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Wayne Wikkerink didn’t get into the dairy business. Thanks to Growing Forward, 
he did something even better

That phrase “If you build it, they will come” may have worked for Kevin Costner, who played a farmer in the movie “Field of Dreams” but it’s a high-risk strategy for farmers in real life.

Instead of heading off into the unknown, any farmer looking to try something different on the farm wants first to take a hard-nosed look at whether the idea is feasible or not. A “will it fly?” analysis before plunging headlong into a new undertaking can keep a good idea from crashing to earth.

The catch is, how do you get that kind of insight?

For Lethbridge-area farmer Wayne Wikkerink, one of the answers was through Alberta’s Business Opportunity Program. Launched in March 2010 under the federal-provincial Growing Forward agricultural policy framework, the program targets producers looking to take farming operations in new and different directions.

The program matches applicants with outside expertise to analyze new-venture ideas to see if they will work.

“The idea is to help producers make a business decision — a go or no-go decision — and then work on implementing it,” says Jodi Murphy, a provincial Growing Forward business opportunity grant specialist.

“The program provides assistance for them to be able to do the investigation and planning work on how to implement.”

The business opportunity program is open to both beginning farmers and producers already in the business. That includes producer groups.

“We deal with agricultural entrepreneurs looking at value-added businesses from an early stage,” says Elaine Stenbraaten, a new-venture business coach with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. “We’re the first point of contact. We work with clients on helping them get their business ideas fleshed out and developed.”

The process isn’t always easy or painless. Stenbraaten describes it as a kind of tough-love exercise in which producers may have to bury their dreams. Crunching numbers and analyzing data in the cold light of day can reveal that some dreams simply won’t make money.

That was the case with the Wikkerink operation, where Wayne and Anne own Pura Vida Farm and recently participated in the program.

The Wikkerinks had hoped to diversify into dairy cattle and possibly broiler chickens. But after consulting with the professionals and doing the paperwork, they realized their plans for supply management weren’t going to materialize.

But sometimes when one door closes, another opens. The consultants pointed out to the Wikkerinks that they had a ready-made marketing opportunity with the grass-fed beef and pastured poultry they were already raising.

The family had been selling to local farmers’ markets and the experience had given them a good idea of the kind of natural, free-range products consumers were willing to buy. An idea emerged: why not sell their beef and poultry as specialty products to high-end niche markets? And so, with the help of the consultants, a marketing strategy was born.

Today, the Wikkerinks market to white-tablecloth restaurants and hotels in Calgary, Banff and Lake Louise. They also host chefs’ tours of their farm. Wayne Wikkerink says the consultants stressed the importance of building relationships with customers and showing them how animals are raised, how they are handled and how the meat is processed. The more you can demonstrate to clients what you do on your farm, the more likely they are to appreciate your product, he says.

As self-marketers, the Wikkerinks feel better off financially because they give more attention to financial margins and have a stronger awareness of what the market is willing to pay. In short, they’re more market savvy.

And it happened because of professional advice from a government program which steered the Wikkerinks’ diversification plans away from one idea and toward another one.

Farmers sometimes grumble about the amount of paperwork involved in filling out forms to qualify for programs. But in this case, it was more than worthwhile, the Wikkerinks say.

“Analyzing the programs that are out there and how they fit into what you’re trying to do is time very well spent. It has great returns,” says Wayne.

“The hour or two you spend filling out applications to assess these kinds of programs is time better spent than just driving a tractor around.”

Other provinces also offer business opportunity programs for farmers through Growing Forward, and farm business advisers say it’s an essential early step to check out the details of what’s available in your province. Many provincial variations are broader in scope than Alberta’s program, which concentrates on adapting existing farm businesses to meet changing markets and consumer demands, rather than creating new and separate enterprises.

A cattle producer who wants to expand his cow herd wouldn’t qualify. But if he wants to raise sheep as well as beef cattle, that might be another matter.

Murphy says the Alberta program so far deals mostly with producers seeking to diversify their crops and livestock. That could mean growing new crops, selling into niche markets or direct marketing specialty products to retailers.

In one instance, a couple who wanted to raise goats inquired about the kind of land and capital investment they would require. Another example involved a group of producers who applied to form a marketing company to sell grain and specialty seed.

Stenbraaten says she gets queries as varied as agriculture itself. Some people inquire about growing biofuels for alternative energy. Others express interest in producing jams, jellies and salsas commercially. Or somebody may consider building a small on-farm meat-processing plant.

Producers applying to the business opportunity program start by phoning 301-FARM (3276) to speak with a new- venture business coach. The coach works with the interested party to determine goals and to apply to the program. If an internal review committee recommends the application for approval, the producer then works with a third-party consultant or business adviser.

A work plan is completed and submitted. Once that is done, the applicant submits an invoice for reimbursement. Funding from the program covers 75 per cent of eligible third-party costs up to a maximum of $30,000 per applicant.

It’s important to note that not all plans work out. For example, one client had a plan to sell sweet corn from a roadside stand. Murphy says it was a good idea but an analysis showed the proposed site lacked the necessary traffic to make the stand viable. So it didn’t go ahead — but at least the applicant found out in advance before investing in a business that was likely to fail.

Stenbraaten says that producers will actually get honest, professional evaluations about which enterprises to pursue and which to avoid.

That’s very valuable to a fledgling entrepreneur, says Wayne Wikkerink. “Even if you get bad news, you’re better getting it up front.” CG

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