Young farmer’s business growth hindered by lack of funding

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Jenny Spring, owner of The Spring Farmer, is on a mission to bring healthy, organic, local food to Huntsville residents.

In its second season of growing, The Spring Farmer already has a loyal following. Its stand at the Huntsville Farmers’ Market sells out every week. Its CSA (community-supported agriculture) program sold out for the season with 30 families – who bought shares in the spring – collecting a weekly basket of produce. And there is strong demand from local restaurants and retailers – including Steamers Steakhouse at Deerhurst Resort, Café Wilgress, The Great Vine, Totem Juice Company, Farmer’s Daughter, Bartlett Lodge and Arowhon Pines – for daily fresh produce. All from a 1.5-acre leased farm, five downtown plots, and a 2,280-square-foot greenhouse. Jenny and her small team can barely keep up with demand.

Most of the long hours spent planting, harvesting, washing and selling is done by Jenny, her partner Oliver Wolfe and a summer intern – this year, Valentine from Toulouse, France joined them – with help from Jenny’s mom Mary, short-term staff in the spring, and volunteers. On the day that I spoke with Jenny and Oliver, Andrew Bridle, owner of the Pita Pit in Huntsville, was spending a day volunteering to learn more about their operations.

 

“It’s important for young people to run businesses. So many leave here and never come back. There’s lots of attention directed at tourism but that just creates a fake identity here. The reality is that locals can’t afford that lifestyle. We need to support year-round businesses that can employ people.”Jenny Spring

“People want to talk to their farmer,” said Spring. “It’s refreshing and we’re happy to educate people.” But like everything else in the life of an entrepreneur, it takes time. Time that they don’t have. Spring and Wolfe don’t just work the land. They do the books, make deliveries, and keep customers updated via social media and newsletters. “How can we do it all and be healthy ourselves? We need to grow to hire employees and be sustainable.” But that requires infrastructure. And infrastructure requires capital.

Summer intern Valentine harvests beans at The Spring Farm. Photo by Emily Blackman.

Summer intern Valentine harvests beans at The Spring Farm. Photo by Emily Blackman.

Efficient systems would have the largest impact on their growth. “With a good irrigation system, our crops would grow better and we wouldn’t have to water by hand. A greens harvester costs $2500 but it would save hours of work. So would a better seeder,” she said.

There’s also the issue of land. “I lease land because I can’t afford to buy it,” said Spring. “Locally, it can cost more than a million for decent-sized, ready-to-farm land. We are very lucky that a local man offered his farm for us to use. But we need to get infrastructure in place so we can make a profit to buy our own land.”

And that won’t just be good for them. “As soon as we can get to a sustainable point, we could provide income for several workers,” added Wolfe. “We just need a kickstart to get to a point where we aren’t scraping together money to get through the season.”

They’re modeling their plans in part on a similar-sized farming operation in Quebec, one that produces ten times what The Spring Farm is able to. “They are a 1.5-acre, intensive, organic farm. They have a 300-person CSA program – they feed a lot of people. But they got a big federal grant to help them get started.”

It’s at that level – local and federal government – where they’ve run into roadblocks. “As a young person, I don’t know how to access help,” said Spring. She contacted Muskoka Parry Sound MP Tony Clement’s office several times but it wasn’t until she called him out on social media platform Instagram that she got a reply and a meeting. “His first suggestion was that we try a bank loan. But I know there are federal grants for farmers, funding for agriculture. That’s the advice I was looking for.”

Oliver Wolfe heads out to do some early-morning harvesting at The Spring Farm. Photo by Emily Blackman.

Oliver Wolfe heads out to do some early-morning harvesting at The Spring Farm. Photo by Emily Blackman.

The Spring Farm also encountered roadblocks with local permits. “It took a really long time to get the permits needed to build the greenhouse. The town is very strict with policy and we felt like they tried to make it even harder.”

Spring doesn’t understand why young entrepreneurs in general and young farmers in particular don’t get more help from all levels of government. “It’s important for young people to run businesses. So many leave here and never come back. There’s lots of attention directed at tourism but that just creates a fake identity here. The reality is that locals can’t afford that lifestyle. We need to support year-round businesses that can employ people.”

The farm could run year-round, said Wolfe. “We don’t have to be seasonal. The greenhouse can grow crops from March through November and then we could grow microgreens and start seeds through the winter.” But that would require heating infrastructure to ward off the cold of a Muskoka winter.

Jenny Spring harvests tomatoes in the greenhouse at The Spring Farm. Photo by Emily Blackman.

Jenny Spring harvests tomatoes in the greenhouse at The Spring Farm. Photo by Emily Blackman.

They’re not complaining about their plight, though. They’ve chosen this lifestyle and recognize that all entrepreneurs face an uphill climb to success. “But we’re feeding people and keeping money local,” said Spring. “And we’re cutting down on food transportation costs. Those are all positive things for our local economy. Plus, the organic movement is growing – other young farmers contact us for advice so we know there are more coming. We just need support.”

We contacted the Muskoka-Parry Sound candidates for their responses to two questions: How do you think young entrepreneurs benefit the area? What is your party’s stance on helping young entrepreneurs, particularly those engaged in agriculture? Those who responded said:

Tony Clement, Conservative Party

I had the pleasure of meeting with The Spring Farmer while going door-to-door in Huntsville in mid-August. She explained her concerns, and I gave her some advice on where she could look for assistance, including talking with the Business Development Bank of Canada about possible funding. I know that the Conservative Government helped fund a Sustainable New Agri-Food Products program, which I understand The Spring Farmer was able to access last year to construct a new greenhouse. I also let her know that if I am re-elected, I would be more than pleased to help her find other opportunities to grow her business. And that goes for all our hard-working entrepreneurs, of any age, in any field. I know they are the backbone of our local economy. They will always have my full attention and support.

Trisha Cowie, Liberal Party

The story of The Spring Farm in providing produce that is nutritious, accessible and flavourful within North Muskoka is an excellent example of the importance of the efforts of young entrepreneurs such as Jenny Spring, both in fulfilling a dream and contributing to a vibrant economy.

So too is the support for her efforts shown by her business partners, volunteers, and other community organizations such as local farmers’ markets and the Muskoka North Good Food Co-op.  Strong and sustainable communities are built on the combined efforts of entrepreneurs of all ages and from all sectors, and partnerships of volunteers and effective community organizations.

Entrepreneurs both young and old often require financial support when building or expanding their ventures. Jenny Spring’s initiative in accessing existing government programs for needed support for expansion speaks to the importance of such programs, as well as the need for both provincial and federal governments to continue them.

What is also essential to the success of entrepreneurs of all ages is a strong and vibrant economy in which start-up business can thrive and grow. Past experience shows that such an economy requires a strong middle class and opportunities for those who aspire to join that group.

That is why Justin Trudeau and a Liberal government will invest in families, so Canadians can make ends meet; and in infrastructure such as roads and bridges, so our commutes are faster and safer; and in clean energy, so we can ensure a sustainable environment for our children and grandchildren.

To achieve those goals, a Liberal government will:

Provide a $3 billion tax cut for the people who need it most by cutting the middle class tax rate by seven percent from 22 to 20.5% ;

Create a new Canada Child Benefit – one that’s simple, meaningful, monthly, tax-free, and fair. For example, a typical family of four, earning $90,000, will get a tax-free payment of $490 every month─ more than $2500 a year to that middle class family ─ tax-free.

A strong middle class is essential to a robust economy in which entrepreneurs of all ages and from all sectors can prosper.

Glen Hodgson, Green Party

The Green Party is the party for small business and new entrepreneurs. Small businesses employ most Canadians, and the economic impact of their success primarily remains in Canada – circulating dollars in the local economy.

An easily-accessible and integrated system for business development and growth must be made available in cities of all sizes in Canada to create the business climate that will entice home-grown entrepreneurs to stay.

The Green Party would establish a federally-funded Green Venture Capital Fund to  support viable small local green business start-ups and set up a Green Venture Capital Funding Program providing matching federal funds for locally-raised venture capital upto a set limit per community.

We are particularly proud to be the one party that has always supported and encouraged local agriculture and we have a whole section of our platform devoted to reinvigorating and supporting local and small farmers in communities across this country.

For centuries, family farms were the foundation of our society and economy. Over the last five decades, federal policies, subsidies, and changing technologies have shifted food production from small ecologically-sustainable family farms to giant agribusinesses. This shift has given multinational corporations control over our food supply. Meanwhile, farmers increasingly rely on off-farm income to survive.

People need healthy food and the healthiest food choices are local. With growing concerns over economic and climatic instability, a reliable domestic food supply is essential. Family-owned and operated farms of small to medium size constitute the most reliable, high quality, and economical food production system, now and into our uncertain future.

Green Party MPs will develop a National Agricultural and Food Policy which will support the ‘200 kilometre diet’ and locally grown food through expansion of farmers’ markets and local culinary tourism activities. We will enable local areas without industrial-scale agriculture to develop area-specific food safety regulations meeting national standards without placing undue financial burdens on local farmers and food processors and assist in re-establishing the architecture of local food production in canneries, slaughterhouses, and other value-added food processing.

We would also encourage and support the consumption of locally-grown food by promoting adequate shelf space in grocery chains for products from local farms and local food processors.

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12 Comments

  1. Hard work and long working hours during the spring/summer.autumn months make it difficult to go through applications and red tape for possible funding. However, once the season slows down the Spring Farmers will have more time apply for future funding. These farmers are driven and they will continue to provide local, healthy food to the Huntsville community.

  2. Shelly is right. There are plenty of programs available, but one must jump through the hoops, so to speak. There is a service in Bracebridge that offers free assistance in the application process. Contact Muskoka Futures, and they will set you up with them in advance of your application submission. The service is free, and their raison d’être is to help startups and young companies access funds. Jenny or Oliver would be well advised to take time away from the field to pursue these opportunities. As Shelly said, the money’s out there. It won’t come to you. You have to pursue it. Good Luck to Spring Farm.

  3. My concern regarding organic vegetables and fruit is the consumer cost hitting the grocery stores. It is unaffordable for the people who really require a better quality food in their diet. Diabetics and underprivileged children may never have the option to have a healthy diet. I realize the high cost to local farmers to grow these foods and transport them to grocery stores, but at what cost to the consumer? The wealthy have a choice, but the low income families must continue to eat chemically produced food. Just Sayin’.

    • Great Point John. What people need to realize is the cost to takes to grow organically. Food costs at the grocery store are low because they are grown at mass productions, with cheap labour (usually Mexicans or Jamaicans paid at a very low price) and are controlled with pesticides/herbicides. This makes farming way faster when you don’t have to deal with bugs or weeds. Growing organically is very expensive. An example; our tomato plants are started in mid February where we have to pay for heat, electricity, and water, soil, multiple pots as they get bigger and labour to keep them going until June when they can then be transplanted into our greenhouse. We then pay propane costs to heat the greenhouse and the tomatoes are then sold at the market in late August/early September. That’s 6 months of care until they are sold for $3-$5/lb. While growing in the greenhouse there are a bunch more costs as well. In fact, prices are still too low for what it takes to grow the produce. We also need to pay ourselves for this time and we don’t believe in hiring migrant workers for cheap labour. What comes with organic gardening is treating our workers correctly which can also reflect in cost. So you are buying into a belief as well as a product.

      People need to change their ideas of costs on good quality food. People have no problem spending $6 on a coffee. The more people buy organic the more prices will drop. Try going to farmers markets-this is where you can find organic products for cheaper than the grocery stores.

    • Colin Sõber-Williams on

      Hi John, that’s a very good point. I’d like to note that our local farmers are very aware of this disparity and looking to address it as best they can by donating surplus produce to our local service agencies and low-income families. Community Care also offers a Good Food Box Program that helps to reduce these costs even further. If enough people are willing to support our local food system, farmers and eaters will also benefit through certain economies of scale.

  4. I don’t know about age limits on funding personally, however I’ve found the opposite. We’ve been supported by OMAFRAs Rural Economic Development Fund, funding for a new ice cream freezer a year ago, and funding for a trade show the year before that. Also working on a Growing Forward 2 grant now. There is loads of funding for small business in this region. I think the challenge is for small businesses to invest the time in sorting through the application processes. It’s a massively demanding process to sift through the applications. Once you show that you are a viable business that will grow and eventually sustain meaningful employment in the area they are all over you with funding. I’d recommend hiring a grant company the first time around to learn from the process then after that owners will have a good grasp of how to do it for themselves. The money is there, you just need to find it

  5. I was so excited to find the Spring Garden produce in the market. I purchased 3 big bags of salad green plus plus and the produce was such good quality it lasted through a road trip and was just as fresh and good after a week as when I bought it.

  6. Great to learn about these young, local farming entrepreneurs. I didn’t know. Very detailed story. These folks are inspiring, in taking ahold of their future (and helping us all in the process). I hope they get the handup they seek. They’re not looking for a handout.

  7. Great article, Dawn, on a very important component of community and district resilience.

    Given our French nationality and family friends, we had the pleasure of introducing Toulousaine Agronomy student, Valentine Prévot, to Jenny Spring and are now translating her academic report.

    One of the principal goals of our Newholm Community Heritage Centre is to re-establish, as in pioneer times, a village hub that offers local community folks a permanent meeting place to exchange cultural and social support, food, goods and services.

    Your article will no doubt strike a chord with the expanding local pool of agricultural people, and will open important and evolving ideas to a wider and attentive audience.

    John Rivière-Anderson
    Newholm Community Heritage Centre
    Proikos Green Aquaculture
    Rivière-Anderson Translation

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