Producers can capitalize on renewed interest in eating local products by marketing directly to consumers
By Jackie Clark
In many parts of the food system, a large disconnect exists between the person who produces the food and the person who consumes it. However, some farmers are able to sell directly to customers and build a relationship with them.
“Farmers are proud of the food they produce,” says Stacey Ash, manager of communications and consumer marketing at Ontario Pork. “Being able to provide quality food directly to their neighbours and surrounding community is a real bonus.”
Domestic demand for pork across Canada remains strong.
“Recently, Canadian retail pork sales have been seeing some elasticity in demand connected to higher prices,” says Abhinesh Gopal, head of commodity research at Farms.com Risk Management.
“Prices of consumer favourites, like bacon, are soaring. In some households, meat may be becoming more of a luxury than before due to recent high prices,” he explains. “But, on average, Canadian consumers are still committed to consuming pork and pork products.”
Local demand for Canadian pork comes from both households and foodservice.
“Through 2020, we saw significant growth in the number of Ontarians searching for pork recipes online. Foodservice demand is beginning to return with the reopening of restaurants, and pandemic-driven interest in home cooking and home-delivery meals remains strong,” Ash explains.
“While labour shortages and input costs have contributed to higher prices across protein sectors, this can be a potential catalyst for increased pork demand as individuals looking for traditional sources of protein move away from higher-priced offerings,” she adds. “Demand for local food has certainly been heightened by supply chain shortages seen through the pandemic – and this is especially visible in small and rural communities.”
Building a business
In rural Alberta, Alan and Nicola Irving have seen that demand firsthand. Nicola is the owner and general manager of Irvings Farm Fresh Ltd.
At Irvings, they sell pork products made from local Alberta swine.
“We’ve steadily grown our business over the last 15 years and we find that demand for pork is high,” she says. “There’s been a steady increase in consumer awareness about the importance of supporting small local businesses like ours.”
The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated that demand.
“Earlier in 2020 when the meat supply chains were experiencing issues, we were so busy we had a hard time keeping up,” Irving explains. “That demand has remained high, and we’ve had to make some shifts in the way we run our facility to keep up with that demand.”
The operation has already changed considerably over the years to adjust the business model and fill customer needs. The business started as a commercial kitchen in early 2006 to make quality pork sausages that the Irvings missed from the U.K., where they emigrated from in 2005.
“We first started raising our own pork later in 2006 after we purchased a batch of about 20 Berkshire feeder pigs from a farm nearby,” Irving explains. “We loved the Berkshires so much we sourced some breeding stock and started breeding our pork. Over the next few years, we expanded our small herd to give us a year-round supply for our meat business.”
Their meat business grew as they expanded their herd.
“We outgrew the acreage and our commercial kitchen within two years, so we sold and moved to a larger property,” she says. “We converted a farm shop into a meat processing facility, making everything from scratch and doing it all ourselves, except the slaughter.”
After four more years of growth, the breeding operation was too big for them to manage. The Irvings started to outsource breeding and focus on a feed-to-finish operation and food processing.
“This allowed us to keep control of the meat processing, while also controlling the growing and finishing of the pigs,” Irving adds. “What makes us unique is that we focussed on the Berkshire breed and we raised them in a free-range outdoor system. The breed does well in a system like this.”
Structure & marketing
When selling directly to consumers, producers can choose many different formats. Farm store, online or phone orders with delivery and farmers’ markets are all viable options.
In June 2006, “we started selling our products at local farmers’ markets and with small retailers and restaurants in the Edmonton area,” Irving explains.
“At the time we thought we would build our business in farmers’ markets with the hope of expanding into major retail in the future,” she says. “Over the years our vision has changed, and although we do sell to smaller retailers and independent restaurants, we have decided to stay selling in the farmers’ markets. Selling into major retailers has so many barriers, and we like to be able to connect directly with our customers.”
When farmers are first working on how to structure their direct marketing business, using government programs or industry resources can help.
“There are many government programs geared towards helping new businesses get established and with technology becoming easier to use, online marketing can expand the reach of small retail operations,” Ash says.
“In addition, Ontario Pork provides branded resources for retail and foodservice partners that highlight attributes valued by consumers – stressing that pork has no added hormones and is a natural product raised by local farmers,” she explains. “Partners can work with Ontario Pork to explore other promotional opportunities, including being added to an interactive ‘where to buy’ map.”
Ontario Pork has a dedicated retail and foodservice marketing specialist, Ivan Teves, who works with producers exploring farmgate and other types of sales.
Marketing can be challenging if you’re new to it, says Ash.
When producers partner with Ontario Pork, “they’re able to create synergies with a well-established and recognized brand already supported by a strong marketing campaign and online resources,” she explains. “Ontarians know and trust the Ontario Pork logo and associate it with quality products that are produced locally.”
Producers can also access marketing resources, such as “social media accounts, on-package branding and take-home items like recipe cards to inspire their customer’s meal prep decisions,” she adds.
Industry groups in other provinces offer some similar opportunities. Alberta Pork has an interactive map of local pork producers and retailers at passionforpork.com.
“We’ve always taken advantage of workshops and webinars offered in our area that help us with marketing,” Irving says. “We read a lot and try to learn from other businesses. That means researching and following on social media. Asking our customers for feedback. It’s a continual learning process.”
Growing your business
With constantly changing technology, marketing is evolving rapidly.
“Keeping up can be a challenge. The overall goal though, whatever the medium, is to make our customers feel valued and appreciated,” Irving says.
“We’ve always worked hard to provide exceptional customer service. When you have a great quality product, coupled with great customer service, most of our new customers come via word of mouth,” she explains. “We’ve always had a good website and are active on several social media channels. We work with our partners to cross-market our products.”
For example, the restaurants they sell products to show the Irvings Farm Fresh Ltd. name on their menus.
“We’re also active in the farmers’ markets we attend,” she says. “We truly have been blessed with great staff!”
The Irvings keep up with current trends in food demand to adapt their product to what consumers are looking for.
For example, when demand grew for gluten-free products, the Irvings decided “to dedicate our facility to making allergen-friendly products, without compromising taste and quality,” Irving explains.
“The other area we focused on was making British-style products. There are so many expats here looking for the taste of home.”
Finally, a key component to marketing is having a genuinely good product that you believe in.
Many Canadian pork producers are raising just that.
“I have to say that the majority of our customers will come back to us and say that they’ve never tasted pork like it,” Irving says.
“It’s a great breed, raised in an environment that’s low stress. On the processing side, we take care on quality and presentation and keep the recipes simple. The majority of business is repeat customers who are happy to spread the word about our products for us.” BP