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Northern business owners share startup story

Al and Johanna McLauchlan built a successful company tapping birch trees — and consumer interest in natural foods

It all began with a half a cup.

That’s how much syrup Alan and Johanna McLauchlan produced back in 2004 when they tried tapping a few birch trees for the first time.

It would ultimately lead the couple, who lives about an hour’s drive north of The Pas, to found their own company and produce and sell one of the world’s rarest gourmet foods.

The couple today sells a premium birch syrup made at Rocky Lake Birchworks, made from sap tapped from 1,500 birch trees, processed in facilities on their property, and sold to more than 30 retailers across Ontario, and the three Prairie provinces.

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The McLauchlans were guest speakers at Take the Leap, a Manitoba Agriculture rural business conference, describing their own leap into a post-retirement entrepreneurship. The event attracted about 150 participants from across rural and northern Manitoba including new and existing business owners.

“Had I known what I know now I’d have been getting into entrepreneurship sooner,” he said.

Busy retirement

Al and Johanna were retired from their careers in the RCMP and municipal management respectively and living at their property on the shores of the pristine Rocky Lake when Al gave about 15 trees that first-year tap. That first tiny volume of syrup piqued their interest to try again the following spring. Over the next five seasons they added more trees and bought more processing equipment, finally founding Rocky Lake Birchworks Ltd. in 2009.

Today they produce and market their own brand of syrup, plus a line of specialty flavoured teas made from chaga, a type of mushroom birch trees produce, a medicinal salve made from cottonwood trees, wild rice and a natural sweetener also derived from trees around them.

The company gained international attention recently when they were featured in a film produced by The Pew Trust called “People of the Boreal.” In the film, and during their talk in Dauphin, the couple talks about the intimate relationship they’ve developed with the land around them and the importance of sustainably managing the resources of the boreal zone.

“We have a real close connection to the land,” Al said. “Without the boreal forest our company is non-existent.”

Being retirees and starting a company in later life definitely worked to their advantage, says Johanna. They’d had fulfilling careers, gained life experience and skill sets from them, plus they were financially secure.

The timing to start something new was just right, she said.

“We like to keep busy and we were looking for a project,” she said.

“Now we’re doing something that we really enjoy.”

Early preparation

In mid-November the McLauchlans are already gearing up for the intense few days in early spring they’ll spend tapping trees, hauling thousands of litres of sap, and boiling and bottling syrup at the on-site processing facilities they’ve established at Rocky Lake. The business now keeps not only themselves busy, but also their sons Andy and Peter.

The McLauchlans say they had lots of support as they pursued the business, crediting staff with the Food Development Centre at Portage la Prairie, Food and Beverage Manitoba, the World Trade Centre in Winnipeg, plus their own network for helping them navigate the complexities of starting the business, launching a brand and connecting to markets from their remote geographic location. They’ve developed an extensive website and made wide use of social media like YouTube and Facebook to tell their company’s story.

New entrepreneurs have many questions and plenty of doubts as they get started, a topic much discussed at the October 23 conference. The McLauchlans spoke frankly about some of their own during a panel discussion.

His biggest personal hurdle starting out was being willing to seek advice, Al said. He needed to stop worrying he’d attract too much attention too early to their business concept.

“To be honest, I just didn’t want anyone to steal our idea,” he told the Dauphin conference.

“Once I got over that, our journey really started.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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