By Jeff Tribe
It could be seen as the most rural of mid-life metamorphosis. Jeremy Toth did turn in his banker’s suit for blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, but rather than speeding down the highway in a shiny new convertible, he’s slowly rolling through the five-acre Braemar Hills Farm on a venerable 1965 Massey-Ferguson 135.
“My mid-life crisis could have been I go out and buy a Corvette, or I go out and grow vegetables,” laughed the Embro-area producer.
Toth has very much returned to his rural roots, however lessons imported from the vault of his former career continue to stand him in good stead.
He and wife Angela Langlois experienced a “storm of events” seven years ago around the September birth of their youngest daughter, culminating a four-year search for a country property that April, bookended the following spring by severance from his banking position. Toth would make a subsequent one-year return as a financial planner, however a joint decision ultimately favoured the holistic family benefits of pursuing a home-based option while Langlois stuck to her career as a school teacher.
“We decided it would be better for one of us to stay home if we could.”
Toth grew up on a former tobacco farm in the Princeton area, his father, uncle and grandfather cash cropping 300 acres. His career path was steered by academic proficiency in math, accounting and economics and the early 2000s sale of the family farm.
“Commodity prices were garbage,” said Toth, who was working in a factory at the time and considered buying the farm. “But it would have taken my entire wage to cover the mortgage.”
Tipped off to their current property’s sale by Langlois’ parents who farm in the neighbourhood, its purchase included a structurally-sound 40-year-old house and three acres of workable land.
“What can you do with that?” Toth questioned before arriving at Ontario garlic after two years of simply renting it out.
“Profit per acre, it’s pretty decent,” he explained, particularly without wholesaling. “Especially at this size.”
Garlic remains a core crop for Breamar Hills, whose three-acre “garden” expanded to include 18 different crops in 2021 including onions, shallots, carrots, kale and lettuce. A 80-by-18-foot drip irrigation hoop house extends the growing season for one early crop of radishes, carrots and lettuce along with tomatoes and pickling and English cucumbers. Toth has also added dehydrated garlic, garlic and onion, garlic scapes and sea salt, and garlic-infused olive oil, representing 10 per cent of income in 2020 and 40 in 2021.
“The nice thing is, it gives us sales all year.”
Braemar Hills is committed to sustainable production including glass bottles over plastic, compostable bags and fibre planting trays.
“It increases our costs but most consumers recognize that these days.”
A hen house hosts 28 layers which is not enough for stand-alone sales, but eggs do occasionally enhance weekly veggie baskets.
Crops are grown in raised beds 30 inches wide and 130 feet long, an additional 30 feet over standard due to his property’s profile. The Massey carries a two-row scuffler, cultivator and two-furrow plough.
“They get used less and less every year because we are switching to permanent beds,” says Toth, who leans heavily on an old Honda rear-tire rototiller sourced at auction for $300 he calls “the best thing I’ve ever purchased.”
Braemar employs Emma, a “fantastic” summer student from a nearby dairy farm who typically puts in seven-hour days. Emma’s far-reaching contributions extended to covering during a two-week Toth/Langlois family camping trip last summer, part of an effort to find work/life balance.
“She just held down the fort.”
The couple’s four children are involved, each owning a raised bed section from planning through planting, weeding and harvest; and also are paid for garlic piece work.
“They have a better idea of how much work is involved in making money, especially hard work,” says Toth.
Every child controls earnings destinations, part of far-reaching benefits including encouraging a work ethic, horticultural experience, financial literacy, avoidance of excessive screen time, and responsibility. Each child approaches their finances a little differently, says Toth from spender to “hoarder”, a category occupied by their middle daughter.
“She’s got more than the other three combined,” he laughed.
Toth also lists Bob, a 13-year-old border collie as part of the team - “definitely a help out there, keeps me company,” and credits his father and organic cash cropping father-in-law for valuable agricultural advice, other friends and family for ongoing support, and crucially, a “patient, supportive wife.
“You kind of need that if you are changing careers on a dime.”
The how and the who are undeniably important, however it doesn’t take a former banker to understand the vital nature of an adequate bottom line.
Braemar Farms does feature a traditional farmgate stand, however a growing majority of product is moved through a web-based virtual storefront powered by Local Line. Drag and drop capability includes live inventory updates and customer management software which displays inventory and processes credit card payments.
The virtual storefront also hosts Braemar’s Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) option. Traditional CSAs typically require shareholders to pay upfront for a season for a produce box of varying sizes, whose seasonally-based contents often present a weekly surprise. Toth’s interpretation is a CSA fee which translates into store credit plus ten per cent bonus across his 10 to 12-week harvest season. CSA clients can simply receive a small or regular weekly box assembled by Toth, or select individual items from what’s available against their credit total. Credit carries through the season and onward if not fully used up. The approach adds personal choice and variety he believes to a mutually-beneficial concept.
“Nobody wants a pound of garlic every week in their box.”
He updates store inventory every Sunday, allowing time for CSA clients to consider their selections by Wednesday, for fresh-from-the-field pick-up or delivery Saturday.
“It will get picked that morning.”
Toth does deliver weekly into Woodstock and more regularly in and around Embro, but a majority of clients (85 per cent) pick up their provender, “especially CSA,” who seem to enjoy a weekly connection with their food’s production source.
The online virtual storefront was instituted part-way through 2020, representing between 30 and 40 per cent of (credit card) sales that season, totals rising to 80 per cent in 2021. The software tracks sales and can produce weekly or monthly reports, allowing Toth to study trends and make data-supported decisions given customer preference along with factors including input versus return.
“I love reports,” he admitted with a smile. “I guess that’s my banking background.”
Marketing is extremely important says Toth, particularly given they do not attend a farmer’s market. Apart from their dedicated Braemar Hills Farm website (braemarhills farm.com) they are featured in Oxford Fresh, a printed tourism map, website and Facebook page highlighting farmgate sites, and are active on Instagram and Facebook, posting daily in-season and weekly or bi-weekly in the off-season.
“If people don’t know who you are or where to find you, you won’t have sales.”
It’s also important to be a “good citizen” amongst one’s agricultural peers, Toth emphasizes.
“Absolutely we compete with each other. But it doesn’t do anyone any favours to try and steal business from each other or undercut each other.”
He occasionally misses his former life, in particular clients and co-workers.
“I could do it, but it was always banker me, not me. I’m definitely happier in my current environment.”
Comparing income over the first couple of years to his banking salary was admittedly something of a shock.
“You scratch your head and think oh my gosh, what was I thinking?” Toth laughed.
But apart from the very real distinction between what you make and what you are able to keep, the business has continued to grow amidst undeniable benefits. His enhanced presence has been timely for their children and their educational journey during the pandemic, as well as providing better food options and time to work and play alongside them.
“We definitely eat better as a family because I’m home,” admits Toth.
And in a very real sense, the statement extends to Toth himself, his weight and blood pressure both went down significantly while embracing a challenging yet fulfilling “mid-life vegetable growing crisis.”
“Getting back to where I originally started growing up is probably the best part of it all,” he concluded. “It’s not just living in the country and still doing the nine-to-five job, but actually living a country lifestyle.” ◊