Pfenning’s and the business of organic growing

Farming is a strange business these days. Steeped in tradition and rooted in love of the land, vegetable growing now involves layers of regulations, packaging and brand development, processing infrastructure, logistics, accounting, and supply chain relationships.

We consumers demand vegetables year-round, while southern Ontario fields yield fresh produce for about half that time. And we want clean, crisp, unblemished product, necessitating a mix of washing, packaging, refrigeration, efficient transport, and much product discarded. Hours spent by farmers on the business of selling product is time away from growing and harvesting it.

For over 50 small ecological farmers, one solution is to sell their vegetables to Pfenning’s Organic Farms. Pfenning’s has emerged as a major packer and distributor of organic produce in southwestern Ontario, as well as growing carrots, corn, and peas on 700 acres in New Hamburg, west of Kitchener.

I spoke to Jenn Pfenning, whose parents-in-law, Wilhelm and Barnhild, founded the business. She told me that they immigrated to Canada in 1981, after the fields that Wilhelm’s family had farmed for generations in Germany were expropriated for a new highway overpass. Slowly they formed sales relationships with Ontario’s pioneering health food stores of the time, including Karma.

In the 1990s, their sons Wolfgang and Ekk (Jenn’s husband) took over the farm but shifted from direct sales to a distributor. That distributor did not have a strong connection to the local farm community, so Ontario growers were forced to compete with low-cost California imports even in peak season. Meanwhile, retailers were calling Pfenning’s for local vegetables that distributors didn’t offer.

In 2004, Pfenning’s returned to direct sales, offering their own produce and a little imported product to fill the gaps. The business evolved as other farmers started offering their product at wholesale to sell. Pfenning’s has the infrastructure to store, wash, and pack produce, and sell it under their brand—all operations that require scale.

Pfenning’s does not require contracts or acreage commitments, nor do they set yield expectations for their growing partners. Pfenning’s asks only that their partners record time and materials inputs for fair pricing. They also sell other farmers’ brands, such as HOPE Eco-Farm, so those farmers can minimize their own accounting and logistics work.

Jenn explained that Pfenning’s has a range of import relationships with small family farms and like-minded distributors in California, Florida, and Georgia, but maintains an absolute dedication to local first. The provenance of their vegetables fluctuates, but the bulk are Ontario-grown and over half are from their own fields.

Each summer Pfenning’s hires 25 men from Jamaica (20 per cent of their peak season workforce), under Canada’s seasonal agricultural worker program. Jenn advocates for human rights and better treatment of migrant workers as an integral part of sustainable agriculture.

I visited the centre of operations at Pfenning’s, a huge old barn converted into an industrial-looking packing facility, with warm spacious timber-framed offices taking up much of the second floor. A river of beets and rainbow carrots covered the two conveyor belts that morning as three-person teams sorted and packed them into bags. Bins of brightly coloured vegetables were moved by forklift. Upstairs, there was a quiet buzz from people on phones and computers. Two dogs greeted office visitors. Barnhild, now in her 80s, occupied a recliner near Ekk’s standing desk.

In winter, 40 or so people are employed in the office and warehouse, on packing lines, and driving trucks. Wolfgang and his wife, Regina, live in the house next to the barn, while Ekk and Jenn live across the road. Some of their young adult children work with them. Ekk is the logistics mastermind; he manages import licences and trucking contracts, and arranges deliveries to approximately 100 retailers. It’s a long way from the family’s fields outside of the medieval-era German village where Wilhelm started farming—and not just in a geographical sense.

Amy Stein is writing a series of articles about Karma’s farm-based suppliers.

Read more articles from the spring 2017 issue of Karma’s printed newsletter, The Chronicle.