Brothers hang Together
A solid work ethic and rural-road smarts have served the Streef brothers well. Those are two of the qualities instilled into the five by their parents.
There’s another quality, however, that may have had more of an influence on their success than any other. The Streef brothers – and their wives – have melded their skills to work as a team.
“As a family, we’re each able to find our own area of expertise and we’re able to work together to achieve one common goal,” Albert Streef said.
“That attitude has everything to do with our upbringing.”
The goal that Albert speaks of has been a moving target since he and his brothers broke into farming in 1977. They bought 100 acres near the little community of Princeton in Southwestern Ontario with a plan to establish a vegetable farm, marketing the produce at the farm gate.
It was a tack similar to that taken by their Dutch immigrant parents who worked a 7-acre market garden as a sideline. Jan and Johanna Streef came to Canada in the 1950s with little more than their ambition.
“My father, when he first came to this country, did everything from working for lumber camps up north to working for Canadian Packer in Toronto,” Albert said.
The brothers had chosen their location carefully, along the main two-lane highway in the area. The construction of four-lane expressway stole their customer traffic and so they began taking their vegetables to as many as 17 farmers’ markets.
The move to wholesale came a few years later. They had discovered that wholesale prices in Toronto were almost as good as retail at the markets and the volume they could sell was far greater. In addition, the demand for potatoes was sharp.
By the 1990s, the brothers were focusing on potato production. Today, they farm about 3,500 acres of sandy loam east of Woodstock, including 1,400 acres of potatoes and smaller acreages of fresh market picking cucumbers, snap beans and baby carrots.
They’ve also acquired office and warehouse space at the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto where they market their own produce, produce from other Ontario farmers, and imports.
Albert and Peter head up the marketing division. Jack concentrates on equipment and plant maintenance. John devotes his time to the agronomic success of the enterprise. Martin, the eldest, focuses on the cucumber, snap bean and carrot production and, as president of the company, is responsible for the overall business management.
Peter’s wife, Karen, looks after accounts payable and is the office manager at the Princeton location. Olivia, Martin’s wife, looks after accounts receivable. John’s wife Lena works in the office on a part-time basis. The other two Streef brother wives, Cory and Janna, have their own careers.
Another key player at Streef Produce is plant manager Marlene Polley, a savvy farmer from the area with many years experience working on tobacco farms.
There are as many as 120 employees, including 41 Jamaicans who work seasonally.
The management of the various aspects of the business – primary production, packing and transport, marketing and distribution – is a daunting challenge in itself. The family must also contend with the kind of low margins with which North American farmers are all too familiar.
There’s no room for mistakes.
On the positive side, Ontario has a large population and is a net importer of potatoes. That gives growers in the province a distinct advantage. Their market is close.
The Ontario Potato Board, which oversees both fresh and processing potatoes, facilitates orderly marketing, Martin and Albert say. Albert continues to serve on the board, is the past president, and also chaired the potato section of the Ontario Horticultural Council.
Ontario growers are not marketing in isolation, however. They compete with growers in Prince Edward Island, Washington State, and many other regions.
Marketable yields of 170 to 180 cwt. per acre are common in Ontario. In Washington State, the average yield is 575 cwt., Martin said.
The past year has been especially challenging. After the 2002 shortfall, many North American growers boosted their acreage and, as it turned out, yields were generally higher than average. That left a glut on the market in the fall of 2003. Producers across the continent were scrambling to find buyers, he said.
“The previous year, for the first time in 27 years that we’ve been in business, there was a shortage. It was a tight supply and everyone chased it,” he said. “We didn’t expect to give it (profits from 2002) back but we did and then some.”
On the demand side, the low-carbohydrate craze hasn’t helped and an educational effort is need to turn the situation around. Specific to Ontario was the impact of the SARS outbreak. Tourists stayed away in droves and that slashed demand for potatoes from the food service industry. In addition, blackout in the Great Lakes region last summer had a negative impact.
This year, upwards of a half a million pounds of Streef potatoes with either be fed to cattle or buried. Last fall, 300 acres left undug because orders were delayed and the brothers only have storage for 12.5 million pounds.
Martin said a greater effort should have been taken to remove the surplus production. Surplus removal took place in some regions but not others, he said.
“Even if we had taken 10 percent out we might have been paid for the rest of it.”
The Streefs may weather the situation better than other growers. Streef Produce isn’t solely reliant on potato production, and their Toronto wholesale effort puts them in contact with many of the remaining independent retailers along with the three big Ontario retail chains.
“When 100 growers can deal with 500 buyers, it works. Now we basically have three major chains and we still have 100 growers. It doesn’t work,” Martin said.
“The customers have aligned themselves with the people they feel will do the best job for them. The growers who have not been chosen are either fighting each other for the little bit of independent business there is or they’re lowering the market price because they don’t have access to the distribution network.”
Despite the many challenges, the brothers cannot stop springtime optimism from infecting their outlook.
The late April weather is cool this day. If the drizzle worsens, John Streef and Jamaican-born Alvin Jansen will need to pull the eight-row planter from the field. Quadris and Admire are being applied in-furrow with Yukon Gold seed. Just down the road another Jamaican employee is working another field.
Albert comes out for a look with a reporter in tow. John flashes the barest hint of a smile. Used to the Toronto office, his brother Albert doesn’t see the fieldwork too often and he is curious about the new planter.
It’s not long before Martin shows up in another pickup. Just Peter and Jack are missing, or the brothers would all be there.
The sky lightens. Planting continues. Sometime in July, or early August, another harvest will begin.