The geographic center of Minnesota is located in Crow Wing County, 10 miles southwest of the city of Brainerd, and only a few miles away from the Barrett family farm. You’d be hard-pressed to meet a local who hasn’t heard of the Barretts, or their farm that has been in the family for three generations, or their high-end dog food manufacturing business, Barrett Petfood Innovations, which produces BIXBI RAWBBLE, LIBERTY and high-quality kibble from other premium pet companies.
The Barretts first started using their crops to produce top-quality pet food in 2006, after patriarch Mike Barrett purchased the machinery and equipment necessary to make organic fertilizer — only to realize that he overestimated the market. As the organic fertilizer venture petered out, Mike’s daughter, Sarah, did some research and discovered that the equipment that her father had purchased to produce organic fertilizer was more commonly used for making high-quality pet food. She shared what she found with her father, and they decided that they needed to pivot and enter the pet food game with a very deep under-standing of farming, but little to no experience in the pet industry.
For almost all of her life Sarah has worked at the farm alongside her father, and she has always had a deep passion for animals. Pets weren’t allowed in the farmhouse when Sarah was a child, but every stray animal that she found became her new pet, and was snuck inside. Sarah eventually moved away for college, but every summer she came home to help her dad, handling big-ger and bigger responsibilities as she became more accustomed to the operations side of the business. One semester she stayed home to keep working on the family business, and decided to make the change permanent and not return to school, which is when she assumed responsibility for quality control for operations and the transition into the pet industry.
It was around that time when Mike called his son, Tom, to see if he had any interest in helping his sister grow the business. Tom also grew up helping around the family farm. “I can pretty vividly remember the first summer I was off on my own in the tractor, at seven or eight years old,” he recalls. “I had a few hiccups here and there — getting tractors stuck, running into trees, things like that — but all in all, no major catastrophes.” As a child, Tom enjoyed driving his go-kart around the property and as he got older, he transitioned into drag racing cars, which is a hobby that Tom inherited from his father. Mike’s love of cars and planes echoed in the boy’s world, and eventually drove Tom to study aviation at university, with dreams of becoming a pilot.
When Tom received the call from his father, he was living just outside New York City and had just earned his master’s in aviation management, but with an economic recession looming and his family asking for help, Tom and his fiancée decided to move to Brainerd. At the time, Barrett Petfood Innovations had only six employees, so Tom and Sarah quickly learned every job in the business and worked to illuminate each other’s strengths; Tom ran sales and marketing, while Sarah led day-to-day operations.
The Barretts started out small with a few bird food accounts, and then focused on partnering with small, independent dog and cat food brands in order to build strong, intimate relationships. The first few years were difficult and slow-moving, but in 2012 Barrett Petfood Innovations essentially doubled in size, then again year after year; today it manufactures some of the most specialized pet food in the world.
Moving into the pet industry meant updating all of the farm’s equipment and machinery — except for the extruder that Mike originally bought to make fertilizer, which Tom describes as “the heartbeat of the operation.” This past summer, the Barretts opened a new facility with a state-of-the-art production line. “It allows for higher fresh ingredient inclusion: so, more meat, more fresh vegetables, fruits, anything like that,” says Tom. “We’ll be able to include more of those fresh ingredients into the kibble.”
Traditional farming still plays an integral role in the family business, as most of what Mike grows is processed in the plant for pet food. For instance, the sunflowers that Mike grows on the farm are harvested and cold-pressed locally, and the oil is used as a key ingredient in a variety of pet foods. Tom explains, “We look at trends every year, and we’ll go to our dad and ask, ‘Do you think you can grow sorghum or millet?’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, I’ll look into it, I’ll talk to my agronomist.’ If he thinks there’s a chance at it, he’ll give it a shot.”
The Barretts make every effort to reduce waste at the farm, and to be as efficient and as self-sustaining as possible. Sarah says, “When my dad harvests oats off the field, there’s straw that’s left behind, and he doesn’t have time to come back and capture that waste because he’s moving on to another crop. So then I’ll come in and I’ll bale the oat straw, which usually gets sold for bedding, or I’ll keep some for my cows. It’s kind of this whole cycle.” She also says that this is the first year that 100 percent of bio-waste from the pet food side is being recycled and applied to the fields.
What started as a modest family farm has grown into a massive manufacturing operation producing some of the best pet food products available. The Barretts stayed resilient when times were tough, and they relied on each other to get to where they are today. Sarah and Tom could not have built the company into what it has become without working up from the foundation laid by their father, and Mike wouldn’t have made the leap from fertilizer to pet food without his children and their progressive ideas.
Both Tom and Sarah have families of their own now. “My wife and I have a six-, four-, and one-year-old, and a six-month-old Berna-doodle, Freddy,” Tom says. “My older boys are pretty much follow-ing in our footsteps. They’re coming around the business, they’re creating chaos, and it has certainly brought back some of those memories of me as a child, doing the same shenanigans.” Sarah and her husband have two little boys — with one more on the way — and they also have one dog, one cat, a pair of pigs, four horses, and five cows. “Our animals are such a big part of what we do,” Sarah says, “so I think that’s kind of what makes us different: it’s not about the money, it’s more about the values and knowing that we want to do what’s best. Tom and I wouldn’t make pet food that we wouldn’t feed to our own animals.”
Fast cars and slow tractors – The rides of the Barrett farm