Kristie Walker remembers calling her parents the day she quit her job to start a seed retail business.
She remembered “the phone just kind of going quiet,” she told her virtual audience at the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference.
She told her parents, “Well I kind of have a plan, but not really, and no I’m not going to get paid for it, and no you probably shouldn’t tell anyone yet, but it’s going to be awesome, I promise!”
Walker co-owns Synergy Seeds in Souris with business partner and local farmer Brett Locke. She told her story in a pre-recorded talk during the virtual conference on November 24 and 25.
A winding journey
Her journey into agriculture, and then seed retail, was a winding one. Walker grew up in Melville, Saskatchewan. Her parents didn’t farm, she told the Co-operator but her grandpa did.
“We’d get to do the fun stuff,” she said — meals in the field, rides in the grain truck.
In university, Walker was discontented with her basic sciences and moved into an environmental sciences program in Lethbridge. It let her be outdoors more.
A move to a small town near Lloydminster, Sask., brought an opportunity at the Pioneer grain elevator. She loved it, Walker said. There was opportunity to learn almost any task she wished, and she moved from “loading cars and flipping lids” to buying grain.
Another move, this time to Minnedosa, allowed Walker to assistant manage an independent ag retail before she got a job as a territory manager for seed company Canterra. The job took her all over southern Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba, and was also how she met her husband, Todd, and settled with him in Souris.
In 2017, Souris-area farmers had expressed interest for an independent seed distributor — something run by locals who’d have vested interest in seeing their neighbours succeed. Locke was interested in starting a business, but didn’t know how. That’s where Walker came in.
A leap of faith
In July, Walker quit her job. By fall, plans were in motion. She and Locke rented a space in a Souris restaurant and held a meeting for farmers. Some were skeptical, Walker said. Others just had heard that she and Locke had quit their jobs and wanted to know what was going on.
They didn’t have a building, or even a permit to construct one Walker told the Co-operator. They’d just finalized their logo, so they put up a sign on the land and took a picture of Walker’s truck beside it.
“We stood up there and we asked for business,” Walker said. “It was actually really hard to stand there and say it out loud.
“(Growers) are trusting us a lot… we’re asking for money and we don’t even have bins set up.”
But business did come, and that spring Synergy opened its doors.
“I know we had a lot to prove by being there,” Walker said, “but they obviously liked the service because they’re coming back.”
Walker reflected on lessons she’s learned, and things that proved vital to starting their business.
Have a business plan and review it often, she told the conference. A budget is imperative to success.
Their shop didn’t have flooring in the office for two years, Walker said. The cash was better served capturing a bit extra on margin elsewhere.
“You don’t want to be spending only on things that at the end of the day just don’t really matter,” she said. “The business was fully functional without flooring and trim.”
Have a plan for growth and what it will take to get there, she added. This could include finding ways to grow the business without spending much money. Her example was the test plots they planted along the highway by their business.
This allows farmers to make side-by-side comparisons of the seeds Synergy sells — some of which are new to the area.
It’s also good to ask for help and advice, Walker said. No one handed her a manual on how to open a seed retail business but neither was she trail-blazing. She could get out of her comfort zone, pick up the phone and ask other business owners for advice.
In her experience they were willing to give it.
“They were, if anything, more helpful and so receptive and gracious with their time,” she said.