Farmers Cooperative Dairy Ltd.
Jacqueline Bent dines each morning with dozens of her friends and family members, and a multitude of strangers.
That’s because the Annapolis Valley farmer and mother of four appears on cartons of Farmers Dairy fat-free chocolate milk, as part of the co-operative’s marketing campaign, highlighting shareholder farmers.
“A lot of relatives and friends have said ‘I have breakfast with you every morning,’” says her husband, Allen, who himself appears on several large Farmers billboards under the campaign tagline: “We are your Farmers.”
“The kids get quite a kick out of it,” he says.
The story-telling campaign launched last spring and it has been gaining momentum ever since, says Derek Estabrook, vice-president of marketing and business development at Farmers Co-operative Dairy.
“All of our packaging, and every ad, features our shareholders. They’re not actors, they’re not stories we made up,” he says. “It’s very, very authentic, and I think that’s resonated very well with consumers. We’re really saying ‘We’re one of you.’
“We’ve always known that we’re a proud Atlantic Canada company, but a lot of consumers haven’t really known it. We could be a multinational company, for all they know. We’re also a co-operative, and we feel that being owned by 150 dairy farmers is a pretty powerful story. If you’re in this province and you’re buying Farmers Dairy products, you’re supporting the economy right in your own backyard.”
The company has a long history in the region: Farmers was founded in 1921 and became a co-operative in 1961, quite uncommon in such a large industry. It now has 128 shareholder farmers: 119 in Nova Scotia and nine in Newfoundland. It employs about 550 people, not counting shareholders and people working on their farms.
Along with its main processing plant on Hammonds Plains Road in Bedford, Farmers also has a cheese, butter, and dairy powder plant in Truro. It also owns Central Dairies in Newfoundland and operates a milk and Swiss cheese plant in St. John’s. Its products include milk of every variety, cheese, butter, ice cream, yogurt and sour cream.
“I don’t think there’s a dairy in Canada that makes more products than we do,” says Estabrook. “That’s enabled our brand to be very strong, because there are so many products in your fridge or freezer that have the Farmers name on them.”
Many of its products have been innovative and extremely successful, including fat-free chocolate milk, launched earlier in 2009, the popular 20/80 spread – a butter-margarine combo – and milkshakes, available in both tetra packs and refrigerated versions, developed more than 20 years ago.
“We’ve packaged that product under a bunch of different brand names and we’ve licensed that formula, literally, to companies around the world,” notes Estabrook.
While it’s difficult to export dairy products outside the country, due to trade regulations and tariffs, Farmers does send lots of its ice cream to the Caribbean, and ships its UHT-packaged nutrition beverages to the U.S. The industrial dairy plant in Truro – the only one of its kind in Nova Scotia – processes excess milk for use in food products and ingredients made elsewhere in Canada.
Its shareholder farmers play an integral role in the company, particularly those who sit on the Board of Directors, says Estabrook. But they also have an unofficial role, serving as “the eyes and ears” of Farmers Dairy.
“They own a piece of the company, so anything they see, any idea they have – if they go into a store and like what they see, or don’t like what they see – that call will come here,” says Estabrook. “They’re very active.”
That sense of commitment can be traced back to the pride Farmers shareholders, including Allen Bent, a member of its Board of Directors, take in their own agricultural businesses.
“I live on the farm I grew up on,” says Bent, who has a herd of 100 dairy cows. “We want it to be a modern and efficient farm. We hope if one or more of our children want to come home and farm, we’ll have given them that opportunity. We do take a lot of pride in our farm because it is an extension of our family.”
In many places, multinationals are buying up local businesses and dairy farms in the U.S. are often mammoth: the average dairy farm in Canada has 60 cows, while it’s common for farms south of the border to have herds of 1,000 to 5,000 cows. With that in mind, Bent says it’s imperative for farmers to be involved in each step of the process, something belonging to a co-operative allows.
“It’s absolutely critical to realize what we have, to keep what we have, and to build on that,” he says. “We can exercise a little more control over our product, where we want our product to go, how we want our product to be used.”
As consumers begin to take more interest in where their food originates, and make extra efforts to “buy local,” Farmers is well positioned.
“We are your Farmers”, which also features the Bekkers family in Antigonish, the Langelaans in Aylesford, and the Versteegs in Milford Station, aptly illustrates that all-important local connection for Nova Scotians.