Sask. entrepreneurs seeing potential in value-added food products
From chickpea snacks to beef jerky, producers are processing Sask. food in popular ways
Saskatchewan is known for producing crops — lots of them, in every colour under the rainbow — but another element of agriculture is giving growing food a run for its money.
Revenue from value-added food processing — that is, taking a raw ingredient and turning it into a more valuable end product — was worth about $4.6 billion in 2017, making Saskatchewan the fastest growing value-added sector in the country.
The provincial government agrees value-added food processing could spell big opportunities for entrepreneurs in Saskatchewan. It has set a $6-billion revenue goal in the sector by 2025. Godwin Pon, director of the Ministry of Agriculture's value-added unit, said the industry is a "strategic priority" for the province. A variety of value-added agriculture and agri-food processing funding options are available via the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year, $388-million federal and provincial agreement that ends in 2022.
That spells opportunity — if you're willing to dedicate the time and money to make it happen.
Producers see the economic advantage of capturing a larger share of the food dollar. Many begin a value-added venture at farmers' markets to test a product's viability. But success at the local level doesn't necessarily translate into a product the general public will buy.
That's when the going gets tough and the tough get creative.
Plant-based protein snacks
Plant-based protein is all the rage these days.
The federal government's $153-million contribution toward the Protein Industries Canada Supercluster, which aims to make the country a world leader in plant-based proteins and is headquartered in Regina, is evidence of that fact.
Three Farmers makes some of the province's most recognizable value-added foods, using products grown on the family farm in southeast Saskatchewan. The company is owned by sisters Elysia and Natasha Vandenhurk, along with their father and two neighbouring farmers.
Three Farmers started out with cold-pressed camelina oil in 2011 and rolled out their now wildly popular chickpea snack line in 2014, followed later by roasted green peas and lentils.
Canada's snack market is booming, said Elysia, "and that's where the fastest, most significant growth in our company has been felt: our focus is a plant-based pulse snack manufacturer."
The company's marketing tells a story that takes buyers from the farmer's field to their snack bag: traceability bar codes on the products allow consumers to find out who made the product and where.
Keeping the business wholly in Saskatchewan was a no-brainer for Three Farmers.
"We want to stick with products that are sustainably grown around us," said Elysia.
"We've really noticed that people don't understand how much Saskatchewan produces food-wise for the whole world. We like putting that story out there."
The company has grown quickly. Its products are sold across Canada in major and natural food grocers and in the American market via Amazon.com.
But, with growth, comes new challenges.
There was no one in Canada who could roast chickpeas for Three Farmers at the capacity it needed and in an allergen-free facility.
"We had to take it upon ourselves to get into that manufacturing piece," said Elysia.
They partnered with Prairie Berries, which already had a food safe facility that was only in use six weeks of the year.
"Everything is very hard and it's even harder if you try to do it by yourself. As long as it's a win-win you'll get to where you're going that much quicker and easier if you work together."
Goal: Canada's best grass-fed beef jerky
Chelsey Parker promotes the ethical and sustainable farming approach behind her Meat Chops beef jerky not only because she believes in it, but to stand out in the marketplace.
She sources her "prairie-bred, grass-fed" beef from ranchers who use rotational grazing methods to benefit their animals and the environment.
She knows her jerky is up against stiff competition — larger companies can bring down their price to half of what she charges — but Parker is confident Meat Chops' taste will win out as she strives to move Canadians' snacking habits toward quality products.
"I know this is bold, but I want to be Canada's best grass-fed beef jerky company. I want to change your snacking options out there."
Meat Chops is available throughout Saskatchewan in larger grocery chains and smaller independent grocers.
Parker also does a private label jerky for the Co-op Pure brand, which is sold in Co-op stores across Western Canada.
Parker works with Saskatoon's Food Centre on development, production and manufacturing methods.
Most of the provincial funding to support producers interested in the value-added food industry starts with research to develop new crop varieties and processing technologies.
A natural step is to work with the Food Centre to develop a value-added food product. In early 2018, a $17.5- million expansion, called the Agri-Food Innovation Centre, opened to help support Saskatchewan's growing agri-food processing sector.
"They've helped a ton with ensuring my product is safe for consumption, which is No. 1."
She said it's not an easy process, but "nothing worth doing is ever easy right?"
"I expected it to be challenging on all levels so it's important to approach it that way. Scaling up is challenging. I'm thankful for all the knowledge they have provided for my business."
In Parker's experience, if a business is content to stay at the regional level and doesn't have to abide by safety regulations for grocery chains, staying in a smaller commercial kitchen is the best option. The Food Centre, though, helped her scale up and grow, she said.
Both Parker and Elysia stressed how expensive it is to enter retail, and that sales and marketing are big components in success.
"Marketing and putting a brand together is a huge undertaking," said Elysia.
Parker worked a second job until recently.
"It is an expensive venture, but my margins are now starting to look healthy," she said.
Jenn Sharp is a freelance writer travelling the province this year in search of stories that connect us to the people growing and making our food.
If you're a baker, beekeeper, butcher, charcutier, cheesemaker, chocolatier, coffee roaster, craft brewer, distiller, farmer, farm-to-table chef, fishmonger, forager, market gardener, miller or orchardist in Saskatchewan, she wants to hear from you.
Her research will be compiled into the ultimate Saskatchewan food guide: Flat Out Delicious: Food Artisans of Saskatchewan. The book will be published by Touchwood Editions in spring 2020.