Canidae Bets the Farm
Canidae Pet Food Co. has planted the seeds for change in the way it produces its products. The Norco, Calif.-based company recently launched Canidae Farms in Cheney, Kan., enabling the company to grow its own fresh ingredients to use in its lines of pet food.
“Canidae has always relied on our network of farmers and suppliers for [quality ingredients],” said Scott Whipple, co-founder and co-owner of Canidae Pet Food Co. “With Canidae Farms, we’re taking things a step further toward our ultimate goal of using only ingredients we are directly involved in growing.”
The company was founded in 1996 with the simple philosophy of “doing the right thing” for pets, consumers and the independent retailers that carry the Canidae brand, which includes the All Life Stages line, Grain Free Pure line and the Grain Free Under the Sun line.
According to Rafi Kalachian, vice president of marketing and product management, Canidae Farms perfectly reflects the company’s philosophy.
“Being independent and family owned with a certain set of values that are very clear from our owners has allowed us the freedom to figure out what it means to ‘do the right thing,’” he said. “I felt like the right thing was to grow our own ingredients, but we didn’t have the know-how.”
Fortunately, Kalachian knew someone with farming knowledge that was willing to offer his expertise. A few years ago, Kalachian began talking to his friend Clint Brauer, who had grown up working on his family’s farm in Kansas and, after a career in high-tech, decided to return to his home base with plans on mixing traditional farming methods with new technology.
“When we started talking, I was telling Clint about how our industry is changing and about how these really large corporations are coming in and changing the face of the industry,” Kalachian said. “As we continued talking, Clint’s stories about his industry and his attempt to do the right thing resonated with me.”
For Brauer, the feeling was mutual.
“I knew Rafi, and I trust him,” Brauer said. “I liked the way Canidae got its start—that they were trying to do better in making a pet food—and that the founders are still involved. It made sense for me to work with them.”
In 2016, the company harvested 159,000 pounds of crops at Canidae Farms and shipped it all directly to its Ethos Pet Nutrition cooking facility in Brownwood, Texas. This year, the company estimates it will harvest about 1 million pounds of fresh ingredients, which include yellow peas, milo, millet, parsley, sage, rosemary and greenhouse tomatoes. According to Whipple, Canidae Farms has also started testing crops for lentils, zucchini, butternut squash and pumpkin.
“The majority of these ingredients are used in our budget-friendly, grain-free Canidae Under the Sun line,” Whipple said. “Peas are also used in our limited-ingredient Canidae Grain Free Pure line. Our vet-formulated multi-pet brand, Canidae All Life Stages, uses ingredients like peas and millet from the farm.”
Growing its own ingredients is not the only way in which the company aims to “do the right thing” with Canidae Farms. For Canidae—and Brauer—sustainable farming practices are also important.
“Family-owned farms, just like most family-owned businesses, are struggling to survive,” Whipple said. “They can’t afford to take more risks than those already inherent to the nature of farming. Industrial farms are too big to disrupt their business model. The same is true with big pet food companies.
“Canidae is big enough to take risks and small enough not to be confined to spreadsheet decision making,” Whipple added. “Our goal is to create a blueprint for more sustainable and safe farming methods that, once proven, others can use to improve the way the world farms. We’re absolutely committed to this—we believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Canidae’s funding has given Brauer the freedom to experiment with what Canidae Farms calls “integrated farming,” which seeks to work in harmony with nature to enrich and protect the soil, conserve water, and control weeds and protect against pests with the goal of minimizing—and, ultimately, eliminating—reliance on chemicals.
“Specifically, it’s pest and weed control that sets you apart,” Brauer said. “That’s why we’re really focused on doing the best we can in that regard.”
For example, in an effort to “harness nature” to protect crops from plant-destroying insects such as aphids, Brauer deployed lacewings eggs—aphids’ natural predator—to save this year’s pea crop. Using pest-deterrent plants and insects is the ultimate goal; however, Brauer said he does still rely on some pesticides—but only those that are certified for organic use.
Canidae Farms is also reducing its reliance on fertilizers by rotating its crops and alternating how the fields are used. This year, Canidae Farms is growing yellow peas, which releases nitrogen into the soil. Once the peas are harvested, a herd of sheep will be used to graze the land. The sheep will help clear the fields of weeds and chaff, and the sheep’s nitrogen-rich manure will help fertilize the soil.
“It’s almost enough nitrogen for the next crop following it, which would be milo, and then we’ll get into crop rotation,” Brauer said.
“Every year, it’s bigger, and we learn,” Brauer added. “I think we’ll expand with the land we have and possibly with other farmers. We have methodology that we’re developing and learning.”
As the farm evolves, Kalachian envisions more tonnage, more variety of ingredients and more failures on the horizon.
“We better have failures, because that means we’re pushing ahead,” Kalachian said. “We have a destination, and we’re in the process of figuring out the way there. What’s going to guide us is the principle of doing the right thing as much as we can, given the timing and funding.”
Whipple said the next natural step in the farm’s evolution is “to continue improving traceability, sustainability and transparency. We feel the path we’re on reflects our already-established integrity and innovation within the pet food industry.”