Company gives ethics priority

BADEN, Ont. — Business acumen lies behind Pfenning’s Organic Farm, but another element to success is equally important, if not more so.

“I’d rather lose money than compromise ethics,” Jenn Pfenning said.

She and her husband, Ekk, operate the business with other family members. Ekk’s mother, Barnhild, is still involved.

The family, which founded the operation in 1981, farms 700 acres of owned and rented land and has developed a distribution network that connects numerous organic farmers in Ontario to retailers, including one of Canada’s largest chains. Employment at the business peaked at 130 workers this summer. The focus is on vegetables, including root and cole crops and a range of greens.

“We have a truck on the road every day delivering to Toronto, and we work with smaller acreage farmers,” Pfenning said.

“The Big Carrot was one of the first organic retailers in Ontario and we’ve sold to them since they first opened.”

Business arrangements with retailers are formal, but the Pfennings use handshake agreements with their farm suppliers.

The family decided to keep the business’s food safety certification, even though they no longer work with the large retail chain that required it.

The business also imports organic produce for redistribution.

“We’re totally committed to local production above imports, but it makes sense for us to round up our offerings with things we can’t grow here,” Pfenning said. “It helps keep our people working.”

The business has a large payroll, which includes a contingent of Jamaican men hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

“It has flaws, which I think many people have read about, but to me the benefits outweigh the flaws,” she said.

“The answer is to fix the program, not to scrap it.… It provides us with people who are very skilled.”

Pfenning and her family maintain an interest in the lives of their workers and their families. She cited examples of long-time employees from Jamaica, a job-poor nation, being able to put their children through school.

Besides, the Pfennings say they have not been able to find enough willing Canadians for the work, although tapping into the area’s Sikh-Canadian community has helped.

The Pfennings also pay close attention to their soil. They work with Michigan crop consultant Joe Scrimger, who focuses on biological health.

They grow small grain and cover crops for rotational purposes, and regularly apply compost made with various sources of manure.

“This is the United Nations’ Year of the Soil and soil biology fascinates me,” she said.

“We have a field at the back end of the farm that was hard clay. My father-in-law was three-furrow plowing. He said the ground was so heavy it lifted the tractor when he tried to drop the plow. After 30 years of work, it’s in good shape.”

The business is profitable, al-though margins may be slim in some years, Pfenning said.

“We didn’t have a money tree so we worked with what was here.”

The distribution business was started in the 140-year-old bank barn on the family’s home farm. A large warehouse with an energy-efficient system for heating and cooling is a later investment.

Pfenning’s Organic Farm is a well recognized name within Ontario’s organic farming community.

The operation opened its doors to visitors Dec. 3 in conjunction with the second annual Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario conference.

The Pfenning family traces their farming roots to 17th century Europe.

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