Social media drives business on this Manitoba farm

Many different things make a modern farm a success. For Winnipeg area farmers, Will and Jen Bergmann, success comes from using social media to tap into conversations about agriculture. This helps them determine what their customers want and what they need to know more about so they can adapt their business practices accordingly.

“Unlike many farms, we are located 10 minutes from an urban centre, so our lives and our community are both urban and rural,” says Will, third generation farmer. “We have daily conversations with people who have no connection to agriculture and that is changing the course of how we look at our farm and how we have chosen to engage with people.” The Bergmanns are the 2019 winners of the Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program award for the Manitoba region. The main farm, Bergmann Bros., was established in 1925 and produces canola, corn, wheat, soybeans, oats and pork. Will’s father and uncle are still active partners.

Seven years ago, Will and Jen decided that the farm was where they wanted to build their family and their future, so they purchased a portion of the business from another uncle.

Jen was an elementary school teacher, but recently decided to stay on the farm to raise their three small children and focus on photography and other side interests. ยป

The couple bring a creative approach to the business of farming. With backgrounds in music and photography, they continually look for unique ways to diversify their already successful conventional grain and finishing pig operation. They developed a successful organic community supported agriculture (CSA) business and partnered in a farmto- plate restaurant called Oxbow. They’ve also made social media a big part of their business model.

As growers who run both a conventional farming operation and an organic CSA, they are adamant that it takes all types of farming to meet the different needs of today’s consumers, both locally and around the world. “We run the CSA as an organic farm for business, not moral reasons,” says Will.

“Our local urban customers wanted organic vegetables and on this scale, for these customers, it can be easily done. But once they come to our farm and we have built a relationship, they listen and see that we use conventional farming products in other areas of farming. Our goal needs to be safe, nutritious, affordable food for everyone, with all types of farmers farming all different ways.”

The CSA is a labour intensive operation. The Bergmanns plant, weed, pick and deliver to central Winnipeg locations where their customers pick up fresh vegetables weekly, from June through to October. At one point, one of their customers had a surplus of leftover vegetables, which they shared with a relative who owned a restaurant and that grew into a demand for local in-season vegetables for nearby restaurants.

“The more we provided locally, the more we realized we wanted to be part of the local food scene,” says Will. “Our grain farm had been shipping globally for generations, but we had never really been part of the local food scene until now. As artistic people, we wanted to bring another level of art to food preparation, so we started working with local chefs to discuss what we could do with the food we grew.”

This led to their partnership in a Winnipeg restaurant, called Oxbow, which highlights locally grown food prepared in unique ways. “While our role is to provide the ingredients, we also go to the restaurant and talk to the customers to tell people the story of farmers and farming,” he says. “We also have these discussions with the chefs when they are preparing the menu so our influence is part of the dialogue around food.”

Will says the conversations he’s had with the urban community has changed dramatically since returning to the farm. He realized pretty quickly that many people who don’t work in agriculture think they know a lot, due to the availability of online information, but that information rarely comes from those working on the farm. So he decided that it was up to those who worked in agriculture to share what is really going on.

“We also realized that the conversation goes both ways,” he says. “I started out telling people what I felt they didn’t know, but I realized I needed to listen to what their concerns were and make sure we were having a discussion and to make sure that everyone was fully engaged in that discussion. It doesn’t help to fight online, you have to build trust, to build relationships and then information can be shared.”

While they are active on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Instagram is the tool of the urban population while Twitter tends to be the discussion place for farmers themselves, says Will, so they tailor their message accordingly. The Bergmanns say that social media has been the driving force of their business and they believe it is very important for farmers to use online tools to tell their stories.

“Every story is important, and most people don’t know a modern day farmer or know anything about the practice of farming itself,” he says. “They don’t understand how quickly a discussion turns into policy, which can have a big impact on farmer families.”

Food is something that everyone on the planet has in common and it is often the reason people gather together. “As farmers growing food, we have the amazing ability to connect with everyone (around food),” says Will. “It’s important that we take the opportunity to connect on that level to make sure people have a part in the discussions.”

The Bergmanns have been asked to speak to others about how they promote agriculture through farming ventures and social media activities. The Canola Grower’s Association brought Will to Toronto to speak to food industry people (chefs and bloggers) about farms, farm life and where their food comes from. They are open to sharing the story of agriculture with anyone.

Jen and Will together are making sure their children are introduced to farm life from a young age. Their three children, Brooklyn (7), Cole (5) and Emmett (4) are with them whenever possible, be that on the grain farm or helping out with the CSA. Jen says that being around fresh produce has changed the way their kids eat, and they hope it has an impact on their community as well. “We are educating our kids, our friends and our community whenever and however we can to make sure that anytime anyone has a question about what we do, there is an answer we can give to people on any level,” she says.

“I became more involved with the farm at the same time we began the CSA, as that was around the same time I stopped teaching,” says Jen. “I do the online management of the CSA, including customer orders and tracking, and play a huge role in our content creation. While Will is a bigger voice on social media, I take a lot of the photographs and talk directly with our customers. The photos help tell the story of agriculture in visual format while talking to customers is another way to share what we know about this business.”

The Bergmanns hope to continue their education mindset by hosting more urban customers on their farm. This July, chefs from around Canada will be visiting their farm to learn more about the different sides of the business, along with a day long foraging event. At the end of the day, they will prepare a large dinner on the farm for Winnipeg food lovers to enjoy.

“It’s the perfect opportunity to bring the food world together, and for us to show everything we have learned as farmers,” says Will. “We think this local and artistic preparation of food is one of the biggest current food trends, and we have developed our farm, our CSA and our partnership in the restaurant to be able to be a big part in that trend going forward.” FF

Photo Credit: WILL AND JEN BERGMANN