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Rose Keunen represents dairy’s female entrepreneurs

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 10 October 2013
Henry and Rose Keunen

When it comes to women holding equal partnership in a farm operation, Rose Keunen walks the walk and talks the talk.

Rose and her husband, Henry, immigrated to Canada in 1997.

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 They settled on a cash-crop hog farm near Strathroy, Ontario, built a freestall barn and milking parlour, and started milking 80 cows.

“It started with the two of us (and a dog) doing everything day-to-day ourselves,” Henry recalls.

Until that point, the couple had never worked together. In Holland, Henry ran a dairy farm, and Rose was a senior account manager at Rabobank.

They quickly learned each person had their strengths and weaknesses, but also found they were quite complementary together.

Today, the Keunens are milking 330 cows twice a day. The growth prompted a need for external labour. They rely upon 2.5 full-time employees and several part-time employees to help with different areas of the farm, but the Keunens remain heavily involved in the daily activities of the farm.

“If you don’t do it, you lose track of what is going on,” Rose says. “It is very important to be involved in every aspect and review the protocols in case things do slip.”

They are both equally qualified to do the farm work, from milking cows to feeding. Rose will typically do more of the paperwork, and Henry takes care of cropping and maintenance items.

In addition to the dairy facility, they own 700 tillable acres, which are planted to corn, soybeans and alfalfa. A separate crew is hired for fieldwork so it doesn’t cause disruptions to the dairy.

“Cows will still be in heat during harvest, and someone needs to be there to catch them,” Rose says.

The Keunens have built a successful dairy through trial and error, listening to others, reading, attending meetings, visiting other farms and surrounding themselves with people (veterinarian, consultant, etc.) who want them to succeed.

In turn, the couple is willing to share what they have learned. They will host farm tours and open their doors to other dairy producers.

One area they are particularly passionate about is financial management and goal-setting. Each year, the Keunens review their mission statement, look at their past performances and set goals based on their strengths.

Once a quarter, they look at their annual plan and compare present financial and production performance to the numbers they had projected at the beginning of the year.

This process has worked so well for the couple that Rose wanted to encourage more people, particularly women, to use it on their farms.

Many farmwomen are already logging financial information on the computer, but not everyone is well versed in what else can be done with that information. According to Henry, “It’s like driving a car in first gear. The tools are there if only they knew how to shift to another gear.”

As past chairwoman for the Oxford Women for the Support of Agriculture, Rose worked with four financial institutions to organize a symposium in 2012 to encourage farmwomen to turn those numbers into financial projections and to set goals. There were 130 women at the event, and Rose would like to hold it again sometime.

From those efforts, a representative from Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) nominated Rose for the company’s Canadian Women Entrepreneurs Award.

The award recognizes outstanding entrepreneurial achievement in six different categories: start-up, innovation, momentum, trailblazer, impact and excellence.

Nervous about the fact that there had been little to no participants from the agriculture industry in the past, Rose says she and Henry viewed it as “an opportunity to share our farm business and showcase agriculture to a larger audience.” Therefore, she decided to take on the challenge, which included writing a 20-page business plan.

There was no standard format to follow, but they were asked to include items like their company structure, performance in comparison to their industry, challenges faced by their industry, strategic planning and industry/community involvement.

Henry and Rose received a lot of support through this process. They looked to their bankers and accountant for assistance, as well as Dairy Farmers of Ontario to make sure their messaging about the dairy industry was on point.

Knowing the judges would be less familiar with agriculture than other industries, Rose says she was cautious to use terms others would understand, such as market shares when explaining milk quota, and to make comparisons to other well-known industries.

In addition to the business plan, three years of their farm’s financial records were reviewed by accountants, references were interviewed and Rose was interviewed over the phone.

Of the 3,500 women nominated, three finalists were chosen for each of the six categories. Rose was selected as a finalist for the trailblazer award.

Other finalists in her category were a lawyer from British Columbia and a manufacturer of homeopathic products from Quebec.

As a finalist, she attended the Awards Gala in Toronto last November. “I met some of the other contestants. As we were sharing our experiences, I saw they were all hardworking women and have a down-to-earth attitude,” Rose says.

Many of them were eager to learn about agriculture. Having had a cow sculpture in her video clip presented at the banquet, Rose became known as the “cow lady” throughout the evening.

“I was surprised many of them had no knowledge about agriculture,” Rose says. “There is a need to promote our industry in a positive way.”

The experience has Rose and Henry thinking about ways to promote agriculture to the wider public. Hosting an obstacle course that travels from farm to farm, setting up a farm education centre or holding breakfast on the farm are ideas they have tossed around.

For now, they are once again focused on the Canadian Women Entrepreneurs Award, as Rose is a 2013 finalist in the trailblazer category.

She has also recently been honoured as one of Canada’s top female entrepreneurs in the 15th annual Profit/Chatelaine W100 ranking.

In addition, Rose is looking to impact the future of the Canadian dairy industry. She is a member of the Ridgetown Dairy Advisory Committee, where she and other committee members work to ensure the school is implementing modern techniques to help today’s industry.

She is also campaigning to see the industry put a higher focus on the financial performance of dairy farms. She says one way of achieving this is to incorporate financial factors into the management score released by DHI.

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Just because a farm is technically sound doesn’t mean its financial house is in order; both are needed to be a successful dairy, Rose says.

This dairy producer adds that women are best positioned to bring about financial change in the industry, starting with their own operations.

“They have a lot of resources; they are knowledgeable about their operation; they just need to learn how they can contribute more to their farm business,” she says.

By walking the walk and talking the talk, Rose hopes to encourage and empower women in dairy to showcase their strengths.  PD

PHOTO
Equally important, Henry and Rose Keunen built a successful dairy operation utilizing their strengths as individuals and as a couple. They also welcome input from their employees and dairy advisers. Photo by Karen Lee.

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