Innovative products don’t happen by fluke

Just ask the trailblazing sisters behind Three Farmers

 
Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies

Elysia Vandenhurk (left) and Natasha Vandenhurk (right) standing in their camelina farm intercropped with lentils, near Riceton, SK. (Photograph by Carey Shaw)

The first day on the market, their supply of camelina oil completely sold out. All 19 bottles, in just one hour. It was early, and welcome, proof they had a hit.

“We were super ecstatic,” says Natasha Vandenhurk, recalling the day she and her sister, Elysia, launched Three Farmers brand camelina oil at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market in 2011. Bolstered, they decided to try to sell to health food stores, which were few and far between in Saskatchewan. So, they packed a car with camelina oil and set off for Toronto to knock on some doors.

Seven years later, with 11 employees and five-year sales growth of 476%—enough to land at No. 170 on the 2018 Growth 500 ranking, Three Farmers camelina oil and snacks are available everywhere from airport tuck shops to major grocery chains across Canada; American distribution is in the works. The sisters have appeared twice on CBC-TV’s Dragons’ Den, shaking hands on a deal on both occasions, but eventually deciding to eschew the offers. This fall, they launch their fourth product (not counting a hummus they say “failed miserably”—more on that later), a dry-roasted lentil snack made in a new $1.5-million processing facility.

The Vandenhurk sisters clearly do not lack chutzpah, but their entrepreneurial success story isn’t just about big, bold moves. It’s about having the foresight to see where trends are going and having the discipline to get ahead of the pack.

That story all started with three prairie farmers—the Vandenhurks’ father and two neighbours at Midale, Sask., 160 km southeast of Regina—growing an ancient oil seed called camelina for its agronomic advantages. Also known as false flax, camelina had long been pressed for oil in Europe, but had not yet been tested and approved for food use in Canada. 

Natasha and Elysia smelled opportunity. “Camelina oil has all these wonderful attributes of being high in Omega-3, naturally cold-pressed, with a long shelf life and 475-degree smoke point, yet it had never been commercialized in Canada,” says Natasha, a business graduate and the company’s CEO. Adds Elysia, COO and a Red Seal chef who trained with famed Toronto chef Susur Lee: “It tastes great and goes well with other flavours. It’s versatile in the kitchen.” 

Seeing potential, the sisters secured novel food status from Health Canada, allowing them to start batching the oil. The rest, as they say, is history in the baking. 

Well, not quite. Few Canadians knew about camelina oil, so the two sisters had to, in essence, build a market from scratch. “Our strategy was to walk into a store, speak to the manager and bring a case in. Then I would stand there, talk to the customers and sell that first case for the retailer,” says Elysia. This extremely hands-on approach proved to retailers that the product could move. “It’s not just about getting the product on the shelf, it’s about getting it off the shelf,” Elysia continues. “The customer needs to take it home, understand how to use it, actually use it, and go back for more.”

By 2014, sales of camelina oil were quietly growing in indie and health food markets, but the Vandenhurks had bigger ideas. Why not, they thought, introduce a line of snacks? Diversifying would add new revenue streams and up demand for camelina oil. 

So they introduced a line of snack foods based on another novel Saskatchewan crop—a crunchy chickpea in five flavours, including maple cinnamon. “As soon as it hit the shelf, people wanted more,” says Elysia. That success prompted the sisters to launch a snacking green pea called Pea Pops in amped-up flavours such as Sriracha Slap and Dill Pickle Pow. The company’s newest addition, coming this fall, is Crunchy Little Lentils. All Three Farmers snack products are nut-free, low in fat, high in plant protein and fibre, and lightly dressed with that uber-healthy camelina oil—all attributes the sisters felt buyers would appreciate.

They were right. Three Farmers’ snacking chickpeas hit the marketplace just as consumer demand for healthy snack foods exploded into one of the fastest-growing grocery categories. “Families are no longer sitting down for three meals a day. They’re having a big breakfast and snacking all afternoon,” says Elysia. “They want healthy alternative snacks to get them through the day.”

Those consumers also want to feel good about the source of their food, a trend Three Farmers met from the start; consumers can enter a product code on the company’s website to see where and how the ingredients are grown. “We are vertically integrated,” says Natasha, 33, the elder sister by one year. “We tour the fields. We know where our products come from.” All this resonates with today’s two largest consumer groups: Millennials, who quest for natural, less-processed foods made by smaller, socially conscious companies, and Boomers, who demand healthy “food as medicine” from trusted brands, according to a recent trend analysis by the Farm Credit Corporation.

Indeed, demand has soared. In 2017, the sisters underwent a major expansion of their production facility, equipping them to supply national grocery chains like Loblaw and Sobeys (and, soon, Amazon and TJ Maxx in the U.S.). Breaking into big grocery chains took every skill the sisters learned on the way up: knocking on doors, speaking retailers’ language and telling a great brand story. But it was the innovative and on-trend product that really stood out. “They were ahead of the curve with their chickpeas, and they were in an emerging group with their Pea Pops as well,” says Chris Neal of Neal Brothers Foods, a specialty food company in Toronto, which distributes Three Farmers products in Eastern Canada. “It’s an all-Canadian product, made in Canada by a couple of Canadian entrepreneurs, and that recipe makes for a great product.” 

With ramped up production, the Vandenhurks are again looking forward. This time, they’re starting to supply other food manufacturers with camelina oil and crunchy “bits” used in power bars, granola and salads. As Elysia explains, it’s a way to fad-proof the company: “With ingredients, if there’s quality and you’re on trend, you can grow pretty quickly. We’ll have two very complementary sides of the business.”

It’s something they know they can execute well—a key factor the sisters now apply when deciding where to go next. This is a lesson drawn from that failed hummus experiment: soon after launching a camelina-based dip, the Vandenhurks found they had neither the logistics nor price-point to supply the fresh-food market well. Says Natasha: “We’ve learned to stick with our strengths. Think things through. Grow sustainably.” 

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