When Steve and Lisa Cooper realized they needed more than their keen desire to farm if they wanted to run a progressive, successful farm business, they did what any determined entrepreneur would do: they made a plan.
The Coopers operate a vibrant, 250-acre farm family business just north of Toronto, Ontario with their two teenaged children. More than four million consumers live within a one-hour drive of their farm that produces over 30 different market garden crops, raises beef, pork, goats and turkeys, and markets directly to consumers through “u-pick” and community supported agriculture (CSA).
The idea for their farm business actually began when the two met while working for IBM. “Working and living in a big city helped us quickly realize that we wanted to be more in control of our future, and one that involved running our own business and working outside,” says Steve. “After starting our farm, it took us about a dozen years to figure out that being a good farmer wasn’t enough to be successful. We could grow crops and raise livestock, but without core business skills – like any small business – we weren’t going to grow and be successful.”
Adding the kind of skills they needed to build a stronger, sustainable business began when they started to plan the direction they wanted to take over the next three to five years. They set about to broaden their scope – travelling, networking, and gaining new skills in programs like the Advanced Agricultural Leadership Program and other leadership courses – to sharpen their focus on where they wanted to take their farm business. With millions of potential customers and consumers near their farm gate, it was crystal clear that connecting directly with consumers was a natural fit.
Their work on the business side of their farm is clearly paying dividends. Their farm market, maze and agro-tainment operation has grown to include 500 families on their CSA program through the summer months, and 200 throughout the winter. Adding livestock has helped them engage with their customers with farm-fresh food all year long. And in 2010, the Coopers were named Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers (after also receiving the Ontario title) – a special honour recognizing excellence in their business operation and their overall positive contribution to agriculture.
“We know that consumers are interested in face time with the people who grow their food and seeing what’s going on at the farm,” says Steve. “Lisa and I are both really comfortable talking with people and answering questions about agriculture.” Read more about the Cooper’s CSA Farm and Maze.