This article was originally published by Farm and Dairy and written by Chris Kick.
DEERFIELD, Ohio — When your business plan does well and grows, you look for places to expand. That’s what one local agribusiness is doing — this time in Africa.
John and Jessica Wallbrown, whose family owns Deerfield Farms Service, are planning a new business venture that will include sales and services in Morocco, a small country in the northern end of Africa. DF-Maroc will operate as a Deerfield Farms-affiliated company, and offer similar agricultural products and services as the U.S. company.
“We’re putting our passion for agriculture together with our desire to have an opportunity to make a difference in other countries,” said John Wallbrown. The Wallbrowns said it’s a business venture, with the goal of being profitable, but also helping Moroccan farmers and agribusinesses be more profitable and productive.
They’re working with the Moroccan government and an initiative called the Green Morocco Plan to help bring economic development through agriculture. The Wallbrowns said farmers have a wide range of experience and knowledge in Morocco, with some who are very productive, and some who could improve, if they tried new practices.
They said the challenge Moroccan agriculture faces is a lack of whole-system, one-stop suppliers. Currently, things like seed, fertilizer and crop services are purchased from different individuals, rather than companies that have whole-system expertise. Adding a new location is always a big decision, especially when it’s overseas. The Wallbrowns currently offer four U.S. locations, in Deerfield, Louisville and Kinsman, Ohio, and Volant, Pennsylvania. Plus, they farm close to 3,500 acres.
The company and farm have a history that started in 1959, with John’s parents, Boyd and Joan Wallbrown. The farm started as a corn and hog operation, and grew to include more acres, and all the major retail and crop services of a modern grain company.
John and Jessica are planning several trips to France and Morocco over the next year, as they get closer to opening in Morocco. John has resigned his position at Deerfield Farms Service, but his brother, Bill, will continue as CEO, and his sister, Beth Padisak, will continue to operate their U.S. locations. Despite rumors, there are no plans to sell or close anything.
“We’re still running strong, and because we’re running strong, we’re able to do something like this,” Jessica said.
The Wallbrowns hope to improve their knowledge of the French language over the next year, before they begin selling and servicing Moroccan farmers, in about a year’s time. French and Arabic are the main languages in Morocco. Jessica said it’s not a mission trip, but is a way of living out some important things she and her husband believe in.
“There are hungry people in other places and we just felt burdened that we needed to take what has worked for us and help that to prosper and feed others,” she said.
Morocco is a mostly Muslim nation, and the Wallbrowns said it is peaceful, with a lot of hospitality. They said the Moroccans rely on their citizens to report suspicious activity, driven in part by monetary incentives for providing information. John and Jessica are public with their own Christian faith, but will be focusing their efforts in Morocco on running a good business. In doing so, they hope to offer the Moroccans the same values and customer service they’ve been offering in the U.S.
“It’s no different than living our faith here,” Jessica said.
They plan to offer Moroccans small producer loans, to help farmers adopt new and better practices, and have received funds from the Damascus Friends Church, and the Old North Church in Canfield, to be used for the loans. They also plan to offer wheat seed, fertilizer and crop protection services. The Wallbrowns said Moroccan farmers grow a variety of crops, including fruits and vegetables, but they plan to focus their new business on field crops.
They’re also pursuing an opportunity to connect U.S. exports of wheat and corn, to agribusinesses and milling locations within Morocco. This could benefit both U.S. growers, and Moroccan grain importers. And, they hope to import used farm equipment into Morocco.
The Wallbrowns have considered this decision for about five years. In the past, they’ve completed some successful projects through the Farmer-to-Farmer program, a farm exchange program operated through the U.S. Agency for International Development. They’ve also worked closely with the U.S. Wheat Associates, and various Ohio and national partners, to explore the Moroccan project. And they’re working with the U.S. Department of Commerce, on a voluntary basis.
John and Jessica have three adult daughters: Lauren, Cassy and Lydia. They said their daughters are supportive, but added the move will take some getting used to.
The Wallbrowns hope to eventually live in the Casablanca region, where they’ll also operate a farm — a 300- to 400-acre operation — that will serve as a demonstration site to show locals how the different farming practices and farm products work. The Wallbrowns plan to operate from their own facility in Morocco, with the potential of putting up a new building, but they plan to lease at first, because farmland in Morocco can be owned only by Moroccans.
Both admit that it’s a big project, and one that has taken a lot of time to prepare. But they want to do it right, and position themselves for many years of business.
“We want to do this well,” Jessica said. “We want to be an invited guest.”