By Trevor Bacque 

It always starts with a conversation. Many entrepreneurs nostalgically pinpoint the exact moment their business venture was born. For many, it becomes a point of pride to re-tell the origin story and remember humble beginnings on their winding road to success.

Well, for Colin Rosengren, Ron Emde and Dan Vandenhurk, three farmers from Midale, Sask., their serendipitous moment did not appear like anything noteworthy on first blush.

“It is pretty stereotypical of farmers … sitting around a curling rink, complaining about low prices,” says Rosengren with a smile across his face. “Crush margins were high at the time, but commodity prices on canola were low and that’s kind of where it started. We said we should do something to value-add.”

Not long after their bemoaning bonspiel, Rosengren found himself sitting at an Ag-West Bio meeting in Saskatoon, Sask. The year was 2005 when he was introduced to an ancient grain, camelina. The tall, skinny crop has a raft of monikers including false flax, German sesame and gold-of-pleasure. Officially a brassica, camelina has a relatively small footprint in Canada as compared with many other growing regions including large tracts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Despite the crop being an agronomic unknown, Rosengren was attracted to it for its unusually high amounts of Vitamin E and Omegas 3 and 6. The Omega 3 content is six times higher than that of canola. He remembered his conversation with Emde and Vandenhurk about value-added and rapidly connected the dots to camelina. It serves as a suitable cooking oil and has a higher smoke point than canola, as well, another attractive feature for the relatively unfamiliar product.

Growing camelina is fairly straightforward, if not a bit annoying. After fiddling with seeding dates, Rosengren now prefers to seed the crop, often classified as a winter annual, in early springtime and intercrop it with peas or lentils, and he typically opts for the latter. The lentils are not as competitive whereas peas can be a bit feisty alongside camelina. It is a very frost-tolerant crop and Rosengren recalls his 2019 seeding experience with multiple cold May days, yet the camelina did not just survive, it thrived.

“It grew through the whole thing, weeds, everything,” he says. “It almost choked out the lentils because it survived the frost. It’s very resilient.” 

Growing camelina is one thing, harvest is another.

“Camelina is a really tough one to combine because of the way the pods break: they break in half into a cup shape—you cannot destroy that cup, it’s indestructible. Camelina is so small and light that it doesn’t really separate and sift out,” he says.

For that reason, Rosengren, and others prefer to combine it alongside the intercropped pulse. The heavier lentils help sift camelina, which increases harvest speed and reduces losses. He says the plants seem to grow as well as anything else does, and it can even be planted on poor quality land and yield good enough to earn a modest profit margin. 

When intercropped with a nitrogen fixer such as lentil, farmers may cut back on application and Rosengren typically just tops up to about 30 or 40 pounds of nitrogen from the point of what is already in the soil.

The three farmers have 1,000 acres of camelina grown under contract in addition to their own, bringing the annual total to 2,000 acres which yields anywhere from 500 to 1,500 tonnes each year.

“Demand and volume are large enough that it’s good to spread out our growing acres,” says Rosengren. “We don’t want to risk our production all in one place.”

Once they began to successfully grow their crops, the three farmers became Canpressco in 2007, before the Three Farmers brand began in 2010. Once Canpressco started, the farmers had the foresight to realize they needed help.

They called upon Vandenhurk’s third child Natasha, a fresh economics graduate from the University of Saskatchewan who was seeking a new life challenge. Known to immerse herself in whatever she is doing, the new company seemed like a fun project.

“I was just looking for something to jump into and call my own,” she says. “They gave me an opportunity to do that, to give legs to this new crop camelina oil. I came along in a business development position and it kind of grew from there.”

It did not take long for her to realize that there was something special about camelina, and she had the wherewithal to know more help was required. She called up her younger sister Elysia, a Red Seal chef, who could speak to the oil’s functionality with matching credentials.

“That’s sort of the angle we took, all the health benefits that are hard to come by,” she says, adding the oil has a light taste profile and has often been compared to fresh peas or asparagus. “It’s unique in that it’s cold pressed, it’s not hexane extracted. It’s high pressure, low heat. We filter it and bottle it.”

The oil found success in niche markets and people wanting a healthy, different oil to cook with became its primary customer base. It also has success in the equine and pet market with many people explaining their animals’ joint health improves when taking camelina. 

Since day one, the message and ethos of the company hasn’t changed: “We had three words associated: Natural. Sustainable. Traceable,” says Rosengren. “Our brand is starting to gain some traction. We’re right across Canada with market penetration.”

The ancient crop has resonated with consumers who want to create a stronger connection with their food and the traceability aspect has always been there. From the outset, all camelina farmers associated with Three Farmers have always been able to find their products thanks to bag codes that can go right back to the field and growing year. 

“Being a smaller company, we have some advantages being directly connected, there’s not several degrees of separation,” he says. “It’s still owned by three farmers, and obviously our management team, and partners in the organization, as well.”

The message is getting out there, too. What started out at weekend farmers’ markets has now blossomed into Canada-wide distribution in all the biggest grocery chains. Federated Co-op was the company’s first big score in 2013 before hitting it much larger in Loblaws and Metro five years later.

While the oil was well-received by all who tried it, selling a brand-new product in a crowded marketplace of oils proved difficult. Undeterred, the sisters kept at it but simultaneously dreamt up new product offerings for their customers.

The second product from Three Farmers was not an oil at all, but it was from a farmer’s field. Their Roasted Chickpeas hit store shelves in 2014 and were a vastly different item compared to the oil. Aimed at health-conscious women between 35-55, they were an instant hit. They followed up their efforts two years later with roasted Pea Pops. With a high crunch, the peas proved a perfect substitute for chips.

It wasn’t until 2018 when they launched Crunchy Little Lentils that things really took off. Similar to Spitz, the lentils can be consumed by the mouthful and customers knew what to do. This time there was no need to explain or sell it as they had to with the oil.

“We knew from a primary research perspective that once customers tried lentils they fell in love,” she says. “We sort of knew that first inkling could be a real winner.”

It only took the lentils about 18 months to match the entire sales of the chickpeas. Today, they each sell about one million units annually across all the different sizes. 

The flavours also seem to cater to just about every taste bud: maple cinnamon, wild ranch, sriracha, barbecue, dill pickle, garlic & herb as well as various levels of saltiness.

Available across Canada, the products have the strongest acceptance east of Manitoba. 

“We’ve seen phenomenal uptake in Toronto and Quebec,” she says. “They’re a little bit more open.”

The company marks its packaging with different labels such as gluten-free, non-GMO, nut-and-peanut free, high fibre and high protein disclaimers to let customers know what the products are and are not.

The marketing appears to be working, as well. No longer a startup, the company exceeds $4 million annually in sales and Vandenhurk and sister Elysia, the company’s chief revenue officer, have a new goal to position the company as a top-flight offering in the better-for-you category on Canadian grocery store shelves. 

The company is currently rebranding, but due to COVID-19 that has been pushed back until early 2021.

“That rebranding entails a whole new look to our packaging and communicating our story and who we are to consumers,” she says. “Definitely innovation and new products are on our minds.”

For Vandenhurk, the rebrand and goals to become synonymous with other major grocery store players comes from a strong work ethic instilled in her and her five siblings since childhood.

“Growing up we had zero money, working was just what we did,” says Vandenhurk. “We didn’t go to people’s houses to play, we did chores. Different experiences in our lives shape how we respond to certain situations. I have this never-give-up attitude.”

As the company continues its journey to retail success, Vandenhurk is keenly aware the company would not be where it is today without the help of her father as well as Rosengren and Emde.

“They have been so supportive,” she says. “[There have been] lots of times in this business if things didn’t look so positive, they’ve stuck behind us. They had a vision for what this could look like, too. These are not your Average Joe farmers. They’re willing to take risks and try new things.”

One of those recent key pieces has been establishing greater governance as they recently welcomed new investors and directors around their boardroom table.

From Rosengren’s perspective, he has had his eyes opened time and time again learning about the retail world and how distribution chains work, which he says can be interesting and discouraging at times.

Three Farmers has been a way for the families to maintain their landbases and not be gobbled up by larger farms hungry for additional acres.

“As farms have grown and rural areas have declined to some degree, the value-added portion is a way to sort of offset that to a degree,” he says. “Farms of the old size can’t survive, it’s not feasible and people are displaced. If we can value-add through this, we’re able to keep people employed and replace ones that are lost with that.”

And even though the three farmers did not anticipate all the challenges and risks that came with Three Farmers, it never stopped them from trying something new and seeing it through.

“If you knew all the hurdles, would you do it anyway? We probably would,” says Rosengren. “We probably didn’t realize how difficult it is to do, for one. It’s not like there’s anything easy or simple about it, but certainly something interesting. We’re proud of the way we’re growing [crops] and raising food that’s good to tell our story of trying to improve our soils. It’s something that’s worthwhile and we would do it again.”