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Spilling the beans on local production (6 photos)

Entrepreneur Ben Cullen fills a niche with compostable packaging and a transparent value chain, writes Owen Roberts in this edition of Urban Cowboy

The drive to increase ultra-local, ethical food production and transparency, while reducing food-packaging waste, has found a champion in Ben Cullen.

The Guelph entrepreneur, proprietor of Cullen Foods, recently introduced a line of locally sourced, organic edible beans (black, navy and kidney beans) that come in a totally compostable, locally manufactured package.

And a portion of the proceeds from product sales are going to a development organization called SHARE, which helps small farmers and schools in Central America countries take greater steps towards prosperity.

Here’s the story.

Cullen, son of Canadian horticulture icon Mark Cullen, was a student at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus in 2009-2011, an institution he calls “the heart of agriculture” in southwestern Ontario.

When he graduated, he pursued businesses degrees, worked for a seed company, a grain elevator and a packaged goods company.

All along, he knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur in the food sector.

“When you’re raised by an entrepreneur, it’s in your blood,” he says.

An environmental scan, and knowledge he gained working with his dad in the family business Mark’s Choice, helped him identify a market gap in brand name, packaged dry goods – like edible beans -- typically found in the vast expanses of grocery store centre aisles, or in bulk bins.

“Consumers have a low level of trust in products found in these areas,” he says. “And in grocery stores, they don’t like all the wasteful packaging. One reason consumers go to farmers’ markets is because they’re just not satisfied.”

He further discovered that even at farmers’ markets, it was difficult to find Ontario-grown organic edible beans. This all led to his eureka moment and the inspiration to create Cullen’s Foods.

His first challenge was finding suppliers. And that’s where his Ridgetown campus connections came in.

Through his classmates, he’d become familiar with a variety of farmers across the southwest. Ultimately, he found three producers, on farms near Palmerston, Newberry and Branchton, who would grow organic edible beans for him. Problem solved.

The next hurdle was packaging. In food retail, plastic has become a pariah. Cullen wanted something he could market as environmentally responsible.

It turns out he didn’t have to look far. Not far down Highway 6, in Puslinch, he found a green packaging ally in renowned manufacturer Rootree. The company is committed to technologies and procedures that lead as much as 75 per cent less waste than conventional packaging manufacturing.

Rootree provided Cullen with compostable stand-up pouches made of corn starch and wood cellulose. They can be easily stocked along with other dry goods on mid-store grocery shelves.

Cullen says working hand in hand with the growers gives his company the means to ensure every package they sell can be traced back to the very farm and field from which it came. This traceability is then passed onto consumers, who can access the information by entering an individual code on the package on Cullen Foods’ website.

“There are no mysteries with these products,” says Cullen. “We can show buyers where they were grown, when they were harvested, where and when they were cleaned, where they were packed and where they were distributed from.”

This approach is rare in edible bean retailing. Most particulars about bean production are nowhere near as specific as this.

Organic beans from any source can be pricey. Cullen’s research showed imports from China, Turkey and the US were retailing for $5.99-$7.99 for a 500-gram package. His sell for $6.49.

Cullen thinks consumers are opening up more to alternative proteins now, thanks to changes in Canada’s Food Guide. And he believes many consumers want the level of accountability and transparency he offers. He says they’re pushing back against food from vague origins, and against wasteful packaging – especially packaging that contains goods and products found in the centre of grocery stores, where so much packaging is seen.

People also like the ethics of supporting a group like SHARE through their food purchases. Cullen was part of student trips from Ridgetown campus organized by the late Les Frayne of SHARE to Belize, El Salvador and Guatemala. For now, he’s donating one per cent of all sales to SHARE. He says that sum will increase as the business grows.

And to that end, Cullen is further sharpening his entrepreneurial skills as a member of the University of Guelph’s 12-week Hub Incubator program. This service, operated through the John F. Wood Centre for Business and Student Enterprise within the College of Business and Economics, is for new ventures, designed to support early-stage business ideas with high potential, but unproven business models.

“Entrepreneurship can be a lonely endeavor, particularly during the early stages,” says Dr. Tyler Zemlak, the centre’s business incubation services manager. “We attract and nurture a supportive community of start-ups that are always looking for ways to help each other. This team chemistry is palpable and seems to be very beneficial for entrepreneurs like Ben.”


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Owen Roberts

About the Author: Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a journalist and a columnist with daily, weekly and monthly print and online media.
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