By Natalie Noble
The luckiest people in business are those who pursue their passions, well, organically. As a young girl growing up on the farm six miles south of Shellbrook, Sask., Lisa Mumm, owner of Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds, didn’t yet envision her return to the family farm and organic seed retail business. But, life happens and when people listen to intuition, opportunity tends to knock.
When her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2011, Mumm returned home with her BA in International Studies from the University of Saskatchewan and studies at McGill Law. She quickly realized home was exactly where she belonged.
“I was helping my parents get ready to sell. Dad was still feeling relatively good at that time but my parents wanted to spend some years together, and not just while working so hard,” says Mumm. “Although, growing up I had never imagined myself back on the family farm or running the family business, as we prepared to sell, I decided this was something I was really interested in. That was a fun epiphany at the time.”
Working in the heart of a province known world-wide for its massive global food production, innovation and progressive technologies, the Mumms were early adopters of organic seed production, embracing the practice in 1974, way ahead of its time. “These were the pre-certification days, but they used the practices and principles of the organic movement,” says Mumm. “Mom remembers going to organic farmer meetings for the whole province in church basements with just a handful of growers there. Now, we have over 1,000 certified organic growers across the province.”
Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds originally operated right off the farm. In 2000, it was moved into neighbouring Parkside. Because the farm’s 550 acres border one of the province’s old-growth forests, expansion wasn’t an option and the business had outgrown its capacity. Having a strong network within the organic farming community, the Mumms have long sourced seed from local farmers and organic growers across the Prairie provinces.
What propelled them to embark on this journey? Historically, it’s been a spirit of curiosity behind their efforts. “My parents have always been driven by that curiosity, their desire to learn and to explore everything,” says Mumm. “Dad was always interested in new and different farming practices, experimenting with unconventional crops on the farm, experiencing a lot of hits and some misses, too. That experimentation kept things fun for my parents in their work.”
Mumm’s father always found technology appealing, building their business’s first website back in the mid-90s. “He had this attitude of, ‘I can learn how to code and build a website on my own,’” says Mumm. “Obviously this was way prior to Shopify or those kinds of platforms. That spirit drove a lot of their decisions and it made for an interesting combination of being curious, willing to explore new ideas, at the same time being thoughtful, careful and cautious in decision making.”
Thinking outside the box traces back to Mumm’s grandparents who previously farmed their land, mainly grazing a large sheep flock, venturing into leaf cutter bees early on as well. Her father left the family’s home quarter to pursue his undergraduate degree in marine biology and then returned home, soon meeting her mother who grew up in southwest Saskatchewan.
“When the farm transitioned to them in 1974, they started a mixed farm, working to produce most of the food they would eat year-round. They had chickens, pigs, honeybees, a large garden and still raised sheep,” says Mumm. “But, being right on the edge of the provincial forest, there’s a lot of wildlife activity near our farm. Sixty out of their 200 sheep were taken out in one year. Despite their best efforts to protect their flock from the coyotes, they got out of raising sheep.”
Like Mumm, life also altered her parents’ path. “It helped them prioritize the business,” she says.
Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds ran from the family farm from 1982 until 2000 when Parkside’s community curling rink – no longer in use–accepted the Mumms’ proposal to run their business there. “It’s where we still operate,” says Mumm. “We put on an addition roughly eight years ago, but the curling rink we retrofitted to be our office, manufacturing facility and warehouse still houses the bulk of production.”
Another case of perfect timing, alongside Mumm’s return, Saskatchewan’s provincial government incentivized farm families to work on their succession planning through a grant program covering a portion of third-party costs. Because MNP had a great reputation in the ag world, the Mumms sought their guidance.
“It wasn’t their first rodeo and they were fantastic to work with,” says Mumm, adding that the entire process took nearly a year-and-a-half. “We worked on everything from strategic planning to value mapping, all kinds of really foundational business work. It was so good for me to participate.”
Performing a formal business evaluation, the MNP team helped the Mumms structure a buy-out. A gradual purchase schedule, equity structure and good communication were all implemented. “My parents could sell the business for a fair price while I was able to take it over in my mid-20s,” says Mumm. “It was really cool to have that knowledgeable guidance around the many parts of succession planning that would never have otherwise come to mind. We ended up with a fool-proof plan and came out of the process feeling like everything was solid, saying ‘we’re not going to fight about this.’ We all know exactly where we stand.”
That value cannot be emphasized enough, “It’s so important to do this work,” says Mumm. “There are so many people at the point they want to put a succession plan in place, but if they’re anything like we were, might have no clue where to start.”
With that business taken care of, Mumm got to work farming with her dad. “I was growing crops like daikon radish, arugula, rapini, curly cress and some specialty seed crops we were challenged to source locally or within Canada,” she says. “I included wheat, oats, buckwheat and other more familiar crops into my rotation.”
Learning all she could over those years, unfortunately Mumm’s dad fell ill in 2017. “So, I was farming on my own for a few years and really enjoyed that part of my work,” she says. Sadly, her dad passed away in 2019. “Of course, there are still knowledge gaps because I didn’t learn everything from Dad that I could have. I wish I would have had more time with him to learn more.”
Today, the farm remains with her mom while Mumm, her husband Paul and six-year-old son Nico moved a small 1913 farmhouse onto the family farm, completing renovations in 2013. “Even though Dad and I farmed together and then I farmed solely for a couple years, we’ve continued to run the farm as a cooperative with an informal share structure in place for the crop production,” says Mumm.
Running the farm on her own, leading a growing business into the future and raising a young son, Mumm decided to reprioritize two years ago. “I wasn’t running the farm and the business well together because it was just too much,” she admits. “Nico was four and I felt like I was missing his childhood, especially at seeding and harvest time while also managing the seed business.”
So, she took a five-year break from the farm production side, renting it out to a neighbouring organic farmer. “He’s been growing some organic seed crops for us and will manage the farm’s crop production for five years,” says Mumm. “When we’re through that time, I’ll have to make some decisions about upgrading some farm equipment and all those things that go along with running a farm today, but that’s where we’re at right now with our farm production.”
With things flourishing at Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds, that time is likely to fly by. “We’ve been fortunate that the business has seen really good organic growth through word of mouth as people increasingly become more interested every year in healthy food, local food and in supporting Canadian agriculture,” says Mumm.
That growth has led to the business supplying over 100 varieties of sprout and microgreen seeds. Customers include kitchen growers, e-commerce purchasers, independent grocers and natural food stores across Canada. Approximately 55 per cent of sales come from commercial sprout and microgreen suppliers, including market gardeners, urban farmers, larger scale facilities dedicated to sprout and/or microgreen production and a garden seed distributor. “We also supply to folks growing at a smaller level to support their communities through farmer’s markets or community-supported agriculture (CSA) growers,” says Mumm. “We have a really interesting and diverse customer base.”
The Mumms also expanded early into the U.S. market. “One of Mom and Dad’s first sales in the ‘80s went to California,” says Mumm. “We had our toes in the water in the States from the early days selling to commercial sprout and microgreen growers and market gardeners. We’ve been selling via ecommerce into the U.S. since Dad built that first website in the 90s.”
All that work requires a capable, motivated staff of 28 full time employees. “This team beside me working so hard is the heart and soul of Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds,” says Mumm. “They work day-in, day-out, come to me with creative ideas every day to make this business better and truly care about connecting with our customers to get them quality product. This is an awesome team and I’m really proud of that.”
Also important are the farmer relationships built as the Mumms outsource their growing seed demands beyond their farm’s smaller contribution. “Our closest organic farmer is one mile away, but we work with farmers all the way across the province, into Alberta’s Peace region and in Manitoba as well,” says Mumm. “Some of these relationships are decades old, others are new to us this year. We’re always looking to grow that network.”
As for those crops that simply won’t grow in the Prairie climate, Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds sources from organic operations outside the country, mostly in the U.S., but 80 per cent of their seed is produced in Canada.
Between growing up in the business and running it today, Mumm is watching the organic industry make incredible advances. “It’s exciting to see new traceability technologies from the consumer engagement and food safety perspectives,” she says. “Through our organic program we’ve had farm to fork traceability in place for decades, but it’s certainly getting easier through new tools.”
Recently, the business adopted a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. “Having that traceability back to the farm and field level is important to our food safety program, too,” says Mumm, adding that her team also implemented a Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) level food safety program in 2018. “There’s no higher level of food safety certification in the world than attaining this certificate. As a small business, this took a ton of work and time for us to pull together. It was a really big deal for us because consumers, rightfully so, want to know the food they’re eating is safe and that we’re doing everything we can to ensure that.”
It’s with that desire to connect consumers and field level production that Mumm volunteers her time to various organic boards. Working with the board of directors for the Canada Organic Trade Association from 2012 to 2020, she served as vice president in her last years. She’s also served on SaskOrganic’s Organic Agriculture Protection Fund committee and continues to serve on the Organic Connections board of directors since 2012. “We put together Western Canada’s largest organic conference for organic producers,” she says. “It’s so fun, and we finally get to go back to it this November in Saskatoon.”
This year, Mumm was honoured to be named one of the Influential Women in Canadian Agriculture. “It was lovely to have that recognition,” she says. “I’ve tried to follow in my parents’ footsteps and be very involved in the organic farming community. We have worked to strengthen this community and build our network along with the thousands of people across Canada doing the same. There’s an energy and excitement within the organic community that’s great to see. And, it’s stronger than ever in 2022.”