Richard Vignola has one of those jobs you never knew existed, but would love to have.
“We’ve been at this for 32 years now, and it’s still pretty sweet,” says the British Columbia entrepreneur.
“We get to shake hands with the people who buy our products and we get to shake hands with the people who grow them. So we make this human link. That’s what we do and why we travel the world.”
Vignola, wife Sue, and children Simon and Natalia operate Rancho Vignola, which sells about $3.5 million worth of fresh nuts and dried fruit to buying groups (many are schools, churches and Hutterite colonies) as well as individuals and some stores. Their business is seasonal. Orders – the minimum is $500 – start going out in November and when the shipping season concludes a few months later, the warehouse in Armstrong shuts down and the Vignolas hit the road.
They have visited virtually all of the 60 farms they buy from, and scouted hundreds more. There’s an organic cranberry supplier in Quebec and a B.C. hazelnut operation, but many are abroad – California, Bali, Australia, and Vietnam. This past winter, Vignola even went to the Amazon rainforest to see Peruvian farmers harvest Brazil nuts (accounts of many trips are at www.ranchovignola.com).
But most of the farms he visits are regular family operations. Well, not quite. Vignola only contracts from farms he considers special and they must score high on two counts.
“We look for things that are unique,” he says. “The quality of the product comes first, but then it’s the people and their story. By telling these stories, our food becomes very different and is no longer a commodity. The food and the story of the food go together.”
For example, there’s dried cranberries from Quebec’s Fruit d’Or in Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes. The story here is of two farmers and their partners who – instead of pressing the juice from cranberries and using sugar solutions to sweeten them – created an “infusing vat” and use organic apple juice as a sweetener. Similarly, you might learn the almonds or raisins you bought were produced from farmers who built nesting sites for barn owls, instead of using pesticides to control rodents.
Stories like these make for a powerful marketing strategy.
“I think this is the future of food marketing,” says Vignola. “We see that with our customers. They’re very loyal and won’t buy almonds at a big chain store because they’re cheaper. They buy them from us because they know where they are grown and they feel a connection, through us, to the grower.”
Of course, this theme has driven the local food movement, and is the reason why websites, Facebook, and Twitter are becoming as standard as tractors on so many farms. But a slick website or a Tweet about tasty fresh-picked veggies won’t make a story powerful, says Vignola. There has to be a lot more than marketing wiles at work.
Vignola says the farmers he buys from are driven. Some dedicate themselves to turn the commodity they produce into a value-added product.
“For example, I’ve found California farmers have a much better idea of value-added,” he says. “So you find almond growers who are doing further processing, such as chocolate-coated or flavour-roasted. They are very savvy when it comes to value-added and branding, and doing something to make themselves stand out.”
For others, it’s a quest to create healthier soils, or find varieties or production methods that best suit their locale and growing conditions — an attitude that runs deep in organic producers Vignola contracts from.
“In the organic market, they understand why they are there. It’s not just that they’re getting better money for their product, it’s more of a mission for them.”
That word – mission – may seem a little strong, but Vignola says that’s the common thread linking the most innovative farmers he’s met on his worldwide travels.
“A good farmer is always a passionate farmer, someone who really has an interest in growing the best crops,” he says.
“That passion is central, it is No. 1. It’s what drives that person, the thing that motivates them every day. It makes them want to be better, to find a way to improve, and it makes them constantly ask themselves, ‘How can I do this better?’”
That may sound romantic, almost old-fashioned. But it’s not.
Look at those farmers who excel at something – whether that’s selling direct from the farm, figuring out what works and what doesn’t in precision ag, or achieving the highest margin on every bushel of grain – and you’ll find someone who is relentless about doing better.
There’s no item labelled ‘passion’ on the balance sheet, but it’s the most valuable asset on some farms.
Archived columns from this series can be found at www.fcc-fac.ca/learning. Farm Credit Canada enables business management skill development through resources such as this column, and information and learning events available across Canada.