In ten words or less, what’s so special about your products?
Organic, grass-fed, soy-free milk, with under one food mile.
Intriguing. Tell us more.
Francis, my husband, and I were both dairy farmers all our lives. In 1989 we bought my parents’ farm. We’re very close to Kingston, just on the city limits. 24 years ago, we decided to go organic, which was one of the best things we’ve ever done.
Then, nine years ago, we joined a pilot project. It allowed us to build an on-farm dairy plant and farm store so that we could create and sell our own products right here. Our kids are excited to work on the farm with us and so the four of us are all one big team.
What’s so special about this is that we oversee the entire process, from growing the grass that feeds the animals to milking the cows to processing and packaging the milk and dairy products we make, then either selling them here in our farm store or delivering them to our customers’ front door.
My husband’s father used to deliver milk in the Netherlands and so he too had always wanted to own a milk delivery service. It’s very unique.
What exactly is a dairy plant and what happens there?
It’s where we process the milk into all of the delicious products we sell. That’s also where the milk gets packaged into glass bottles and stored in a cold room until it gets sold in our farm store or we deliver it to our customers.
It is where we make our chocolate milk, whipping cream, table cream, butter and even our delicious ice cream.
Ice cream made right on your farm sounds great. What flavours do you sell?
We have a Guinness and ginger, which is really popular, and Unicorn Surprise for the kids. Raspberry Belgian chocolate, chocolate mousse, maple walnut, which lots of people like. Golden Jersey custard, because we milk some Jersey cows.
We developed the flavours ourselves, mostly me with our kids, Patrick and Olivia. We started by testing flavours that we liked ourselves and then went from there. Once we started selling our first flavours, we then listened to customer requests. This summer, we added soft serve to the menu.
Starting a food business, especially of this size, isn't cheap. How did you fund yours?
Because we were part of a pilot program, we did receive a rural economic development fund grant to help with the expenses.
We did use our own savings, but I don’t think that without it we would have been able to start a project of this size.
Did you receive any help from Frontenac Business Services? Can you share some examples?
Absolutely. For example, because the farm faces a busy road we had to pay to have a slip lane put in, they helped us obtain an interest-free loan to get that work done. That work alone cost us $30,000.
We also applied for several grants for machinery that they helped us obtain over the years. They really have always been incredibly helpful.
How did you make the move from being dairy farmers to being food manufacturers?
We were very lucky that our children were interested in being part of the business. Patrick, my son, is incredibly good with machinery and engineering and my daughter Olivia has a real knack to look after the marketing and the store. So, the combination is working out really, really well.
Where are you now? Where is your business going?
We have so many opportunities, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. Apart from selling our dairy products in our farm store, our milk and cream are also available in 20 local, independent stores from Belleville to Merrickville.
Additionally, we now deliver to about 750 homes in the Kingston area, from Odessa in the west to Kingston Mills in the east and north to Sydenham.
Over time, we started adding products and produce from other farmers to our delivery service. At the moment, we sell the products and offer home delivery for around 35 local farms. Along with our dairy products, there are many organic fruits and vegetables available, organic grass-fed beef, pork, and chicken, and a variety of ready-made meals and baked goods. The home delivery business alone has doubled over the last 18 months.
We’re incredibly lucky in the Kingston area that local food has always been popular around here, perhaps before it was elsewhere. In a large part, this is due to the hard work of the National Farmer’s Union promoting local, organic food and the small family farms in the Kingston area that produce it. This has helped us to get where we are today and now of course there are so many young farmers out there, lots of market gardeners, introducing innovation and creating a real sense of abundance.
What’s so special about doing business in Frontenac?
There are so many people around here that are like-minded and looking for local, clean and organic food. I’m really impressed with the knowledge that people have about food. And as I mentioned before, there are so many young farmers now provide that food, there’s a real movement.
We’re lucky to have three hospitals and two universities and a college nearby, and a lot of people interested in food. It’s such a nice and supportive area to live and work in.
Finally, do you have a checklist that you could share, your top three tips to keep in mind when starting a food business? Things you wished you would have known yourself.
Talk to others who are doing what you want to do or something similar. Don’t be shy. Most people I know like to talk about their business and they like to help others.
Then, make sure your location works for you. In our instance, if we weren’t located so close to downtown Kingston and right on a busy highway, I don’t know if our delivery would work as well, and I don’t think our farm store would be nearly as busy.
And thirdly, I would look really hard for grants and opportunities and programs and small business loans, because they’re out there. Frontenac Business Services are really trying to help small businesses, so take advantage of that help.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.