This is the third time Country Guide has interviewed Natasha Vandenhurk, CEO of Saskatoon-based Three Farmers. If anything, this time it feels more urgent.
The reason isn’t exactly the pandemic. At least, let’s put it a bit more accurately. It’s the opportunities that COVID-19 is creating, and the impetus for farmers to take more ownership of the supply chain and to be less at risk from mega-scale processors.
What does it take to not only start up such a venture, but to grow it too?
Three Farmers was the brainchild of (you guessed it) three farmers from Midale, an hour and a half southeast of Regina, who started out growing camelina and created a value-added oil business that has now diversified to include snack offerings made from Saskatchewan lentils, peas and chickpeas. After a decade, Three Farmers is gaining shelf space in the aisles of virtually every Canadian grocery store, as well as in the EU, Taiwan, Singapore and the U.S.
That track record is no accident. As Natasha explains, success has involved a lot of what you’d expect: hard work, overtime hours, weekend shifts and sacrifice, the sorts of discipline that come naturally to anyone raised on a farm.
But there’s more. As a startup making the rounds of farmers’ markets and conducting in-store taste-testings, Three Farmers had figured camelina oil would be a winner, and Natasha and her sister Elysia, a Red Seal chef who had trained under Toronto celebrity chef Susur Lee, threw themselves into it.
In the real world, though, camelina oil has proved an uphill battle, despite its healthy goodness and the Omega 3 and 6 properties that made it seem a sure bet. So on that score, you could say Three Farmers has struggled.
But if you look at Three Farmers as a business, and if you say the goal was to learn how to build a differentiated, successful enterprise that can nurture the ongoing growth of camelina oil in a difficult market, it’s a success.
By 2018, the company had diversified with a successful snack line including chickpea, green pea and lentil offerings. They launched one at a time, each with unique flavours, textures and, most importantly, a healthy eating philosophy.
Today, snacks are the company’s primary income, though Natasha see them standing on the shoulders of a bottle of camelina oil.
“Camelina tells our origin story and our snacks bolster the story on the innovation side,” says Natasha. “We believe down the line the oil will continue to grow and will have its day, but from a business perspective, you still need to watch consumer trends and market size and where the opportunities lie in the short- and long-term. In the short-term, it’s in the natural food set.”
The right attitude
Attitude helped in the beginning, of course. That’s probably insight number 1. Growing up in a large farm family, Natasha and Elysia never hesitated to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. That attitude naturally translated into the business.
It’s a trait Natasha thinks is common to many farmers. “That was one thing we were really good at, execution,” she says. “We weren’t afraid of the hard work, the unknown; we were eager and willing to try new things. That execution piece was the largest accelerator to our growth at the beginning, pounding the pavement and focusing on the sales of the product while improving quality and the behind-the-scenes processes.”
A time for leadership
For Natasha, however, setting Three Farmers up for sustainable growth has meant recognizing she had to move from the front lines to the boardroom. And, critically, she had to keep up her intensity while doing it.
The transition was essentially from a blue to a white collar job, and it demanded the 35-year-old identify and address her strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s a bumpy ride for everybody,” she acknowledges.
In fact, she still looks back and thinks how incredible it used to feel to be in front of the customer, getting that sales high.
But that was then. Today Natasha sees that her job includes being “in charge of strategy, accountable to a board, governance, poring over legal — that’s a very different area of the business.”
Yes, it’s different now, but that’s because the company has achieved the growth that it was pursuing. “I love people, growth, learning and I think those are important characteristics if you’re going to lead an organization to exponential growth.”
To be good at the job, though, she says you have to find the personal payoff. “I have certainly enjoyed it so much,” she says. “Each day we learn so much and I love that.”
Critically, she focused on establishing a top-flight staff, and a top-flight board too.
“One of the things you need to do to be successful with that transition is surrounding yourself with the right people and advisors,” she explains. “They’re not yes men; they’re literally very critical and will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.”
That support is essential at the board table when raising capital and courting new investors, even if the company resembles something very different compared to day one of business.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t as good a company in earlier days. It just means the challenge has changed, Natasha says. “It’s not good or bad, it’s just different. The governance path we’re on fits. If (a company) is going to invest dollars in you, they need to know the governance is there for peace of mind. From an ownership or executive perspective, there are handcuffs with that. It’s not a freewheeling process.”
The power of professionalism
Discipline isn’t only important for internal reasons. It colours every business connection.
It means learning that leadership creates an air of professionalism with such essentials as watertight financial processes and quarterly outlook reports as well as consumer metrics and data tracking. (Natasha reports Three Farmers most recent capital raise was used to “even out departments” by bolstering the financial division.)
Currently, the company has eight directors: the original three farmers, Natasha, and four independents previously unknown to her. They’ve added decades of experience in finance, sales and marketing within Canada’s consumer packaged goods niche.
Still, her best weapon to this day is Elysia. The younger sister has as much of a can-do attitude as her sister and does everything to its absolute maximum potential.
“The ability to give her any project, any role, and literally own it and kill it, any great executive or CEO has that person,” she says of Elysia, the company’s chief revenue officer.
The right people
It’s essential to have the right people around you, and to get the most from them. Natasha works hard to be a hands-off boss for everyone, often opting to dish out projects and see a final product with periodic updates along the way. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t care. In fact, it’s the opposite of that. Natasha simply believes if you empower a person, they rarely disappoint.
“Sometimes,” she says, “you need to get out of your own way.”
That conscious decision has paid off. Since the company began, there has been minimal turnover, making for greater efficiencies and institutional knowledge.
Despite the strong internal team, she still needs to bounce ideas off others and has an external support network of her own. She says her network has morphed and changed over the years, but she has a solid business advisory board in Calgary she regularly communicates with on different issues and questions, and also turns to her parents and husband to offer advice and a listening ear.
There’s a need for balance though. It’s important to be open-minded, but focus is crucial too. Pursuing too many opportunities can sink a company.
You WILL make mistakes
Not every call she has made has been the right one, a fact Natasha does not shy away from. The first miscalculation the company made was just how difficult it is to break into the Canadian food marketplace. Not only does the country have consolidated and limited avenues to sell products, it is cutthroat competitive.
“We underestimated how expensive it is and how much it costs to build a brand and a new product group,” she admits. “Pulses, yes, they’re in soups, but people haven’t traditionally thought of them as a snack food. In mainstream Canadian grocers, it takes a lot of time to build a brand.
“We had this idea of once we put it on the shelf the sales would be there. You still have to create this perfect intersection of being on shelf and have consumer awareness drawing it off the shelf. That is the push and pull of what we’re working towards with this organization.”
They broke it down into a series of small steps, she says. “We started at the farmers market. Then moved to small independent retailers in Saskatchewan, got to know them, demonstrated (product) in stores and talked to their customers. Next step was moving on to Toronto, opening there, getting to know those consumers. Through all of that, you’re learning about pricing, margins, competitive price points and product sizes you need.”
Her gut instinct was successfully put to the test as she felt Canadian consumers are in fact willing to eat a more health-conscious diet. They could see that consumers had trust issues with the food system.
“Our goal and our mission is bridging that gap,” Natasha says. “It’s needed.”
Make the decision
There has been big learning about decision-making too. Basically, it can be summed up as, you can’t always wait until you’re absolutely positive that your decision is right.
“Even if it’s a wrong decision, at least you can know it’s wrong and pivot, but indecision can be catastrophic,” she warns.
It seems to be working. The seven-figure company has set out a clear road map to become an eight-figure operation. Such achievements are only possible when consumers trust products in an age where a company’s social and ethical propositions are at least as important as what’s inside the package.
“We need to crack the door open, and if it’s clarity and transparency buyers want, we can provide that,” says Natasha.
The message has resonated with hungry consumers. Three Farmers moves millions of packages each and every year. With a brand refresh about to launch in early 2021 and the tentative release of new products, Natasha is guardedly excited. The company has also made a critical expansion play: e-commerce.
“We already had made significant investment to open our e-commerce channels,” she says, adding that online sales doubled since the pandemic hit Canada. “We were in as good a position as we can be in (prior to COVID-19).”
“Everybody gets nervous or concerned about the unknown,” Natasha says. “Some of us plunge towards it and some would prefer to wait. If you’re going to grow a business, you’re consistently putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. I do think you need to be comfortable being uncomfortable and learn to manage that feeling.”