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Three Farmers

Healthy, sustainable foods from Saskatchewan’s bounty

~ By Cheryl Long

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Long gone are the days when vegetable oil was the only cooking oil in the family pantry. Specialty flavours like olive, avocado and walnut are popular staples in the kitchens of today’s more adventurous culinary consumers.

But a growing number of shoppers are looking for additional health benefits in their food and when it comes to oil, there are few that can compete with one of the latest to hit the market. Camelina oil, made from an ancient oilseed, is one of the country’s newest cash crops, and was only recently approved by Health Canada in 2010 as a novel food able to be sold into the human food market.

Saskatchewan-based Three Farmers can be thanked for bringing the nutritious and flavourful oil to the Canadian market. And there really are three farmers. Dan Vandenhurk, Ron Emde and Colin Rosengren are second- and third-generation farmers living and working on neighbouring lands near Midale in the province’s southeast corner. In the mid-2000s, Rosengren attended a seminar about crops well-suited to Saskatchewan soil and camelina, which wasn’t currently being grown in the country, piqued the farmer’s interest enough that he planted a test crop. But though it was being used in foods in northern Europe and as a biofuel ingredient in Canada and the U.S., there was no market in Canada for camelina for human consumption at that time.

First batch was bottled by hand in 2010

Natasha and Elysia Vandenhurk, the daughters of Dan, soon became involved in the prospective business. Natasha, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, brought a sample of the oil taken from the plant’s crushed seed to Elysia, whose background in culinary arts and certification as a Red Seal Chef were essential in discovering how the oil could be transformed into a viable food product. In 2010, they bottled their first small batch of cold-pressed camelina oil by hand at a local food centre and soon sold their first bottles at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market and local health food stores, said Elysia, who is now the company’s Chief Operating Officer. But that was just the beginning.

“We needed a bigger marketplace than Saskatoon and Regina and needed to prove the success of the oil,” Elysia said. The next step was a road trip to Toronto where the sisters spent about seven weeks knocking on the doors of specialty and health food stores and offering to demonstrate their innovative product to the store’s customers. “The customers were excited; 99 per cent were loving the flavour of the oil and the story and its use,” she said. The product was so popular that Three Farmers proceeded to set up warehousing in the city, hiring a courier to grow the business and service stores.

There are several reasons why consumers are paying attention to camelina oil. Its light, nutty flavour makes it ideal for multiple uses, including salads, dips, dressings and marinades, and its high smoke point of 475 degrees Fahrenheit ensures safer cooking and healthier attributes compared to its competitors. The oil’s beneficial properties have drawn the attention of the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA), which lists camelina oil among its five key natural health trends for 2015. The oil is being praised for its rich supply of mono- and polyunsaturated fats and high level of heart-healthy omega-3s. It’s also considered nut- and gluten-free, making it ideal for anyone following a special diet.

“I know this product, I love this product,” Elysia said. “We are doing something right and making progress.”

Camelina’s attributes setting it up for success

Also known as wild flax or the better flax, camelina is more closely related to the mustard plant, Elysia said. Unlike flax, it is shelf stable, doesn’t require refrigeration, doesn’t gel at cooler temperatures and can be interchanged with almost any type of oil in both cooking and baking. Thanks to its short growing season of approximately 90 days, a crop can be planted in spring and fall.

Today, Three Farmers camelina oil can be found coast to coast across Canada in as many as 1,000 retail outlets. They currently have three options: original camelina oil, roasted garlic & chili and roasted onion & basil in a range of sizes. Specialty packs allow consumers to try all three flavours at once, and can be ordered from the Three Farmers online store.

Competitors are beginning to ease into the camelina market, Elysia said, but Three Farmers has a substantial head start as the first company to not only sell the oil in Canada but incorporate a process of vertical integration where they are involved at all stages, from growing to pressing to selling. They also believe in traceability and provide a batch number on the back of each bottle that consumers can type into the company’s trace page on their web site and discover the full story about their oil, including the farmer who grew that particular crop, the GPS location of the crop, when it was grown and harvested, and other interesting facts.

“We’re just trying to connect; to take that farmers’ market feel to a different level,” Elysia said. “There’s a growing divide between rural and urban living right now, and we want to let people experience the story behind their food.”

Roasted chickpeas were an instant success

Not only is Three Farmers passionate about the beneficial qualities of camelina oil, but they also feel strongly about value-added agriculture and the variety of crops grown in Saskatchewan. Their latest venture involves chickpeas, of which more than 90 percent of Canada’s crop is grown in the prairie province, Elysia said.  Also considered nut- and gluten-free, the versatile legume is popular in ethnic cooking but is also showing up as a nutritious snack food. Three Farmers jumped into the salty snack food market last September with two flavours: barbecue and balsamic & cracked pepper, which were soon followed by sea salt & lime. This fall, they plan to go to market with new, sweeter flavours. The roasted chickpeas were an immediate hit, Elysia said.

All of the Three Farmers products are not only bringing success to the company but reaffirming their long-term vision — to provide healthy, natural grocery products that add value to Saskatchewan’s agricultural sector. As they continue to evolve and extend their product lines, the company aims to incorporate other crops grown in their home province and contract out to other farmers who want to be a part of their innovative movement.

“The long-term goal is to grow the line and ultimately be known to other distributors and clients as a trusted producer of healthy and natural and delicious foods.”

Discover Three Farmers and their line of products by visiting threefarmers.ca.