Succession through diversification

Marketing changes for Prairie wheat and barley

Highlights

  • Established farms sometimes head in different directions when the next generation becomes involved
  • Terry and Bonnie Ludwig’s farm started as a dairy operation but morphed into many different things as their children grew and started participating
  • Being open to new opportunities has allowed everyone in the family to pursue their dreams

Established farms sometimes head in different directions when the next generation becomes involved, and that has certainly been the case for the Ludwig family farm on Vancouver Island.

In 2004, Terry and Bonnie Ludwig called Abel O’Brennan to help them build two heifer barns on their large dairy farm near Black Creek. Abel and the Ludwig’s daughter Amanda were high school sweethearts.

Since the pair had been dating for some time, Abel was well-known to the family. He’d worked in construction after graduation, then went to the northern Alberta oilfields while Amanda attended Trinity Western University at Langley, B.C. But it was his construction experience that had interested the Ludwigs.

The winery is my baby. I always enjoyed wine and thought it would be a good way to add value to our fruit production.

Soon after Abel returned to Black Creek, the two married. He began to work on the farm, but discovered he was allergic to cows. 

Amanda’s two younger brothers, Phillip and Daniel, didn’t share their parents’ passion for dairy either. All three siblings wanted to stay on the farm, though, which by the mid-2000s included about 1,000 acres and was milking 260 cows three times a day.

Exploring options

“We held family meetings in 2007-08 to determine our interests and options,” Abel says. Phillip wanted to work with wood, and Daniel had an interest in beekeeping. Abel thought fruit production might offer opportunities if the family were to get out of livestock. 

After meeting a Washington State berry propagator and packer who was looking for additional product, the family decided to plant a trial field of blackberries – despite having no previous experience.

“The fruit was a collective idea. We thought blackberries might be a niche we could exploit,” Abel says. “If we knew then what we know now, we probably would have done things differently.”

They soon incorporated raspberries and blueberries, and further diversified with a portable sawmill as well as beekeeping and honey extraction equipment.

The new ventures were not without start-up difficulties. Because much of the farm is low-lying land, some berry fields flooded or had high water tables that led to significant issues with root rot in both the raspberries and blackberries.

As a result, all the raspberries were taken out and the farm now grows 65 acres of blackberries and 37 of blueberries. That ratio will change as the family increases the blueberry acreage – they’re less susceptible to root rot and it’s the more stable berry market. 

Because berries alone would not sustain the farm, the boys branched into corn, pumpkins and squash. “In 2015, we shipped 15 semi-loads of produce off the farm,” Abel notes.

Come taste the wine

In 2010, Coastal Black Fruit Winery was added to the mix.

“The winery is my baby,” Abel says. “I always enjoyed wine and thought it would be a good way to add value to our fruit production.”
Abel and Amanda took the plunge despite having no experience or training as winemakers. “I took a couple of wine appreciation courses, then hired a consultant to walk me through the process the first year. I like the winemaking, and it takes up only a fraction of my time,” Abel explains.

They produced 6,500 cases of fruit wine in 2015-16, but have the capacity for 10,000 cases a year. Most of the product is sold directly to B.C. consumers either at the farm, online (there’s free shipping for case-lot orders) or through about 100 Vancouver Island liquor stores. Thirty-five to 40 per cent is exported to China.

At the same time, Abel and his brothers-in-law made a major foray into agri-tourism. They built a bistro with a wood-fired pizza oven, open from Mother’s Day to Labour Day, into the winery. In the fall they’re occupied with a highly successful Pumpkin Festival that attracted about 15,000 visitors in 2015, and there are plans to increase pumpkin production and expand the festival further. 

December is devoted to a Christmas festival complete with ice carvings, reindeer and camels (actually, they’re alpacas dressed up as camels).

They once hosted weddings too, but stopped that as it involved more late-night management than they were willing to provide.

Separate interests and different entities

The milling venture, honey and beekeeping business, and the winery are all incorporated as separate entities. That creates challenges for the family’s accountant and insurance agent, Abel admits. But it works well for him and his brothers-in-law, “because we all do our own thing.”

Their “own thing” has proved very successful for all three. There are now five employees in the milling venture, and one helper for beekeeping and honey extraction through the summer. Abel hires four full-time and up to 30 seasonal workers for the winery, including over a dozen workers from Mexico hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program . Since SAWP workers are housed on-farm, “we hear a lot of Spanish music all summer long,” Abel says.

Divesting and investing

In order for the next generation to pursue their dreams, the Ludwig parents, Terry and Bonnie, sold their cows and quota and later divested some of their land – bringing the farm down to 430 acres on two properties.

They’ve since decided they’re not only too young to retire, but they missed living out their own dream. So three years ago they bought a dairy farm in Saskatchewan, and now spend most of their time building up that business.

“Their initial idea was to set up the farm, hire a manager, and spend only a week or two a month there,” Abel explains. “It’s turned out to be exactly the opposite. Instead of spending months on the island and weeks there, they are spending months in Saskatchewan and only weeks in B.C. They are now building a new milking parlour and planning to expand the herd (already at well over 150 cows). I don’t think they’ll ever retire.”

As for Abel, he’s just happy the family’s diversification efforts have facilitated succession, keeping everyone’s dreams alive.

From an AgriSuccess article (May/June 2016) by David Schmidt.