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After you survive the startup, it takes a whole different set of skills to keep a value-add business growing

When Country Guide first spoke to sisters Natasha and Elysia Vandenhurk six years ago, their lives were hectic. But in that way, it was a story familiar to anyone running a startup.

The Vandenhurk sisters were in the midst of creating a direction for Three Farmers, a food company producing camelina oil products from crops grown by their father, Dan Vandenhurk, along with Colin Rosengren and Ron Emde.

Natasha and Elysia were the archetypal entrepreneurs, doing everything from creating a brand identity to knocking on retailers’ doors to get product on their shelves. In the early days, they even did without distributors, shipping the camelina oil themselves.

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Since then the business has evolved, and so have their roles within the company. Earlier this winter the Vandenhurk sisters sat down with Country Guide to talk about how they took Three Farmers from a startup to a more mature business, and what they’ve got planned for the future.

New products, new roles

Natasha joined the company at age 24 as the marketing and sales director after studying economics at the University of Saskatchewan. Shortly after, Elysia, a Red Seal chef, came on board as product development officer.

Camelina oil has a light taste, a high smoke point, and a high ratio of omega-3s. The Vandenhurk sisters thought those traits would make it an ideal addition to kitchen pantries, so they decided to focus on the culinary market.

Since then, Three Farmers has added more products to its lineup, including roasted chickpea and pea snacks. In addition to grocery stores, Husky and Mac’s convenience stores also carry the pea pops and roasted chickpeas these days, and Natasha sees plenty of opportunity for healthy snacks in that industry.

They’ve also added a second stream for camelina oil through sister company Canpressco. Canpressco sells into the equine market (the omega-3s are a selling feature for performance horses on high grain rations, as well as horses with inflammation).

Right now they have about 15 dealers across the Prairies, and ship some product into the U.S. They’ve also had some interest from U.S. equine brands that are considering including camelina oil in their offerings. Customer response has been very good — the re-buy rate in the equine market is over 95 per cent.

Elysia and Natasha’s roles have changed, too. Initially Three Farmers didn’t have any other employees, so they divvied up the work between them. In the beginning, Natasha explains, it wasn’t important to them what their job titles were, as they were doing everything.

But as the company grew and they needed to hire people, they started writing job descriptions.

“Every time we create that job role and start figuring out what it looks like, it creates more clarity for everyone else in the company as well,” says Natasha. With each new hire, they’re able to shuffle some things that didn’t fit existing job descriptions into the new positions, she points out.

Today Natasha is the chief executive officer, and Elysia the chief operation officer. They each also have shares in the company, along with the original three farmers. Three Farmers has five full-time employees and one part-time employee at their head office in Saskatoon. They also work with four different distributors in Canada, and also at times with brokers for sales.

“We’re not a retail shop. We don’t need to have people on the floor selling products,” says Natasha. Working with distributors and with brokers frees them to build relationships with retailers, grow their distribution networks, and perfect their product offerings.

Here with the “Three Farmers” Ron Vandenhurk (l), Ron Emde and Colin Rosengren, Elysia and Natasha know they need to adapt to a continuously changing market.
photo: Supplied

Did they face a learning curve with human resources? Three Farmers isn’t “HR heavy,” says Natasha, so they don’t feel that challenge as much as some companies. But one challenge is that each time they create a new position, they have to figure out what that position will look like. As well, everyone’s roles are evolving, and it’s hard to communicate that to potential employees and find the best fit.

Natasha describes their employees as fantastic. When it comes to recruitment, they haven’t had much luck posting job ads. But people within their social media networks are fans of the brand, and forward job openings to them. Such referrals have worked best for recruitment.

One of the best pieces of advice they’ve received is to hire slowly. For example, they’ve been thinking for a while about hiring someone for a marketing position. They don’t necessarily need that position filled immediately. But they want to take the time to find the right person, so they put out a job posting through their networks.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Asked what challenges they’ve faced in the last few years, Natasha and Elysia chuckle. There has been no shortage of challenges to talk about.

When they first started with the camelina oil, the biggest challenge was always consumer education, says Elysia. The Vandenhurks promoted the product by doing demos and by getting media attention. They also went on Dragon’s Den, the CBC show where entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to potential investors.

Elysia and Natasha have been on the show twice, and they found they gained more than good publicity from the show. The preparations they did before each pitch were helpful, says Elysia.

“You definitely take a look at your business and make sure you ask all the questions and anticipate what they’re going to be asking you,” says Elysia.

They also accepted an offer from Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Calgary’s Venture Communications, the first time they entered the Den, in 2012.

“Although that deal never closed the first round, we spent some time with her and had some real conversations,” says Natasha. After the show, they worked with Dickinson on marketing and public relations for the Three Farmers brand. They also sat down with Dickinson’s chief financial officer, and learned how to base decisions on numbers.

The Dragon’s Den experience paid off in unexpected ways. When Natasha and Elysia are about to take on a new challenge, they talk to someone who’s already been through it. Sandra Purdy of Prairie Berries had already been through Dragon’s Den, and she gave them great advice.

That was only the beginning of their relationship with Purdy. In 2014, they wanted to expand into snack foods. But they couldn’t find anyone in Canada with the capacity and capability to roast chickpeas.

“And it just became very apparent that we were going to have to step into that game,” says Elysia. But instead of starting from scratch, they partnered with Purdy, who grows Saskatoons and processes them into a range of products at her Keeler, Sask. facility.

“Sandra’s very well versed on food safety and she has a food facility up and running, so we really just had to figure out the equipment we needed and plug that in,” says Elysia. They bought the equipment and struck an agreement with Purdy. Three Farmers now works with Prairie Berries’ production team to roast the chickpeas and pea pops.

“Time is money when you’re in business. You want to do things right, but you want to do them quickly,” Natasha says, adding that Purdy has been a “phenomenal partner.”

“People know what chickpeas are. They know they’re healthy, and they’re just flying off the shelves,” says Natasha. The biggest challenge with the snacks has been producing enough, fast enough.

At interview time in January, Three Farmers was completing a facility expansion. The company had brought in custom-made industrial-scale ovens from the U.S.

Once those ovens are running, the snacks will be “incredibly price-competitive because we’ll be way more efficient now,” says Natasha.

“So we can perfect the product, get it to the right price point, and now we can supply on a mass scale to U.S. brands, as well, that are looking to incorporate roasted pulses,” she adds.

Three Farmers sources chickpeas and peas from Saskatchewan producers through Saskatchewan seed brokers. The three farmers have been the primary growers for the camelina, but the company’s camelina needs have grown dramatically in the last 18 months. In 2018, they’ll be contracting camelina production to outside growers for the first time. Interested producers can contact them through their Three Farmers website.

A little help from their friends

Sandra Purdy and Arlene Dickinson aren’t the only people the Vandenhurks have turned to for help in the last few years.

Financial institutions are one source of advice, says Natasha, especially when looking to expand your operating line. Chatting with them is very helpful, she adds.

Elysia says they lean heavily on others with more experience in the industry. Right now their office is at InfraReady Products in Saskatoon. InfraReady is an ingredient supplier, started by the Sask Wheat Pool in 1994.

Mark Pickard, who has been InfraReady’s president since the beginning, has been “a valuable network connection,” says Natasha. “We’ll often pop into his office and ask him questions or he’ll pop in and keep us updated.”

CanMar Grain Products produces roasted flax out of their Regina facility. The company also does Three Farmers’ packaging. Elysia describes the company as a wealth of knowledge, especially on the manufacturing side. The Vandenhurks tapped them while working through the logistics of roasting chickpeas and peas.

Three Farmers works with Saskatoon’s Bioriginal Food and Science on their camelina oil. Bioriginal makes nutritional ingredients and helps food and nutraceutical companies incorporate those ingredients in everything from bakery products to dietary supplements.

And they work with Yorkton’s TA Foods, which sells its own brand of flax products, sells flax to feed mills and pet food manufacturers, and has a co-packing division for other food companies.

At every step Three Farmers builds networks. Natasha says they keep in touch with their distributors and sales people, and reach out to consumers.

They also talk to some of their key retailers. “They have stories to share about what other brands are doing or what’s been successful in their stores,” says Natasha.

An evolving brand

While Three Farmers has gained a loyal following, Elysia and Natasha are always working on marketing and branding.

“Food is like fashion now. It’s ever-changing,” says Elysia. Social media is full of beautiful photos of food — food that people have made themselves, along with cool snacks and cool brands, she adds.

Branding is not just about choosing a name and a look, and sticking to it for five years, says Natasha. They are constantly trying to stay relevant, to grow, and to fit their consumers’ needs, without losing focus.

Often marketing means getting out of the office. The day of the Country Guide interview, they were headed to Melfort, Sask. Melfort hosted the Sask Scotties, and Three Farmers sponsored the event. Even though Three Farmers is a national brand, the Vandenhurks like to get out to their local communities and talk directly to consumers about what they like and don’t like.

And every spring and fall, they attend the Canadian Health Food Association’s trade show. It’s not that they get a ton of new business there, but they see all their current retailers. It’s about fostering those relationships, says Natasha. They also have two shows south of the border this year. In fact, in 2018, they have more consumer-based and business-to-business trade shows in their calendars.

Recently, they’ve been refreshing the Three Farmers brand. That means looking at the logo, to see if they can make it better communicate who they are as a brand. It means figuring out short taglines that will tell people exactly who Three Farmers is. It’s hard to know if you always hit the mark exactly, says Natasha.

They’ve also been running focus groups and surveys, says Elysia, to make sure they’re still on the same wavelength as consumers. They want to get a better sense of consumers’ lifestyles. What are their problems throughout the day, and how can Three Farmers help solve some of those problems?

That focus on their brand is as important as ever, especially as Three Farmers moves into the U.S. market.

“The more dialled in we are in Canada, I think the better success we’ll have in the U.S.,” says Natasha.

The company is still in the early stages of its U.S. expansion, so it’s hard to say exactly how they’ll have to adjust their marketing. Natasha thinks they may have to speak to U.S. consumers in a different way. Some of the marketing channels they use in Canada might not be as effective in the U.S. They may have to do more sampling campaigns at marathons, for example.

But whatever challenges emerge, Natasha and Elysia seem ready. Says Natasha, “2018 should be a really good year.”

Advice for startups

Elysia and Natasha Vandenhurk have picked up a few things in their years taking Three Farmers from a startup to a more mature food company. Country Guide asked them for their top three learnings — what should new food companies do, and what should they never do?

Top three things to do:

  1. Make sure your product is the best, highest-quality product. Never compromise on quality.
  2. Make sure your price is competitive and you are always working as efficiently as possible to allow for this.
  3. Keep the consumer top-of-mind. Talk to consumers and go to events personally so you hear feedback first-hand.

Top three things to avoid:

  1. Don’t underestimate how long it’s going to take to establish the business.
  2. Don’t underestimate how much money it will take to establish the business.
  3. Don’t underestimate the value of your team. You’re only as good as the people you work with.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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