They are seven years into the venture and continue to explore new opportunities and possibilities.
The five main shareholders of Three Farmers, the southern Saskatchewan farmer- inspired business, have just written another chapter in an exciting producer, manufacturing, sales, promotion and business caper that has known no bounds so far.
They’re keeping it modest though. Headquarters are in Saskatoon since that is where their contracted crushing plant is located for their camelina oil product that has gained momentum on the grocery shelves and culinary circuits. That is where the company’s Elysia Vandenhurk, a red seal chef and chief operating officer hangs out with her sister Natasha who is the company’s chief executive officer. They employ one full-time administrative assistant and one part-time office manager.
“But, we have two regional distributors, one national distributor and a national brokerage team with about 40 people and they are all our brand ambassadors,” said Elysia in speaking with Agri News on Jan. 17, a few short days after the recent airing of the CBC hit show Dragons’ Den where ambitious entrepreneurs seek investments and/or partnerships with well-established Canadian business tycoons.
As noted in last week’s edition of Lifestyles, the Vandenhurk sisters made a solid impression with the dragons on the second-chance episode that was actually recorded in May of 2016 but which just aired last week.
Just like their first time, the pair bagged a lot of interest from the dragons, but since it was labelled a second-chance opportunity, it was obvious their first venture, an investment tie-in with business-leader Arlene Dickinson hadn’t worked out, so they were back with a fresh look at their market evaluations and potential.
“The timing of the investment for Arlene, or ourselves, didn’t work. She wanted a bit more and our three farmer partners themselves needed to be convinced. The vision wasn’t quite right and we felt we might be giving up too much control. But Arlene was a great help, she did some powerful marketing for us and we did some promotional work for her company. The deal didn’t end badly at all. There was complete understanding all around at the end and her people still keep in touch with us and are interested in how it’s going,” said Elysia.
She said since the due diligence process isn’t completed yet with the newest interested partners, she couldn’t provide much details. But this time, the three dragons, Joe Mimran, Michael Wekerle and Manjit Minhas are looking at a royalty scheme rather than an equity involvement.
“So we have to look at what the exact royalty level will be, how long it will be in effect and what it will involve,” said Elysia. She said the dragons understood their unique shareholder/ownership arrangement and felt it would be best to be involved on a royalty basis rather than disrupt the ownership setup.
In the meantime, the company is rolling forward at a quicker pace than anticipated.
The newest additions, the snack food chickpea and pea pods (pops) are selling very well. The peas, Saskatchewan grown, as are all the products including the camelina seed, an ancient grain with super qualities that work so well in kitchens. The camelina oil comes in three flavours. The chickpeas, a snack food, have been on the shelves for two years now with five flavours to entice consumers while the pea pops were just introduced last fall.
“We are the first into this category of snack food and it's nut free, which makes it great for school snacks and it’s high in protein and nutrition, good crunch, dry roasted, not fried. Now the pea pods are slowly and surely coming into our distributor channels. The chickpeas went well, over $600,000 in sales right off the start,” she said.
“These make great snacks for all ages. There is no guilt factor because they’re healthy,” she said with a laugh, noting all recipes pass through her chef-dominated check-list before they get into public domain.
“We’re looking at a new Saskatchewan grown product for 2018 that I can’t say much about yet,” she added, but like the pea pops and chickpeas, it should get national, not just regional attention.
“We introduced pea pops last fall, they too are Saskatchewan roasted and prepped by the same company in Keeler, near Moose Jaw, that Prairie Toons uses for their processing. They have all the safety and health clearances and licensing that we all need,” Elysia said.
Three Farmers products can now be found in over 2,000 outlets across Canada and make their product available to the U.S. market through online access so far.
“Their labelling and packaging requirements are different,” she said.
Three Farmers name recognition is growing and to date the shareholders have been able to work things out since, after all, “we’re dealing with family and friends,” Elysia said with another chuckle. “The farmers challenge the two of us with all kinds of great questions, but they see the growth and get excited and they receive consumer feedback too. We need to know what they are growing every year because they need to rotate crops and they are all in the same area, around Midale. They have provided us with all our camelina seed up to now. We have a sister company now, CanPressco, which is camelina oil for the equine market. Horses and horse owners have responded very positively to it, since it’s high in Omega 3 and Vitamin E. It improves horses coats and reduces irritation and joint pain and is a good anti-inflammatory product for them. So we have over 20 dealers now, Laura Elash is the local representative in our area. We have outlets in Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. already, and we’re selling it in 20 litre buckets or jugs.”
That was something that came through for them simply by listening to customers and then dialoguing with experts in that field.
“And we are now the experts when it comes to camelina oil. It looks almost mustard-like while it’s growing and we’re turning it into a valuable cold-pressed oil product from the seed. It’s a pure product that works and the research has paid off. The producers are finding this crop is good for this kind of climate and it has a nutritional edge that other grains may not have and it doesn’t need a lot of processing. We’ve learned to simplify the process and now we’re branching out with these other products and yes, once in awhile I kind of miss a regular kitchen and that chef’s job, but this is pretty exciting,” Elysia said, adding that the chickpea and pea pods (pops) are sometimes acquired from other Saskatchewan producers, not just the three farmers, as the company branches out and grows.
“We like supporting our Saskatchewan farmers,” Elysia said in conclusion.
There are all kinds of way to make things grow in the province.