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Rainy River farmers take the market by the horns

Devlin beef farmer Kim Cornell wouldn't call himself the pied piper of wireless, but it's sure paying off in building a loyal following.
Devlin farmer Kim Cornell (left) invested in a wireless Visa/debit card machine to sell beef products at area markets.

Devlin beef farmer Kim Cornell wouldn't call himself the pied piper of wireless, but it's sure paying off in building a loyal following.

His investment in a wireless Visa/Debit machine to sell beef products at regional farmers' markets across northwestern Ontario cleared the way for his own approach to direct marketing. His persistence and ingenuity earned him a Premier's Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence this past summer.

Putting a face behind a product has part of the family's farming history in the area dating back to its earliest roots in 1897. "When my father (Gord) worked at the Fort Frances mill, he sold sides of beef by word of mouth."

Cornell Farms is about 10 km west of Fort Frances where Kim and wife, Pat, raise between 500 and 600 head of Angus and Hereford cows.

Mad Cow Disease in 2003 cut a huge chunk out of their breeding stock business, but Cornell was determined to fill that hole. He made a concentrated push to sell burger patties, cold meat, steak and some sausage at regional farmers' markets in Fort Frances, Thunder Bay, Kenora, Sioux Lookout and Atikokan.

With 11,000 cows in the Rainy River district, there is plenty of local competition for consumers, so it meant taking to the road to market his pasture-raised, all-natural beef products.

What turned him onto wireless technology came after a visiting Calgary musical group was using a Visa/debit card device at their merchandise table to sell t-shirts and CD's. The battery-powered device worked like a cell phone.

"I said to my wife, look at that, I want one."

He saw it again during a technology presentation at the North American Farm-Direct Marketing Conference in Calgary two years ago. In the U.S., they sell for $250 apiece and companies issue them to employees to wear on their belts.

Still relatively new in Canada, it proved frustrating for Cornell to buy one. Canadian banks only lease them for $50 a month.

An internet search led him to Global Payments Inc., a U.S. banking solutions firm, where he bought one machine for $1,500. TBay Tel did the programming for him.

"It's an expensive little devil, but it really does build sales," says Cornell.

In terms of consumer convenience, it sure built loyalty.

"What's happening at the markets is people spend their cash at the other booths and come get their meat last. That's where it really pays for itself."

On one busy market day, three-quarter of his sales were wireless transactions.

With major food scares in Canada, there are many more health and food-conscious shoppers. Cornell doesn't market his beef as organic; it's "natural" grass-fed, and pastured-raised.

The questions he seeks to dismiss at his booth are always the same. "Do you use growth hormones and do you feed cows to cows?" He does use antibiotics on his animals for therapeutic reasons. "Once I explain that to people, I haven't had a person say, I won't buy it."

At the Thunder Bay market, a three hour's drive away, people are thrilled to buy beef products straight from the farmer. "I can't get meat down there fast enough."

But it is like anything else in farming, building new markets takes hard work, and the day is only so long. "There's lot of market here. I don't have to go any farther, I just have to do what I do a little better."

Until a few years ago, agriculture in the Rainy River district was stagnating. First there was the Mad Cow scare, then local vegetable growers who were selling to a local grocery store were cut off while the chain went to preferred suppliers.

It prompted the Rainy River chapter of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) to host a one-day workshop in 2005 to discuss what could be done to jump-start the sector. What came out of it was an action plan for a new provincially-inspected abattoir, grow out local farmers' market opportunities and promote an Eat Local campaign.

"At that time everyone was talking about globalization," says OFA chapter president Trish Neilson, herself a beef farmer in Stratton.

"Many farmers started to see Rainy River becoming the bread basket of the Northwest," adds Cornell.
Neilson is encouraging them to think value-added specialty products, while educating townsfolk on what local growers and producers have to offer.

Canadian and U.S. federal regulations hamper beef farmers from shipping beef products across the border and into neighbouring Manitoba to Winnipeg's big St. Norbert's Farmers Market.

One idea to emerge was making the Clover Valley Farmers' Market in Fort Frances an incorporated, for-profit body owned by local shareholders. Located on a commercial property next to the Canadian Tire, the market has done well with only 30 vending days annually.

To grow it out, they launched a food box program. For $25, customers receive a box stocked with local produce.
More than a hundred boxes a month are sold in outlying communities of Emo, Rainy River and Atikokan. Kenora and Sioux Lookout have expressed keen interest as well and Cornell thinks it could grow to a few thousand boxes a mouth.

"We view the food box as a sort of economic development tool," says Cornell.

Neilson says it's a better deal for farmers by eliminating the grocery chain middlemen. "Farmers have always been told to get bigger. Sell those calves and stay out the marketplace. Economies of scale are nothing more than a race to the bottom."

She hopes the Maple Leaf Meats contamination scare makes consumers openly question where their food originates from and how it's handled. And she hopes farmers are up to meet the challenge.

"The best way to guarantee that your food is safe, buy it from the guy who produces it," says Neilson. "The healthiest route is to know the produce, know how they're handling the food and buy it direct. We've handed that responsibility off to the government and it's been a poor one."

This year, a much-needed agriculture project is finally taking shape. Local farmers are also edging forward to breaking ground on a long overdue abattoir. The area has been without one since a Stratton slaughterhouse went bankrupt in 1997.

This past summer, the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund provided $500,000 for a 3,900-square-foot not-for-profit, community-owned abattoir in Emo. It would be provincially-inspected and will reduce transportation costs by helping to eliminate the need for local livestock to be shipped out for the district to Dryden.

There's no timeline for construction yet with more funding announcements and a contractor tending process still to come.

"It's as close as it's ever been and we're pretty excited about it," says Neilson. "It's going to be an exciting time in northwestern Ontario but it's not without it's work and challenges." 

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