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From a modest start

In corn and soybean country, Tim Barrie scores a hit with value-added retailing

You notice it as soon as you meet him. Tim Barrie takes the time to really listen. In fact, it’s this willingness to listen that may be the most important factor in the success of his Barrie’s Asparagus Farm and Country Market, where he sells value-added products made with the asparagus he grows.

If it sounds simplistic — after all, we all try to listen — then you haven’t actually listened closely enough.

Barrie operates the year-round store at his farm near Kitchener, Ont., where he sells tortilla chips, salsa, pasta, tomato sauce, preserves, and even tea made with his asparagus. All of these products are made for him by local food processors.

“Local” is the common theme for all of the products sold in Barrie’s on-farm store. In addition to the products made from his asparagus, Barrie also sells cheese, meats, vegetables, maple syrup, baking, and honey from other local producers. Having a wide selection of foods available is a big draw for customers. People often bring their friends along too, he says.

Barrie’s latest project is a new division called Lily Pure Naturals, starting with a natural soap made by a local manufacturer which will feature asparagus and rhubarb from his farm. Other natural products such as body lotion are in development as well.

handmade soap

There’s no end to the opportunities to develop new products, Barrie says. But each involves teamwork.
photo: David Charlesworth

Barrie, 51, not only listens to the customers at his store but also to the owners of the hundreds of retail outlets across Ontario that now sell his products. For example, when he was considering launching the line of natural soaps, he checked with retailers, and went ahead when the response was “bring it when it’s ready” not “send us a sample and we’ll see.”

It’s also essential to be passionate about such a business. Clearly, from Barrie’s example, you can’t make it a success unless you’ve got built-in desire.

Indeed, Barrie has even trademarked “for the love of asparagus,” and after meeting him, you wonder how it could be any other way. This is a farmer who wants to be known for all things asparagus.

But he also wants to communicate that passion, so branding is a key focus. Barrie credits Angie Scott of Zest Idea Agency, a graphic design company in Alymer, with helping him develop a brand and image for his products. “She understands what it is I’m trying to accomplish,” says Barrie. Scott developed Gus, the farm’s mascot, as well as the dragonfly logo for the Lily Pure Naturals division and other advertising materials. “Her designs take into account the direction the farm is going in,” says Barrie.

Social media plays a big part in Barrie’s customer outreach. He frequently posts specials on his main Facebook page to attract customers and last spring he ran a contest to guess the first day of asparagus harvest. The contest drew 120 entries, which isn’t a huge number, but if each is a customer, it makes a difference.

Barrie also has additional Facebook pages for Lily Pure Naturals, Gusto tea, and Spud’s Finest Chips. He also has two Twitter accounts, @4loveofasparagus, @spudsfinest and two websites: barriesasparagus.com and a newer site, forthe
loveofasparagus.com

“The second website is more interactive,” explains Barrie, “but we’ve been busy and the Facebook pages have been easier to operate.”

The months leading up to Christmas are particularly busy at the Barrie farm. “People are looking for unique local products so our gift baskets sell very well,” he explains. 

Barrie’s passion for both farming and people has been a boon when it comes to successfully making the leap from asparagus grower to retailer and value-added entrepreneur.

Barrie and his family are the fourth generation on the farm which was first established by his great-grandfather in 1892. His father David raised shorthorn cattle but switched to asparagus in 1981 when interest rates skyrocketed and there was a financial crisis in the beef industry. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Homer McMann, was the largest asparagus grower in Ontario at the time with 100 acres in the Alliston area and urged David to consider asparagus. They’ve never looked back.

Today Barrie grows 30 acres of asparagus and one acre of rhubarb on the 124-acre farm on King’s road near the 401. He took over the farm 20 years ago, but until four years ago he always worked off-farm as well. “Selling fresh asparagus alone was not viable due to cheap imports,” he explains.

With positive response to the first few value-added products he tried, he has continued to expand from there. His goal is to sell all of the asparagus either fresh or in value-added products.

fusilli pastaBarrie’s relationships with the 12 food industry partners who make products for him are also very important. He enjoys product development and working with the innovative staff at the food processors. “Diversity is the key to my business,” explains Barrie. Working with only one food processor would make him vulnerable, he adds.

Barrie is quick to point to his family as the base on which his business is built. “Family is the face of the business,” he says. His three daughters (twins Mallory and Emily, 21, and Hannah, 19) have all worked in the business and make deliveries for him. His wife Libby and his daughters are also a sounding board and help test new products. The daughters were very involved in the soap venture, trying out the different soaps and weighing in on the logo, and now 13-year-old son Will also helps around the farm and store.

In 2012, Barrie also ventured into selling kettle-style potato chips. Barrie knew a kettle chip manufacturer and initially was trying to figure out how to incorporate asparagus into the chips. Then he realized he was over-thinking it. He saw demand for a kettle-style chip made from only Ontario potatoes, unlike many potato chip brands made from potatoes from multiple regions.

Getting pasta made for him by manufacturer Italpasta wasn’t as easy as the tea. Italpasta is a big company and the minimum run that they do was too large for him, explains Barrie. However, Barrie did his research and by appealing to their heartstrings, and convincing them that sales would grow, they agreed to do a half-sized run. Sales didn’t disappoint, and two years later the pasta continues to be a strong seller.

Barrie is always looking to try new ideas. In 2012 he ventured into raising his own pastured pork, which has been very popular. Never one to miss an opportunity to use his asparagus, one of the flavours of his pork sausage is mushroom and asparagus. 

Not all of Barrie’s ventures have had a happy ending. In 2010, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food tests found potentially harmful bacteria in broccoli soup bearing the Barrie Brothers label, but produced in an independent food processing facility. Barrie erred on the side of caution and recalled all of his soups.

There were no known cases of sickness, and Barrie was praised for his decisive action, but it was a costly experience, and he no longer produces any soups.

That doesn’t mean he has given up on innovation, however. This year he also began offering a tea blended in Cambridge by Red Teapot Studio that contains his dehydrated asparagus. He was selling other tea blends from Red Teapot when he suggested to the owner that she try making one with asparagus for its medicinal properties. “She played around with it until she was satisfied she had a great-tasting tea,” explains Barrie. Since the tea is made locally in small batches, Barrie can let her know when he needs more and she blends it on demand so it is always fresh. The tea has sold better than expected, says Barrie. “People buy it out of curiosity but they come back for more because it tastes good.”

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Helen Lammers-Helps

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