Diverse Alberta farm focuses on consumer

BIG VALLEY, Alta. — When Cremona Primrose fills egg cartons for her city customers, she always adds a blue-green egg for a little variety.

Those added touches are part of the direct marketing plan Cornel and Cremona Primrose have created for their farm near Big Valley in central Alberta.

A commercial dairy is the mainstay of Primrose Farms but they have expanded into selling eggs, whole milk processed on farm, as well as home-raised veal, beef and pork.

While Cornel runs the farm and is a licensed milk processor, Cremona tends the animals and does the marketing using Facebook contacts.

Both grew up in the area and attended Olds College where Cornel studied farm and ranch management while Cremona took animal science. They bought the farm in 2000 and have changed the business from a commercial dairy to a targeted direct marketing plan.

“Part of the drive in going with direct marketing was to keep the small farm. The reality is if you are just a commodity farmer on a small scale it is extremely tough, but if you get into value-added and direct marketing, it is a whole other line of work, but you can get more profit,” Cornel said.

“Our focus is to grow a brand name of Primrose Farms,” he said.

Their first foray was selling eggs to urbanites, which Cremona hauls to Calgary and Edmonton every week. Using Facebook, customers are notified of the next pop-up market where she distributes orders from their refrigerated trailer.

“You start a relationship with customers who want to know where their food source is coming from. You build a trusting relationship with them,” she said.

She considered hiring help to do the deliveries but has learned that customers want to meet the farmer.

Soon, her egg customers started to ask what else she had for sale so the Primroses added beef, pork and whole milk.

The milk is available direct from the truck, at the Calgary Farmers’ Market and Italian Centre Shops located in Calgary and Edmonton.

The Primroses also secured a deal with the Italian Centre to sell veal for the last two years.

Bulls from the dairy herd not used for breeding go to the beef market and veal calves are processed at Messenger Meats in Mirror, Alta. The veal is sold under the Messenger Meats label but if consumers are interested, they can trace the veal back to their farm.

Becoming a milk processor took considerable planning and training.

“It took us two and a half years of planning the milk processing plant and getting it going while you are trying to farm at the same time. We are running a business within a business,” Cremona said.

When they built a new dairy barn, the processing facility was included. Cornel devotes a day or two a week to bottle pasteurized milk into two and four litre jugs with their own labels printed at the farm.

He just started making yogurt. The plan is to travel to the Okanagan this summer to find a partner to supply fruit to mix with the yogurt.

He took courses through the Alberta Food Research Centre at Leduc where he obtained a pasteurization licence, bulk graders licence and a variance from regulatory services so he could move milk from the barn to his provincially inspected plant.

About five percent of the milk from about 100 cows goes through their own facility.

“The long-term goal is to process what we produce on the farm. When we get to that point, we will decide whether to grow the farm in size,” he said.

The farm maintains a website and relies on Facebook where there were about 2,500 followers in one month. Besides the sales side, Cremona posts information about the farm and tells anecdotes about their life.

Their products are slightly more expensive than what people usually pay in stores and the Primroses have seen first-hand the ups and downs in the economy.

Cremona said direct marketing was more difficult this winter than it had been the previous two winters. Some of their customers were laid off or had family members laid off and they had to cut back on their spending.

“It was humbling to know they were still spending money on us,” she said.

The business model is structured for expansion and if either of their two young daughters, Careese, nine and Ceaxna, six, want to join the farm, there is an opportunity.

The original farm was a Holstein-based dairy but over time the Primroses switched the herd to Fleckvieh. Semen and embryos were bought from Europe to build a crossbred and purebred herd.

Their purebred herd is closed but they are still importing Fleckvieh semen.

Cows are kept for four to five lactations and are replaced with new heifers to upgrade the herd. They may have a second career as a nurse cow for cow-calf operators.

“A lot of cows have earned their keep here and you know there is a lot more potential for years to come,” Cremona said.

They also supply purebred bull stock that is exported to the U.S. dairy studs.

“Our bull calves are one of our biggest money makers. The purebred stock we can sell some locally for clean–up bulls for local dairies but the bulk of them go stateside for breeding bulls,” Cornel said.

In 2011, they installed a robot milker to save on labour and have since hired a local couple, Dean and Danelle Jones, who believe in what the Primroses are doing.

The laying hen side of the business has grown but the Primroses keep the flock at 300 birds so they do not have to buy a production quota.

The birds are free to roam a large area and live in a specially designed coop with nesting boxes. Cremona wants specific breeds of chickens that are hardy enough to go outside, perch and scratch, as well as produce eggs. The flock includes Americana for blue-green eggs and some Rhode Island Reds and she is adding Black Stars, Red Stars and Australorps.

The farm maintains an open door policy and is open to tours. The Primroses joined the Alberta Agriculture Open Farm Days program where the public can visit during a weekend in August.

Cremona said a side benefit of direct marketing is getting to hear what consumers think.

“ You get just such feedback from the consumer knowing how much they enjoy things.”

As well, she said, the information flows both ways.

“A lot of farmers have become disconnected from the consumer and sometimes you have to go back and ask what would you like me to produce,” Cornel said.

“There is a growing consumer base that wants to know where their food comes from and it is not about the science and the production of food, it is more about the relationship,” said Cornel.

“It is what gives you the energy to keep going.

“We chose a career of farming and we are here to grow food for people and the more contact you have with the customer the more rewarding it gets,” he said.

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