Ethical businesses make good money

Will Braun, Senior Writer
<p>One of the products available at Fresh From the Farm. (Photo by Will Braun)</p>

If you want Tamworth heritage bacon or Golden Guernsey milk, Jacqui Schmucker can provide them. If you want maple syrup from a horse-and-buggy farm or honey from a black-bumper Mennonite farm, she’s got that too. If you want to know who grew your food, where and how, she can do that too, with an energetic smile to boot.

For most of two decades, Jacqui and her husband Tim have run Fresh From the Farm, an alternative grocery store that serves as a bridge between Toronto consumers and Amish and Mennonite farmers.

I showed up at their Toronto store on a Tuesday in March. From the outside, it is just one of a strip of little old shops on an ordinary big city commercial street. Inside, Jacqui greets customers as friends. She explains to me why a children’s play area is important. She tells me I should have come on a Thursday when the shelves and aisles would be fuller.

That’s because the store’s truck goes out on Wednesday afternoons to 10 or more farms, depending on the season, most in Waterloo Region west of the city. As their customers know, the following day the shelves will brim with top-quality, locally grown goodness, along with a range of fair-trade products from farther afield.

Tim talks about their friendship with some of the farmers, four of whom have been with them since 1996, when the Schmuckers founded their business on principles of ecological, as well as economic, sustainability.

That means farmers need to get a price that works for them. He recounts a recent negotiation with a farmer over meat prices. The farmer asked if it would be okay if he raised the price he charged the Schmuckers by about a dollar a kilogram. Tim said “okay.” Done deal.

Similarly, Tim says, “If we make a good living, our employees should too.” That means the eight adult employees get approximately double the minimum wage. Teenagers receive up to 60 percent over minimum wage.

The story of Fresh From the Farm is not only about principled business. It is also about a thriving venture. I was there on the first day of business after a significant expansion, the first phase of a $400,000 renovation.

Another Mennonite-run business that combines passion with business savvy is Peasant’s Pick Market Gardens, run by the father and son team of Eric and Tim Yoder of Rosthern, Sask. Like the Schmuckers, they provide premium quality, unbeatable freshness, old-fashioned personal service and the one option that no supermarket can offer: a sense of wholesomeness and connection.

The Yoders sell a full range of vegetables directly to their customers at the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market. They have their operation down to a science and an art.

Tim starts the plants, handles the retail end, keeps records and tracks weather systems, all with meticulous attentiveness. Eric transplants, weeds and waters, with a precision honed over 35-plus years. They share harvesting and prep of vegetables. Eric emphasizes the efficiency of their system—which they continue to tweak, refine and clearly delight in.

Their selling points are quality and aesthetics.

“We go out of our way to put out the most beautiful produce we can,” Eric says. “We don’t need gimmicks, just the real thing.” They also charge the highest prices at the market.

Their approach works. Eric has been selling at the market since 1977. Tim came on board in the mid-1990s. The business is going strong, providing a good income off a remarkably small land base of just over 0.2 hectares. It clearly provides a high quality of life as well. Their enthusiasm runs deep and broad, from soil science, agricultural history and plant chemistry, to non-motorized farm tools, creative market displays and ecological health.  

At 68, Eric says that growing vegetables is “an entirely pleasurable activity,” hailstorms excepted. “I want to see how long I can do it.”

One of the products available at Fresh From the Farm. (Photo by Will Braun)

Jacqui Schmucker at the alternative grocery store she and her husband Tim run in Toronto. (Photo by Will Braun)

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