There’s no quick way to sum up the operation Ian and Douglas Simmons have created at their farm on the eastern outskirts of Summerside, PEI.
There’s Red Bridge Farms, which consists of 14,000 layers, and Kool Breeze Farms, which has a squadron of greenhouses, a garden centre, a large “stone” yard (everything from paving stones to retaining walls) and crops. There’s also a corn maze and autumn scarecrow event, a Christmas store, and snow-clearing operation. Oh, and most of the electricity for the operation is supplied by a pair of wind turbines, also owned by the Simmons brothers.
“I guess we’ve got a fair lot of stuff on the go,” says Ian Simmons. “But work doesn’t bother us and you can’t be scared to try something new. New is exciting.”
And while the multifaceted operation is a whirlwind of activity today, it was only in 2006 – 20 years after the first small greenhouse went up – that Simmons was able to join older brother Douglas on the farm full time.
“I’ve always liked growing things; I grew vegetables in high school and sold them at the local farmers’ market in Summerside,” says Simmons. “Then I built the first greenhouse as a hobby when I finished college, and my mother would sell a few plants to local residents.”
While his brother and father worked on the farm – which, at the time consisted of a small layer operation as well as hogs, cattle and grain – Ian Simmons managed a local hardware store. All the while, he kept expanding the greenhouse business. The original 12-by-16-foot structure built in 1986 was joined by a 20-by-24-foot cousin two years later, then a much larger one two years after that, and on it went.
“My brother would look after the day-to-day stuff, and I would do some of the marketing and work on weekends,” says Simmons. “I guess we were like any small business, we built it up bit by bit.”
By the time, they got to greenhouse No. 4 – a 20-by-96-foot structure, their father was asking who was going to buy all of their product.
“We just said, ‘Dad, we’re building the market, too’” recalls Simmons. “People would say, ‘Can you grow me some of this?’ or ‘I’m looking for these.’ So we’d make notes and try to add that the next year.”
They now have 16 greenhouses (the latest one went up this fall), and their operation (koolbreezefarms.com) is a destination spot for gardeners across the island. The Simmons brothers also supply other garden centres on PEI. Along with annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs, and landscaping products, the farm also sells sweet corn, greenhouse tomatoes, and produce from other area farmers. The scarecrow event draws throngs of visitors, and the Christmas store extends the season even further.
There have been two critical elements to the operation’s success, says Simmons.
The first is patience.
“The thing you have to remember when growing a business is that you need to give it time. We’ve focused on growing our business one customer at a time and one product at a time.”
The second key is a willingness to take a chance.
“Life is full of risks,” says Simmons. “Does everything pan out like you want it to? No. But when something goes wrong, you need to look at what happened. Can you fix it? Can you make it better?”
That line of thinking led to the scarecrow contest. Simmons first heard about the concept at the 2007 conference of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association in Calgary. The conference is a must-attend event for agri-tourism operators, but many operate near large urban centres and can draw from a surrounding population of a million or more. So at first, he was skeptical this kind of event might work for them.
“In PEI, our population gets up to a half-million in the tourist season, then by fall we’re back to the 140,000 people who live here year-round,” says Simmons. “But I thought if we took the scarecrow contest idea, offered some prizes, and also had some things that kids don’t get a chance to do these days, we could get some people down.”
So his version became a community event. The Summerside Lions Club organize potato-sack and three-legged races, while other businesses and volunteers help with activities such as face-painting, pumpkin carving, and entertainment. If the weather’s good, 3,000-plus visitors will show up, meaning a good chunk of Summerside (population 16,000) is in attendance along with families from across the island.
“We partnered with people and just grew it. It’s been seven years now and we’ve just had the biggest year ever.”
A similar approach – looking for ideas that have been successful for others along with creative partnering, was used for the wind turbines. The first turbine, installed in 2008, cost $200,000 and the brothers estimated it would pay for itself in five to seven years. But that’s if everything ran smoothly. However, since the turbines they purchased employ well-established technology and are North American made (so parts are available at a reasonable price), they felt the risk of problems was fairly low. And since 2011 (when the second turbine went up), they have also partnered with nearby Holland College, which has a wind turbine technician program.
“We have a memorandum of understanding with them so they can use our two turbines for their program,” says Simmons. “The college is only five minutes from our door, so it has really close and easy access to our machines. In return, they monitor the oil, the tower structures themselves, the blades, and things like the torque setting on the bolts. So it works well for both of us.”
And while their plethora of enterprises seems diverse, everything has a connection. The wind turbines and ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services) project they undertook to control runoff showcase their commitment to environmental stewardship, and that ties into marketing.
So does the scarecrow contest. There is a staff member on each of the wagon rides (they now need four wagons) who talk about things such as how they raise their sweet corn and tomatoes, partner with other produce farms, and how they produce safe and wholesome eggs. When the Simmons brothers left the hog business, those barns were converted to poultry facilities and aided the expansion to 14,000 layers (from 2,500) over the past 18 years.
“We try to do things that fit with our resources, which are our people and our equipment,” says Simmons, who has 20-plus employees during the busiest times of year.
‘Bit by bit’ is the guiding principle, says Simmons, who cites the layer operation as an example. The brothers are always making small improvements in feed, ventilation, lighting, and other factors because small things add up.
“If we can get one extra egg from each chicken in a year, well, that’s 14,000 eggs – and it’s something you get year after year,” he notes.
And that’s the real secret of the Simmons’ operation.
“It’s all about being a little bit better than you were the day before or the month or year before. To try and improve something 100 per cent isn’t realistic, but you can always make minor improvements. If you can make small improvements here and there, you’ll be successful.”