by seeking out new ideas and opportunities, and by making changes with people-centric thinking.
The Lovells are a team, with Jennifer also working off-farm as a nurse while Andrew empowers their employees to be creative and self-motivated. And with every change, he tries to understand the emotional needs of his customers, using human behavioural patterns first to draw them to the farm, and then to engage them to spend money.
It’s the psychology of marketing, but Lovell says it’s just about treating people well. It was a lesson he learned while reading Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney by Lee Cockerell, former executive vice-president of operations for the Walt Disney World Resort.
“The idea behind it,” says Lovell, “was to never say no. You might not be able to give them exactly what they want but people appreciate that you try to accommodate them.”
The first challenge was the limited production capacity of the small patch of raspberries, which meant they could only open every other day in the summer. This frustrated customers, and for Lovell it was important to look at that frustration, not the production capacity of the farm, as the major problem.
So in 2013 they expanded the raspberry production area to 1.3 acres and planted two more acres of apples, However, the next winter, both were destroyed by deer so the expanded raspberry area was not productive until 2015. They also built a new parking lot and a more professional farm market stand.
That summer, they also bought a wagon to take the customers out to the trees, which has proved to sometimes be more important to their customers than the actual fruit. “We get calls asking if we are the farm that gives free wagon rides. They’re thrilled to take their kids on a wagon ride… And then they’ll spend $30 or $40,” says Lovell.
They also reached out to schools, charging only $3 per head to go on a wagon ride and pick apples. Lovell says they kept the fees low, but in exchange asked the schools to put their logo on their mail-outs. In 2012, 250 students come to their farm and four years later about 1,200 students are booked six weeks in advance for $6 per head.
The idea behind the school program was that the children would bring their parents back on the weekend. “Our focus is getting the kids’ attention,” says Lovell.
Today they focus on the farm experience that they provide. In other words, it’s about entertainment as well as production.
In 2014 they built a giant, 24′ x 30′ sandbox, fenced in and loaded with toys, and they added picnic tables for the parents, and now they even have a big bouncy castle. They dug a duck pond and the resulting ducklings this year are a big hit. When his 11-year-old son wanted to raise a calf for the summer, Lovell built a paddock and now the calf gets petted all the time.
The farm also has a two-acre corn maze that takes about 25 minutes to walk through, compared to a couple of hours for most mazes, says Lovell. They went with a smaller one because they knew it was too much for the maze’s target market: children under 10.
He also managed to leverage some free advertising out of the corn maze this year by making it in the form of local radio station’s logo in exchange for some on-site broadcasting.
The farm has expanded its products and now grows cucumbers for pickling plus pumpkins and squash, with everything selling for a premium. They sell the pumpkins for $6 each in a market where the local grocery store charges $3.99. Their berries are often more expensive than any other local ones too.
But they aren’t only selling the fruit, Lovell explains. Customers are paying for the experience too.
This year the Lovells have taken children’s engagement and the school program to another level. In the spring, Lovell and the farm’s retail manager provided soil and seeds to three schools and taught kindergarten to Grade 5 students how to plant pumpkins, while explaining basic agriculture. The students took care of the seeds, watering daily until the plants were at transplant stage. Then they came out to the farm, transplanted them into the field and each row was marked with a sign stating which class planted them.
The students are so excited by the project that they dragged their parents to the farm to check the progress of their pumpkin plants. While they’re there, the family picks berries, and maybe buys some other fresh produce.
The message is, if you engage the children, the parents will come.
As another example of people-first thinking, they bought a four-seater Polaris Ranger to transport older, less mobile people to the trees so they could pick apples too. As well, the retail manager ensures parents with strollers get help carrying in the produce. These customers really appreciate the extra service that allows them to participate and they tell others how they were looked after. “It’s all about treating people with respect,” says Lovell.
Referrals like these have been their main form of advertising, and that extends into social media. The farm’s Facebook page has 4,100 followers of which 32 per cent are women aged 35 to 44. “These mothers are the target market of the farm. They have 10-year-old kids that want to be entertained and they also do much of the food shopping for their households,” says Lovell.
Sunday afternoon and evening are the busiest time for Facebook so he posts either Saturday evening or Sunday morning before opening the store. He also pays for boosting the post, which you pay for by the click and says it’s well worth it. He also posts with a picture, and has found doing that always gets more clicks.
Connecting to customers on social media takes time and commitment but the results can be staggering. For example, one week in July the River View Orchard’s Facebook page had 31,000 views and 125 new likes. That’s not bad for a province with only three-quarter million people, and for a farm whose closest urban centre, Fredericton, has fewer than 60,000 people.
Treat people well and they will treat your business well, Lovell says. That includes engaging them personally, not just selling to them. It also includes empowering employees.
Lovell gives full credit for the farm’s success to his staff, especially production manager Dale Voutt and retail manager Barb Hoit. Not only do the managers take care of the crops and the retail store, they hire, train, fire, set wages and manage other employees. Neither Voutt nor Hoit were farmers but both worked in related fields. Voutt came from the forestry industry and Hoit worked in a greenhouse.
Both managers love the work, learn quickly, and are self-motivated and creative. Lovell continually asks for their input, and is repeatedly impressed with their thoughts and ideas. “Everyday we talk, but both managers know what has to be done and do it,” he says.
On-farm markets demand close attention to detail. Not only does the farm have to be productive, it also has to have the look of a place that produces quality, says Lovell. He insists the grass is mowed like a lawn, and the tractors are washed and waxed daily. “I want customers to think quality when they see our farm,” Lovell says.
Voutt crop scouts almost daily and only uses pesticides when needed on the berries. Hoit takes care of the customers and is constantly coming up with new ideas to make them happy and to draw people in.
Meanwhile, Lovell is busy looking for opportunities, doing sales and delivering to customers, and he sits on several agricultural committees. He’s the guy who asks the questions no one else seems to be asking.
For example, a few years ago he asked folks at the department of agriculture about growing Fuji apples in the Maritimes, but no one in New Brunswick was growing them and the idea was dismissed. So he asked other people, found an early strain and planted 300 trees that are now starting to produce. “Just because no one’s doing it doesn’t mean it won’t work,” he says.
Lovell often looks south for ideas, and says Cornell University is an amazing resource for their apple research and extension. A lesson Lovell learned in the landscaping business was to always go looking for ideas in other places, other provinces and other industries. “Always embrace new technology and ideas. If you don’t, you’ll go stagnant and die,” he says.
On-farm marketing tends to lend itself to experimentation, partly because they can do it in small increments and they have a ready test market right on site. For example, Lovell has tried growing a small plot of sweet corn but learned that they couldn’t sell it.
However, Lovell isn’t one to let failure get in the way of trying. For a year and a half he tried to connect with Sobeys, calling and getting shunted around until he finally connected with the corporation’s “Buy Local” manager. After asking a bushelful of questions, he came to the understanding that it was a matter of finding a solution between price competitiveness and maintaining farm margins.
He learned to see the world from the grocery retailer’s perspective, and to see that they shared a lot with him as a farmer. Like him, the stores are mainly concerned with how they’re going to fulfill customers wants in a market where price is part of that equation. “They need to make enough money for their shareholders to be happy, and yet compete with (the) Costcos and Walmarts of the world,” he says.
This fall he’s going to supply four Sobeys stores with five acres of pumpkins and two acres of squash. He views it as an add-on to his core on-farm sales. “It’s a way to increase revenues without increasing my debt load for infrastructure,” Lovell says. “It’ll help pay for some overhead, through diversification, and allow us to get back into a more comfortable financial position.”
New ideas often start with trying to create more revenue from the same fixed assets. Similarly, he established snow removal contracts for the farm’s tractors and other equipment.
The farm also sells imperfect apples to hunters for deer baiting, which it advertises on Kijiji. Normally orchards dump bait apples in old feedbags, apples crates or even directly into the back of pickup trucks. However, Lovell saw this as another opportunity to connect the farm with people, so he got bags printed with his farm’s logo. “It’s all about brand recognition.”
When originally buying the farm, Lovell had written a business plan to get a mortgage and to apply to the New Brunswick New Entrant Program. However, a few years in, hail damaged the crops and in 2014 deer ate $100,000 worth of apples and raspberries.
So he rewrote his business plan to include wildlife mitigation fencing, enclosing 50 acres of orchard and berries, the corn maze and the other crops. However, after having difficulty finding someone to install his own wildlife fencing, he began a new division of the farm in 2015 to supply and install fencing and trellis to other Maritime orchards. “It’s made a huge different to our cash flow,” he says.
In spite of production still not being fully back, revenues are improving with the additional crops, other divisions and school program. Next year the trees and bushes will be back in full production, and the Lovells will be ready for their customers with a warm greeting.
Help for new farmers
Clearly, some provinces are better than others
Many provinces have loan and grant programs to help young and beginning farmers during farm transfers and through the higher-risk start-up period. Programs are designed to assist in the purchase of a farm and can complement other sources of lending, like Farm Credit Canada and other financial institutions.
To qualify for these programs, eligible applicants typically cannot own or have owned a farm. Their business plans must show that demand exists for the products and that the farm can be viable. As well, applicants must have an acceptable credit history, plus security for the proposed financing.
Usually eligible applicants also need agricultural knowledge and business skills.
New Brunswick’s new farmer loan program is particularly encouraging. The Agricultural Development Board provides loans of up to 100 per cent of the appraised value of security, to a maximum of $750,000. During the first four years, it’s an interest-only loan and the new entrant may apply for additional funds for expansion or improvement (not exceeding a total of $750,000). From then on interest and principal payments are blended, amortized up to 20 years at the provincial lending rate.
With Manitoba’s Bridging Generations Initiative, farmers (aged 18 to 39) can opt for either 90 per cent financing or five years of interest-only payments. Also, they can apply for a two per cent rebate on the first $150,000 of principal for the first five years of an MASC loan (with a lifetime maximum rebate of $15,000).
Quebec has a similar interest-free program for five years, while the Alberta Farm Loan Program is 1.5 per cent for five years, contingent on limited net worth. Nova Scotia’s FarmNext program is a direct benefit program covering interest payments for a few years up to a maximum of $30,000.
For a full listing of the new farmer loan programs and links go to farmstart.ca and search “beginning farmers provincial.”