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The right time

For Brian and Joanne Keunen, off-farm experience created an eye for opportunity. But what really paved the way for Mapleview Agri came from the generations innovating how to work together

Like many newly minted high school grads, when he turned 18 years old Brian Keunen went off to college. His choice? Centralia College in southwestern Ontario. His goal? To get a diploma in agriculture, and then to return to the family dairy farm near Drayton, an hour and a half west of Toronto, where he would work with his father.

That he might one day be general manager/owner of Mapleview Agri Ltd., a highly successful veal calf operation and company with 22 employees was beyond his imagination. Today the company manufactures and sells milk replacer for calves, goat kids and lambs, and also includes a calf research facility. “I never expected this. Some things are out of your control,” Brian says modestly. “Changes happen as you go along.”

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Following graduation Brian returned to the family farm, but after a couple of years farming with his dad, he realized it wasn’t working as well as it should.

“We were both too young,” he says in hindsight. “At 47, my dad was in his prime, still wanting to put his stamp on the family business. I realized I needed to go away and get experience.”

While gaining that experience, fate intervened. Challenges interfered too, and opportunities materialized.

Fate came into play first; Brian’s job as a feed salesperson with United Co-operatives of Ontario ended abruptly when the company declared bankruptcy. Then came challenges as he realized that, without a degree, his options were limited. And then opportunity appeared, and Brian enrolled in the B.Sc.Agr. program at the University of Guelph in 1989.

Returning to school as a recently married, mature student was definitely a different reality. “I was more focused, with real-life experiences to apply to what I was learning,” he says. After graduating with a degree in agriculture economics and with his wife Joanne still at Guelph doing her M.Sc., he reasoned that if one degree was a good thing, two could be better. He stayed on to earn an M.Sc. in ag economics.

“There was an opportunity for each of us to do our own thing, rather than me just living off what Dad already had in place.” — Brian Keunen
photo: David Charlesworth

Along with Dr. Cal Turvey, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph, he started a company developing and selling financial software for farmers. Then, after selling that company, he embarked on a five-year stint at TD Bank. This banking experience would prove beneficial not only in developing his own business, but — according to Jennifer Hailey, executive director of Veal Farmers of Ontario — to Brian’s eventual leadership in the Ontario calf and veal industry.

After 15 years of exposure to all aspects of agriculture, Brian and Joanne returned to the family farm. “The time was right,” he says. “Dad was wanting to slow down. He had sold the dairy herd five years prior and was thinking of selling the property.”

A light bulb moment occurred when Brian realized he had been helping a lot of producers with their farm business finances. Why not do this for himself?

Milk-fed veal looked like a viable opportunity: it was something he felt comfortable with and understood. But also the startup costs weren’t too high, and the profitability prospect looked promising. Brian and his dad began talking about raising veal calves in 2001 and got started a year later.

About 2007, the margins in milk-fed veal, set in the U.S., began to dive, and pulling out of milk-fed in favour of grain-fed was strictly a function of the dollar.

Looking for alternatives to feed their own calves, Brian developed a milk replacer that was produced locally for him as well as selling a few bags here and a few there. When his own requirements reached a tractor-trailer load every three weeks, he realized there was a real business opportunity in producing his own.

The next step was the purchase of a second 100-acre farm 17 kms away at Palmerston. The former dairy farm had a large barn that was ideal for finishing grain-fed calves. During the three-year period of running the two farms, there were weekday employees, but Brian worked on all aspects of the business from Monday to Friday, and was in and out of the barn all the time. On weekends, he was doing all the chores.

Farming was not on his radar when he had finished grad school, yet that is, in fact, what he was doing. On his way to the barn one Saturday morning in 2009 — when his wife Joanne was taking their boys to yet another sporting event that he would miss — he had a “this-is-crazy” moment.

“Realistically, I was trying to do too much, getting burned out and missing out on precious family time and events,” he says. There and then, he decided to sell the original family farm and free up his time to focus on milk replacer.

While Brian believed this was a necessary next step, it was a tough decision, particularly for his father. “To my father’s credit, he began to see my vision as to where we could take the milk-replacer business.”

With son Aaron now integrated into the operation, Brian talks of the value of professionalism on the farm.
photo: David Charlesworth

In making such a decision to move off in another direction, there’s always the possibility — even the danger — of taking your eye off the main business. “I didn’t see it as a risk,” Brian says, “because our operations were so intertwined. My dad helped a ton. Without him, I couldn’t have made it happen. He didn’t stand in my way but was there to support me all along, gradually phasing out in an elegant way.”

“You know you are a farmer if you are working seven days a week,” Brian says. When he stopped doing chores every weekend and hired someone else to do them, his focus switched from farming to management. Seizing the opportunity to make milk replacer and, at the same time, realizing he couldn’t grow the business by himself, Brian formed a dealer relationship with two feed mills. Factoring into that decision was the volatility in the veal market and his acceptance of the need for salespeople on the road.

In 2012, the 20,000-square-foot warehouse, originally built to store milk replacer, was converted into a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.

Meanwhile, Aaron, the second of Joanne and Brian’s four children, had grown up working with the calves from when he was young, taking an active role in helping look after the milk-fed and later the grain-fed calves. This is similar to a lot of kids being raised on a farm where they work side by side with their parents and learn skills beyond their years at a very young age, Brian points out.

During his time at college, Aaron would come home on weekends, and during the summer holidays was actively sourcing and managing the calves the farm was buying, and after graduation from Ridgetown he took over the rest of the day-to-day management of the calves. This included buying calves, managing and sourcing new contract growers, supervising animal health, and the selling of the calves to the packing plants. “This was a natural continuation based on his knowledge and experience,” says Brian.

History could have repeated itself, but Aaron says it was a different operation than when his father had returned from college. “The company had diversified and there was an opportunity for each of us to do our own thing, rather than me just living off what Dad already had in place,” he says. “At the same time, there was the opportunity to be supportive of each other.”

Dr. Alfons Weersink, a professor in the food, agricultural and resource economics department at the University of Guelph believes, “one of the biggest issues facing intergenerational farm operations is transferring the decision-making within the operation. It can be difficult for the parent who has built up the operation to hand over the reins to the next generation, particularly for farmers who are independent by nature.”

It is an issue that Brian recognizes. “How my father handled the turnover was a positive learning experience for me. It has helped me easing Aaron into the business. I realize how important it is to see the next generation’s point of view.”

The pattern set by his father John now helps Brian bring son Aaron into the operation as research co-ordinator.
photo: David Charlesworth

Today, Mapleview Agri Ltd. includes three separate divisions. In addition to 3,000 head of veal calves that are with 20 feeders in Ontario and one in Manitoba, the company is one of the pre-eminent milk-replacer manufacturers in Ontario.

The latest endeavour, a research division launched in 2016, is based on Brian’s forward thinking and an opportunity that he recognized while he served on the board of directors of the Veal Farmers of Ontario where there were many discussions about antimicrobial resistance, and the possibility that the federal government would ban medications then in use.

Dr. Dave Renaud, an epidemiologist in the department of population medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, shared Brian’s concern. “The veal industry was facing a lot of issues, primarily antibiotic use, and the level of disease producers saw on a daily basis. Research was essential to push the industry ahead,” he says. In 2015, hardly any research was being done on veal production anywhere.

Concerned that no one was preparing for the day when government restrictions inevitably happened, Brian began to think about what Mapleview Agri Ltd. could do to fill the gap.

Internally, the decision to proceed with a research barn looked feasible with the next generation being actively involved, and logical because Aaron was already doing internal research on their contract farms.

As a result, his initial idea culminated in building a research facility on the property with individual housing for the calves’ first three weeks, followed by group housing until they are moved at 11 weeks of age. Each year, 1,300 veal calves go through this barn. “Brian has been a major force in moving the veal-calf industry ahead,” says Jennifer Hailey.

Dave Renaud is equally enthusiastic in his endorsement of the undertaking, adding “This is a really well-designed facility in terms of security and a well-thought-out feeding system.”

Today, in addition to managing the contract veal-calf operation, Aaron is the research co-ordinator, leaving Brian to focus on milk-replacer manufacture.

Aaron readily admits that it’s been a steep learning curve — one that he has embraced by continuously scouring publications to see what’s new, attending seminars, participating in panel discussions, and surrounding himself with experts such as Dave Renaud. “We are really excited to have people like Dave supporting the industry and us,” Aaron says.

The original focus of the research division was the internal feeding trials that tested their own products. Making proposals to animal health companies was the next phase. Today their research division is well respected and accepted by both startups and large corporations who are requesting their services. Aaron says careful work goes into the trials; each one is designed to meet particular industry goals and those of the company funding the research, while ensuring the quality of the data being generated.

For Brian, the key to moving forward and expanding was having a base from which to work. With the farm as the base for the milk replacer, for the first five years, they were able to grow the business at a steady pace, without the need to make money before turning it into a significant business. Retail sales became the base and the source of funding for the expansion.

Brian says that the key to the success has been the family support from his father John Keunen, who spent so much time helping him get started, his wife Joanne, who manages so many of the details that otherwise get missed and son Aaron who is an integral part of the business.

The Keunen keys to success:

  • Having their own calves has allowed the father and son to talk to producers and understand their challenges, because Mapleview Agri Ltd. has been there.
  • Taking quality control and professionalism seriously has produced the good products, good value and good service that are critical to the long-term viability of the business.
  • Surrounding themselves with people who are passionate about what they do, emphasizing the importance of giving employees the opportunity to participate in decision-making.
  • Although the team doesn’t put a huge emphasis on social media, having a social-media presence provides brand recognition and good communication with their customers, and when those customers talk positively about their products online, the conversation supports the company.
  • Hooking up with dealers has been instrumental to the company’s growth. Currently, there are 35 dealers and two salespeople on the road.
  • “Having our own areas of responsibility, the same overall objectives and constantly bouncing ideas off each other is key,” says Aaron. “Rarely a day goes by that we don’t talk three or four times and if we aren’t both in agreement on something, we give it more time.”

And what of the future?

Looking five years ahead, Aaron’s goal is to maintain growth and continue to be an innovative leader in the industry. “As we move along and see opportunities to add value, the base that we have established will allow us to tap into them.” And when I ask Brian the same question, Aaron again has his answer ready: “on the golf course.”

But Brian’s eye is 10 years down the road, when Aaron will have made the transition to being the main person. “I liked the way my dad did it,” Brian says. “He could see when I needed help. Easing out, he still had a reason to go out each day and make a difference in building our business. I see a gradual phasing out of my primary role here. Maybe I’ll be in charge of special projects.”

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