Marlin Martin doesn’t care much for technology. The 34-year-old Mennonite farmer doesn’t own a smartphone or have internet access, although he uses electricity on his farm outside Dundalk, Ont.; he uses a horse and buggy, and he raises his cattle hormone – and antibiotic – free on the grasses of Marita Fields. However, he’s decided that a partnership with an e-commerce startup is the best way to get his products to market.
Since the fall of 2018, Mr. Martin has been working with NIKU Farms, a Toronto-based e-commerce startup that is bringing the tradition of farmer’s markets online by creating a site where Greater Toronto Area consumers can order curated boxes of ethically sourced meat directly from local farmers without having to leave the city.
On paper, NIKU and Mr. Martin, who lives on his farm with his wife Rita and their six children, make for strange bedfellows, his values seemingly at odds with a hyperconnected world. But Mr. Martin’s traditionalist farming practices are in step with what many modern consumers are looking for and e-commerce is proving the best way to reach those consumers.
“We’re not into much technology here, but NIKU was willing to work with me and the way we do stuff,” he says. “I think it’s the way the world is going whether we like it or not and if that’s where the customers are, that’s how we’ll let them know about us.”
NIKU Farms sends a weekly e-mail to customers with a selection of boxes made up of meats sourced from independent, small-scale farms. Orders are finalized Sunday and the next day they are phoned into the farmers, including Mr. Martin, who has a landline.
On Wednesdays, Mr. Martin takes his buggy down the road to a neighbour’s house, where a stack of freshly printed shipping labels await him. When he returns to Marita Fields, he packs frozen cuts of his grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken into sleekly branded NIKU Farms boxes for UPS to pick up and ship to customers in the GTA.
Leveraging e-commerce in this way allows Marita Fields to sell direct to consumers and avoid selling through supermarkets or wholesale food distributors, which Mr. Martin says is “an anonymous way of doing things.”
He also doesn’t have the time to be in the city hawking his meat at farmer’s markets. “I think there’s value in partnerships, working with marketers in the city rather than trying to be there and be at home,” Mr. Martin says. “You can’t be everywhere and do everything.”
NIKU Farms founder Jake Goldberg says the concept evolved around farms like Marita Fields that were trying to avoid the grind of coming into the city for farmer’s markets.
“A lot of these farms are struggling to sell their meat to people who are willing to pay a premium price for it,” Mr. Goldberg says. And for a farmer like Mr. Martin, who has 75 cows selected for their genetics that are pasture raised for at least three years, the economics of selling just a few choice cuts don’t add up.
NIKU Farms boxes (which start at $150) are curated with this in mind. “If you want a bunch of steaks, we’re also going to give you some ground beef or else the farmers are stuck with this meat,” Mr. Goldberg says. “And that’s just not how the system needs to operate.”
Marita Fields’ way of doing things sits right in the centre of the growing societal conversation surrounding ethical meat.
According to a 2018 study by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, 49 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they are concerned with the humane treatment of animals compared with 40 per cent in 2017.
“I think the younger consumers are more conscientious on where their food’s coming from,” Mr. Martin says. “The customer that’s important to me is informed and interested in what we’re doing.”
Craig Martin, a business professor at the Canadian Mennonite University’s Redekop School of Business, says Marita Fields and NIKU Farms have found a potentially lucrative partnership, especially with the growing proportion of agricultural marketing devoted to letting consumers know where their food comes from and how it was raised.
“In the case of Marlin and Rita, even though you’re buying through NIKU you know that beef came from them. … Marlin can probably tell you what field it was grazed on,” he said. “There are lots of people in Toronto who will pay lots of money for this type of product.”
That is, if the small-scale farms can reach those types of consumers, says business professor Mr. Martin, who considers himself a “progressive” Mennonite. “In all honesty, you’re going to have to use technology in some way whether it’s directly or indirectly.”
He points out that a growing number of small-scale farmers, many of them Mennonite, are starting to see the value of retailing through digital channels. Like the slow creep of technology that led some Mennonites to embrace things such as telephones and electricity in the past, connectivity through the internet is becoming an unavoidable aspect of building a sustainable business.
“I understand the traditions they’re holding to,” he says. “But it becomes more and more difficult, especially if you’re trying to market into Toronto or any urban area like Vancouver or Montreal or here in Winnipeg – everyone is connected.”