For Vickie Doerksen, who owns Prairie Bee Meadery with husband Dennis, value added was what kept their struggling fruit and veggie farm afloat.
“If we had only stayed a U-pick, we would probably not be in business today,” Doerksen said.
Doerksen, a former educator, spoke at the Direct Farm Marketing Conference in Brandon, February 29. She and her husband poured samples of their honey-based wine as they told their story.
Before they owned a meadery, the Doerksens owned Grandpa’s Garden, a 160-acre U-pick farm west of Moose Jaw, growing strawberries, cherries, raspberries and several kinds of vegetables. In 2011 they bought nine beehives and began producing honey — this would expand to around 28 hives.
They’d always wanted to develop a food product, so they began with a fruit honey, incorporating their own fruit into a honey spread.
By 2015, hard times had taken their toll. Hail had taken down the high tunnels used to shelter fruit and veggies in the field. Winterkill took many of their bees. Crickets ate their strawberries. Drought and killer frost also ate at their profits.
“It’s really a challenge,” Doerksen said, showing pictures of wind-flattened high tunnels. “When you don’t have a strawberry crop, you don’t have a raspberry crop, what are you going to do?”
Meanwhile, Doerksen had tinkered with making mead at home with their fruit and honey.
“We actually really liked our own mead,” she said.
They also had the primary ingredients on their farm.
The Doerksens spent a lot of time talking it over and asking themselves if they wanted to do this. They knew going from amateur mead making to commercial would be a huge learning curve.
They had some things going for them. They were an established business and they had the infrastructure in place. They had a building they could convert to a meadery. They had some savings, Dennis had experience in sales and marketing, Vickie had research skills, and they had a plan.
“It seemed like it was the right thing to do,” she said. “And I had always wanted to do a beverage.”
A few things went right. They got some government grants. They hired a consultant
“It was probably, the very, very, very best thing we ever did,” Vickie said. He saved them thousands of dollars.
“When you’re putting that much honey into a tank, you’d better be sure you’re doing it right,” she said.
Their timeline was to open in fall of 2015, but they ran into a few snags. It took more money than they thought (or had), and struggled to find a bank to fund them.
It was February 2016 when they finally started their first six batches of mead. They opened in June.
Prairie Bee now has as many as 16 varieties of mead, a storefront in Moose Jaw, and an online store. Their product is in about 70 liquor stores in Saskatchewan. The mead has also won several awards.
Their hives can no longer produce enough honey to make the mead, so they’ve partnered with another nearby beekeeper.
The mead is what has kept them in business, Doerksen said. It gave them year-round revenue, allowed them to support the local economy, and created jobs.
However, if someone wants to start a value-added business there’s many things to consider, she told the group.
“Are you willing to commit is the question you have to ask yourself,” she said.
It’s a new business, and a lot of work. You need to be able to commit, she said, but if you’re married or in a partnership, the other person must also be on board.
“Are you passionate about your product?” Doerksen asked. “If you’re only in it for the money, it’s not going to work — it needs to kind of touch your soul.”
Know what makes the product special — your story sells your product, she added.
At the most practical level, there needs to be a business plan. Know what product development is needed. Know if there is demand. Know what equipment, additional ingredients, packaging, and labour is needed.
How will it be branded and marketed? A retailer won’t do that for you, Doerksen said. Where will it be sold? How will it be transported? Who will do administration?
There are many government regulations to consider also, Doerksen said. This will include building requirements, health and safety requirements, labelling, taxation and record-keeping.
There’s also the question of funding — getting the money and paying it back. As the Doerksens discovered, it wasn’t easy to get a loan for a startup.
“If you really are interested in doing value added, don’t let any of the things that I said stop you from wanting to do it,” Doerksen said. “There’s a lot of help out there.”
She suggested working with the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie — a similar organization in Saskatchewan was instrumental to their product development.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was very helpful in developing labels — from the information needed on it to the font size.
There are grants out there — they’ve got funding three times, Doerksen said. She suggested speaking to business funding agencies like the Business Development Bank of Canada.
Ask yourself if you need to hire a consultant, she added. For them it was instrumental, but it will depend on the product.
They’ve learned a lot of hard lessons along the way, Doerksen said. She reminded folks to count the cost.
A member of the audience asked Doerksen how they were able to grow their business so quickly.
“I’m old,” Doerksen said, laughing. “We didn’t have time. We’re not like young people who can take lots of years to do it.”