For Cindy and Ron Mueller, who run Fisherville Greenhouses near Lake Erie an hour south of Hamilton, the farm business was ticking along. It felt like they had it pretty much figured out.
Bold strides through diversification
This five-part series features farm families leading change through bold decisions on family planning, new ventures, revenue diversification, innovation and…
The couple had started their farm careers by growing tomatoes for sale through a wholesaler. Then, when the market changed, they adapted and expanded and began producing a variety of vegetables they could sell via a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model.
And it worked. They had succeeded with wholesale. Now they were succeeding with direct-to-consumer. The farm was making money. So it’s no wonder they were starting to trust their judgment.
But then the two diversified again. They launched the Canadian Ginger Company and set their sights on bringing a very novel product to market by working through traditional distribution channels. They had experimented with growing ginger for years, they had their production protocol down pat, and it seemed like getting into large retail chains was clearly the way to go for maximum exposure and steady sales.
Except it wasn’t. Instead, marketing their new product through retail chains failed on both scores. In fact, sales flopped at larger locations and the Muellers had to rethink their business plan.
So the couple turned back to what they knew — direct-to-consumer marketing. And now they have built their own success through social media and an online store.
That means the Muellers are part of a small but growing group of farmers across Canada who are beginning to learn direct-to-consumer can deliver on marketing for a wider range of products than anyone thought.
Like the others, the Muellers are finding this type of distribution creates a ripple of positive effects. First, there is the strategy of “making the price” rather than “taking the price” — a winner for the farm’s bottom line. Plus the buyer also gets what they want. In fact, in addition to getting a great quality product, buyers get two extra values: an opportunity to learn how and where their food was grown, and the chance to feel they’ve got insider access to a unique find.
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Ron and Cindy both grew up in farming families and met while obtaining master’s degrees in horticulture at the University of Guelph. In 2007, they purchased a small farm with a half-acre greenhouse and Cindy left her full-time horticulture job to start their business. Ron continues to work off-farm in the horticultural crop protection sector.
The newly purchased greenhouse was set up to grow tomatoes so Cindy continued production with the help of four employees, while raising the couple’s three young children. Most of the production was marketed through a wholesaler and sold at the Ontario Food Terminal.
“When the price dropped because tomatoes were coming in from Florida and Mexico, we knew we had to change the operation somehow,” she says, adding that there were many sleepless nights while they figured out what direction to take.
Around the same time, Cindy was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called dermatomyositis. Conventional treatments resulted in intolerable side effects and she decided that adopting a holistic lifestyle was the route to take. “Through my own research and a few naturopathic doctors, I decided that growing my own food to heal myself was important,” she explains.
The Muellers transformed one greenhouse bay into organic vegetable production. They began growing a variety of vegetables for their own consumption and in 2010, they started a CSA harvest box program, Fisherville’s Finest, to share the harvest with others. By 2014, they doubled the size of their greenhouse.
Boxes of fresh, local vegetables are available weekly from April until Christmas and are offered at two pick up locations. The variety includes tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, spinach, kale, swiss chard, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onions and more.
“When COVID-19 hit, we had a lot of people come to us because they didn’t want to go to the grocery store,” Cindy says. “It was a really big boom and so far, we’ve been able to stay at that level of sales.”
Ron and Cindy also supply 100km Foods Inc., a local food distributor from Toronto that picks up produce at the farm twice per week.
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Opportunity to diversify
As the CSA business was growing, Cindy was also consuming ginger and turmeric to try and improve her health. As horticulturalists, she and Ron grew curious and set out to learn how to grow these unique plants themselves.
“We started with a few pots of ginger and after five years of trial and error we figured out the right soil mix and growing protocols,” says Cindy. “It’s tricky to grow and gardeners aren’t able to grow it because it’s a tropical plant that needs extreme heat.”
Ginger grows from sprouted roots and pushes up annual leafy shoots that can grow eight to ten feet tall. The Muellers plant small sprouted pieces of ginger root seed in January and harvest the tender pink rhizomes from August until November.
As Cindy experienced health benefits first-hand and discovered numerous peer-reviewed research studies, she was convinced more Canadians could benefit from fresh, young ginger.
So the Muellers increased their production and started discussions with potential retailers. By 2018, they established the Canadian Ginger Company and became the largest producers in the country. They harvest 4,000 pounds of ginger annually, but Cindy says it’s still considered a small operation because they supply such a small market.
Turning a challenge into success
While the product is beautiful and customer satisfaction is high, she refers to fresh ginger as a “marketing nightmare.” why? It’s new and consumers don’t know a lot about it.
“We call it fresh baby pink ginger root because it looks different from the brown root that people are used to seeing at the grocery store,” Cindy explains. The fresh product, which is not fibrous, is used as a vegetable whereas the brown cured root is a more mature version that is used as a spice.
When the ginger business launched, she created Facebook and Instagram pages to share behind-the-scenes photos from the greenhouse. Ron and Cindy attended the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto as vendors in 2018 and were taking some online orders, but the focus of their marketing strategy was to finalize contracts with larger retailers for the following seasons.
“We learned that being able to grow something successfully and being able to market that product, especially when it is a brand new version of what everyone is used to seeing, are two very different things,” says Cindy. “We were also very naive to the struggles associated with entering the retail vein, especially chain stores.”
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They were thrilled when they finally got the green light to supply 36 Longo’s stores and 10 Goodness Me! natural food markets in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in 2020.
Unfortunately retail sales were a fraction of the projections and the Muellers learned the hard way that their product needed a different marketing approach.
“It didn’t fly because there’s only a small percentage of people who buy ginger and those people are looking for brown roots where you find the onions and potatoes,” explains Cindy. Since Canadian Ginger Company products are fresh, they were located in the refrigerated produce section of the stores.
Last year, she decided to increase her social media presence and began posting short videos from the greenhouse to introduce herself and show the process of the ginger harvest. She also showed herself cooking with and dehydrating ginger to give people ideas on how to use it. And it didn’t take long before online sales increased.
Using a combination of organic posts and paid ads, her marketing efforts are now focused on Facebook and the online store is the company’s primary sales channel.
“We sell to a few restaurants and breweries but primarily we are shipping to individuals right across Canada,” says Cindy. The majority of customers are interested in purchasing fresh ginger and turmeric for health or cultural reasons.
While it has been a long and sometimes challenging road to get where they are today, she is proud of their small farm business. “I have immense passion for what I do and I think that the food we grow for our family and the CSA family is healing people and the planet.”
Cindy has become a nutritionist to further share the benefits of her products and is working on developing ginger tea blends that she will launch online this winter.
Andreas Boecker, associate professor and chair of the department of food, agriculture and resource economics (FARE) at the University of Guelph, isn’t surprised that social media has been a winning strategy for the Canadian Ginger Company.
“It’s a perfect example of how social media can support the introduction of a product,” he says, noting that a common challenge with novel products is that marketing requires more emphasis on explaining the product’s use and its benefits. Ideally, people who have tried the product can share testimonials and even become volunteer social media advocates.
Farmers who post videos they have made themselves showcase authenticity and lend credibility to the unique value of their product. “For an individual farm with a limited amount of fresh produce to be sold, social media will always be the communication channel of choice,” Boecker says.
Since shipping in Canada adds a substantial amount to the price that the customer is paying, he adds that it is a good sign if a company is experiencing success distributing this way. It means they are selling something unique that provides a benefit and that customers are valuing the benefit.