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When being organic isn’t enough

Their consumers don’t just want organic, says Martin de Groot. They want animal welfare, cow comfort, energy self-sufficiency… and they want to see it all in action

With the milk from their 60-cow, mostly Holstein herd, Martin de Groot, his wife Ineke Booy and their family make their Mapleton’s Organic line of ice creams and fresh and frozen yoghurts in their on-farm dairy at Moorefield, Ont., shipping their winter surplus through Harmony Organic Dairy Products.

What they sell is much more, however, including a way of farming that has become a top priority for their customers, coupled with a policy of transparency that lets those customers roam the farm at will.

But that doesn’t mean he’s inefficient.

Two years ago when de Groot built a new barn, for instance, he chose a Lely robotic milking system for maximum cow comfort. “With a voluntary milking system, the cow can get milked when she wants to… most of them choose to be milked every six to seven hours,” he explains.

Yet it also means he can capture reams of data to help his herd management, making it easier to track heat cycles and mastitis, for example. And after 35 years, de Groot himself is freed from milking, so he can allocate his time where it pays the most.

Martin de Groot

Becoming customer focused doesn’t have to mean you sacrifice efficiency, de Groote says.
photo: David Charlesworth

De Groot’s cows do seem the epitome of relaxation as they chew their cuds while lounging on the compost bedding pack in the free-stall barn. But that bedding not only boosts cow comfort, it boost efficiency too, generating heat from the composting process to keep the barn warm in winter, explains de Groot.

Although the compost bedding pack isn’t common in Canada, it’s popular in Europe where there is more concern about greenhouse gas emissions, says de Groot. The aerobic composting process ties up the nutrients and prevents greenhouse gases from forming, which also means there is minimal smell.

Another co-comfort feature of the barn is the flexible feeding fence. The plastic uprights move with the cows allowing for access to the feed while preventing neck abrasions.

Cows also have access to a Luna Lely cow brush which allows them to get a good back scratch. They use it several times a day, making for a happier, healthier, more productive herd, says de Groot.

holstein cow

Organic initially hurt their bottom line, de Groote admits. Now, organic adds to it.
photo: David Charlesworth

A Ventec Polymat G3 insulated curtain shields the cows from adverse weather but gives the cows a lot of natural light year-round. When the weather is good, the cows have access to pasture.

Signs in the barn explain to visitors the various features that optimize cow comfort, and a glass viewing area allows visitors to watch the cows being milked.

Mapleton’s Organic has a diversified marketing strategy. De Groot sells their ice cream and frozen yoghurt nationally and through stores in Toronto such as Whole Foods, Fiesta Farms, The Big Carrot, and some Sobey’s stores as well as through many smaller stores in Ontario such as Pfenning’s Organic in St. Agatha and Fiddleheads in Kitchener and Cambridge. Ice cream cones are sold at local shows and festivals such as Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock and at the Hillside Music Festival in Guelph. More recently, Mapleton’s Organic has also begun selling soft-serve frozen yoghurt through ice cream chains.

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Farmer in field examining crop

Ideally, de Groot would like to sell all of his products in Ontario to cut down on shipping.

In 2005 he built an on-farm store and café to attract urbanites on their way to their Lake Huron cottages, and now in summer the store is very busy on Friday nights with cottagers stocking up for the weekend and stopping on Sunday nights on their return home. The store is ideally located at about the halfway point for cottagers, and also sells lunches and meat from the other animals they raise on the farm.

In addition to the retail outlet, Mapleton’s Organic has a small demonstration barn with an assortment of animals, a crop demonstration area and a maze. “The little demo barn was the best investment,” says de Groot. “People love it. The children go to the barn first and then to the store,” he says.

Mapleton’s Organic also tours up to 1,500 school children through their barns every year.

organic ice cream

Mapleton’s Organic ice cream.
photo: David Charlesworth

Originally, de Groot sold his organic milk to Organic Meadows, a co-operative organic milk dairy, but left the co-op in 2000 to build his ice cream plant.

The biggest challenge, he says, has been marketing. It was slow in the beginning and the ice cream side of the business lost money for the first few years. “Nothing comes overnight but if you believe in it and have perseverance, it will come,” he now says.

In keeping with the farm’s commitment to sustainability, wastewater from the dairy is used to heat the farm store and office through in-floor heating, and solar panels were installed on the barn roof this past March, making Mapleton’s Organic a net energy producer.

Coming of age on a dairy farm in the Netherlands in the 1960s, de Groot says his original plan was to help the world’s poor. He graduated from university with a degree in tropical animal husbandry and worked in countries including Ghana and Indonesia. Meanwhile, Booy’s parents had moved to Canada and purchased the dairy farm at Moorefield with the plan for her two brothers to take over. When the boys changed their minds, her parents asked de Groot and Booy if they wanted to take over.

De Groot said it seemed like a good opportunity and in 1980 they settled on the farm where they raised four children. De Groot says the neighbours were very helpful as he learned to farm in Canada and he appreciates how welcoming Canada is to immigrants of all ethnicities.

Although de Groot had some experience with organic farming in the Netherlands, he hadn’t planned to farm organically. It was Booy who became concerned about conventional agriculture’s impact on the environment. Although he was initially skeptical, after meeting some successful Ontario organic farmers, de Groot became convinced it could work.

While health and sustainability helped the plan make sense, de Groot also embraced the the idea of selling real food to real people. “I am a food producer, not a commodity producer,” he says.

De Groot grows all of his own feed on his 450 acres, all of which is certified organic. The transition to organic was hard, admits de Groot. It took time for soils to adjust and he took a hit financially at first, and there was also an impact on their social life.

Today he has a new social network of organic farmers and customers, and in summer, they host Fridays on the Farm with people gathering for food, fun and a sense of community.

De Groot has eight full-time employees including his daughter, Arwa, the farm’s herdsperson for the past two and a half years. In the summer they employ several summer students and also take on several WOOFers, volunteers who want to experience the organic lifestyle through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program.

Mapleton’s Organic sells 400,000 litres of ice cream and frozen yoghurt and 100,000 litres of fresh yoghurt each year. They sell nine flavours of ice cream wholesale but even more flavours — some of them seasonal — are sold direct to customers.

Flavours include ginger, lavender and maple, with seasonal flavours including dandelion in the spring, pumpkin in the fall and candy cane at Christmas.

De Groot sees more opportunities for farmers to produce what consumers want. A quarter of consumers say they want to know more about where their food is produced, he points out. And, de Groot adds, they’re willing to pay for “a good story and to have faith in the product.”

 

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