Rita Felder is an Organic Farming Trailblazer in Canada — Here’s How She Took Her Company Global.
With support from EDC, Rita had the help she needed when navigating challenges.
By Sarah Kelsey
If you’re looking to make a career change, Rita Felder has a suggestion for you: “Get into agriculture.”
Her company, Field Farms Marketing Ltd. (FFM), has been at the forefront of the organic farming industry in Canada for decades, and she firmly believes the country is best positioned on an international level to address the food needs of the global population today, tomorrow, and in the coming years.
“We have a well-educated population who knows a lot about food and who wants to eat healthy,” Rita says. “This customer base needs to be supplied with products, traceability, and information. I keep telling people that starting in agriculture now will be incredibly viable and profitable in the next 20 to 30 years.”
Rita started her company with her husband shortly after moving to Canada from Switzerland with their three children — one of which has since joined the family business. She and her husband grew up surrounded by and on integrated dairy farms in a small valley near where Emmental and Gruyere cheeses are made, and came to value and understand the organic farming industry quite well.
“The introduction of chemicals in the last century and the high usage of them starting in the ‘70s changed traditional farming practices and damaged the environment,” Rita says. “The long-term effects are still not known, but we have some solid studies linking chronic health issues to chemicals used in agriculture then consumed in food items.”
Though she never envisioned starting a farm of her own — largely because she wasn’t eligible to inherit her family’s farm since she wasn’t the first-born or male, and she went to school for business — Rita and her husband saw opportunity in Canada. Land was affordable, the culture was keen to explore sustainable manufacturing, and the country was also welcoming to entrepreneurs.
“From there, everything grew — especially the export markets.”
“We had discovered there was a lack of reliable markets for organic products, so we got together with a group of farmers and started growing and exporting organic grains from Ontario to Western Canada,” says Rita. “From there, everything grew — especially the export markets.”
Demand for their products spiked in places like China, South America, and Europe; rapidly, their small farming project turned into a reputable and trusted export business.
Today, FFM is trading from and to five continents.
“The export support here in Canada was and is great,” Rita notes, adding that in Europe there is a lot of red tape and roadblocks to building an expansive export business quickly. In Canada, she says, there are incredible networks for those who want to build businesses across borders, like Export Development Canada (EDC) and the Trade Commissioner Service (TCS), as well as industry-specific organizations like the Grain Growers of Canada, Soy Canada, and the Canada Organic Trade Association.
In collaboration with her financial institution, Rita leveraged EDC’s Export Guarantee Program (EGP), which provides guarantees of up to $10 million to a business owner’s financial institution to extend a line of credit and provide term loans. She also leveraged EDC’s Credit Insurance, an exporting insurance that protects businesses against instances of non-payment, covering up to 90% of insured losses that can occur for a number of reasons, like contract cancellations or currency transfer challenges.
Rita notes how helpful EDC and TCS were when FFM was a new business. “The Trade Commissioner Services were especially helpful with planning trade shows, for example,” she says. “And we tapped into everything that EDC had to offer. We used them for credit insurance and loans to back our company when we were in need of support.” These organizations, she adds, helped her and FFM overcome many of the hurdles entrepreneurs face when starting a business.
“We have a saying around here: If it was easy, everyone would do it,’” Rita says. “The hurdles are so many, I wouldn’t know where to start. Often, hurdles are imposed by outside forces such as duties, changes in regulations, etc. The latest ones were the freight challenges in the supply chains.”
“I see businesses with great ideas struggling or failing because the owners want to go big right off the bat. Go slowly, so you can respond to market fluctuations.“
Her advice to entrepreneurs is to roll with the punches and to pivot however and whenever possible.
“Walk before you run,” she notes. “I see businesses with great ideas struggling or failing because the owners want to go big right off the bat. They set targets that are too high. Go slowly, so you can respond to market fluctuations.”
Communication to customers is also key. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Rita and her husband were believers that the virus’ spread wouldn’t stop after two weeks, so they started an open dialogue with their customers about what was happening with ports and the supply chain.
At first, customers were upset because FFM was “the constant bearer of bad news.” But over time, they came to realize what FFM was doing was helping them respond to market volatility smartly. “We built trust, and that’s helped us long term.”
The next big goal for Rita and FFM is to expand the business into packaged goods. The team also wants to produce more of their most popular products, like organic soybeans and soybean derivatives. A longer-term goal is to develop ready-made meals in the protein sphere.
“The farmer has always been a steward of the land, water, and air,” Rita says. “We have no Planet B — the time to shift toward things, like organic agriculture, is now. We want to have an impact on how we leave and feed everyone on Earth.”