WHO: Blair & Livia Townsend
Descended from early United Empire Loyalists settlers in the area, Blair Townsend is a third generation Norfolk County tobacco farmer. In 1985 during a market downturn, his father and three associates, all tobacco growers, were looking for a way to combine forces and diversify. After considerable market research, they decided to plant popping corn. The variety settled upon was white hull-less, a “finicky” crop because of its weak stock and specific drying requirements. It also rots quickly in the presence of too much moisture. However they were convinced the sandy Norfolk soil, with its excellent drainage, would provide close to ideal conditions for success, and they were right.
When Blair and Livia bought the company and took over in 1988, they were still growing tobacco on their farm, with popping corn providing only secondary income. Slowly but surely, with effort and increased marketing savvy, popping corn overtook the tobacco until, in 2007, they made the decision to make it their main business (although they do now grow soybeans in rotation). Because of growing demand, ten to 15 percent of their popping corn crop is now organic. From the initial single type, the selection has grown to eight different varieties of popping corn, and Blair and Livia ship it all over. Although they sell some to larger snack food companies who market it under their own labels, much of their product goes into bags labelled ‘Uncle Bob’s Popcorn’, a name with 26 years of history attached. It was named after Blair’s late father, who was known to everyone as Uncle Bob.
At Ontario Popping Corn, everything from storage and cleaning of the corn to packaging and shipping is state-of-the-art, immaculately clean and efficiently organized. Their warehousing and shipping area is climate-controlled, eliminating any need for fumigants to keep the product free from pests. Nothing is wasted. Both the large processing, packaging and distribution area and the shop where the equipment is maintained are heated by corn furnaces. Kernels that are sorted out as either too large or too small for their products are sold to bird food producers. Any remaining by-product is taken to the woodlot to feed the deer.
In addition to popping corn, in various colours, varieties and packaging formats, Livia and Blair sell a selection of their own special popcorn seasonings. Their novel Pop-a-Cob product is a big seller. Because popcorn is a healthy snack whose health benefits are diminished or even nullified by being prepared in the usual mircrowaveable bag, they also sell a popular microwave corn popper, which has the additional advantage of being more environmentally friendly. Larger capacity poppers can be purchased from Ontario Popping Corn. They have available a revised design which protects the operator from the burns which are common with older commercial models. People organizing an event can rent a machine from them as well, complete with all the necessary supplies.
The Townsends have gone from supplying seven or eight stores in the Simcoe-Brantford area in the early days, to selling their product through the large Sobeys chain of supermarkets. Pickard’s Peanuts sells Uncle Bob’s in all their stores. Other area retailers who carry their products include The Apple Place in Simcoe; Kernal Peanuts; The Cider Keg; Wiggans and Cashmere and Cobwebs in Port Rowan; the Langton Foodland; Coward’s Pharmacy in Tillsonburg. Customers can purchase at the farm, but by appointment only. Every fall, you can find Ontario Popping Corn products for sale at FlavourFest at the Norfolk County Fair and Horse Show. Blair is happy to state that, via one of their distributors, “We supply all the arenas in Norfolk County”. Livia proudly mentions that, in response to nutrition concerns, another distributor has placed their product in all Ontario schools, as a safe, healthy snack.
Ontario Popping Corn Company does a thriving mail order business. They have shipped their products to England and as far away as New Caledonia, near Australia. When one of their distributors stopped carrying Uncle Bob’s White Hull-less Popcorn, Livia and Blair received calls from all over Ontario and their mail-order sales almost doubled as a result.
In terms of sales, the busiest season for popping corn producers is from the beginning of September to the end of February, when people tend to cosy up indoors. As soon as the distribution end slows down a bit it’s time to get into the next year’s planning, planting, tending and harvesting. For most of the year, Blair and Livia manage the operation with three full-time staff – the two of them, plus one full-time employee. For the busiest three weeks of the year they hire up to twelve local, seasonal workers. The Townsends have three teenage children, a son who is 16, and 15-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. All three are actively involved on the farm.
Since deciding to focus on their popping corn business in 2007, Livia and Blair have experienced steady growth in demand, inventory and markets for their product. They are proud to be Local Food Plus certified and have Foodland Ontario recognition. They are members of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and recently learned from that organization that their company is the largest grower of popping corn in Canada.
Success has not come without challenges, the largest of which so far has been the conversion of part of their operation to organic methods. In particular, Blair decries the difficulty of staying ahead of the weeds. However, he and Livia acknowledge that there is a large and growing demand for organic products and are proud to say, “We supply the lion’s share of organic popping corn in Ontario”.
Livia Townsend grew up on a tobacco farm herself, so she is no stranger to the challenges faced by all farmers. She also appreciates the closeness of farm families. In addition to the long hours she puts into helping to ensure the success of their company, she has continued to work three days a week in a dental practice in Simcoe. This has enabled her to have work off the farm which she enjoys, while still having time to spend with her children. Initially, with three of them under twenty months of age, she depended a great deal on her mother’s help. Her mom provided child care if the kids were sick and couldn’t go to daycare, chauffeured them to appointments, and provided hot dinners for weary parents at the end of many days. Both Livia and Blair say, “She was a huge, huge support”, and Livia looks forward to providing the same help to her own children in time.
Challenging or not, both Blair and Livia look forward to every day. Livia says without hesitation, “I don’t think there’s any better life than the farming life”. Her eyes light up when she talks about “the sheer enjoyment”, the “excitement” of “meeting new people”, and how much she enjoys “the [positive] response of the public”. Blair says, “All I have to do is go outside and look around” to be reminded why he loves his work. Both believe that it’s a great way to bring up children. They feel it has helped theirs learn important work skills and develop entrepreneurial abilities. From a very young age they went to Cornfest in Jarvis with their parents and helped staff the Ontario Popping Corn booth. Livia and Blair laugh about what good little salespeople they were. This summer their sons cut, packaged and sold firewood. Their daughter spent her summer helping Mom with some of her administrative tasks. Blair hopes that some if not all of the kids will follow him into the business when he is ready to retire.
Unless there is some recognition of the importance of maintaining farmland in food production, Blair is not overly optimistic about the future of agriculture in Norfolk County. He would like more to be done to control the rate of farm conversions. It concerns him that farms are being sold, at prices farmers cannot afford to pay, to be converted to conservation purposes. “When farms go up for sale”, he says, “farmers can’t compete” with conservation organizations.
Blair understands the importance of conservation, as he believes all good farmers do. Farmers, he says, are “stewards of nature”. They appreciate the necessity for “good forest management” practices to preserve woodlots. They look after the soil because their livelihood depends upon it. They know it’s vital to be trained in the proper, safe use and handling of pesticides. Given that, he resents what he sees as excessive interference from the environment ministry.
Blair and Livia Townsend have managed to develop a successful agricultural business without the help of government grant programs. When expansion has happened or improvements have been made, it has been with their own money. However, the government still owes former tobacco farmers millions of dollars, Blair says and, not surprisingly, he would like to see them – especially those who made the decision to transition completely out of tobacco – receive their full share of compensation.
Ontario Popping Corn Company is an inspiring success story. It’s a fine example of evolving to suit the times – from dependence on growing mainly tobacco, to finding a demand, working to fill it and, in the process, developing a prosperous business. The Townsends do Norfolk County, Ontario and Canada proud.
More info about Ontario Popping Corn Company: Ontario Popping Corn Company