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Sister act

The founders of Three Farmers have turned their oils and snacks into a Prairie success story

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Ask Elysia and Natasha Vandenhurk
what the secret to their success is, and they’ll jump all over each other with their answer: “Timing.” Timing that saw the sisters born a year apart, close enough to foster an intimacy that could sustain a lot—even operating a business together. Timing that saw a widespread interest in plant proteins explode in concert with the popularity of the plant-protein snack line that propelled their company, Three Farmers, into a Prairie success story.

Three Farmers is the latest corporate iteration of a Saskatchewan farm—launched and long operated by the sisters’ dad, Dan Vandenhurk, and two other neighbouring farmers—that has, for years, grown wheat and flax (and children with an entrepreneurial bent). Elysia, a chef, and Natasha, an economics graduate, started their company in 2011 with the driving belief that everyone deserves access to clean, nutritious food. Today, the siblings oversee a Saskatoon-based operation that provides just that—crunchy products that serve as healthier alternatives to the deep-fried standards so ubiquitous at snack time.

They began by selling camelina oil, a newcomer to the marketplace that fit with their commitment to new, wholesome food products. This ancient seed’s hardiness thrives in Saskatchewan soil and, when cold-pressed, yields a nutrient-dense oil that’s high in omega-3.

The sisters started peddling the oil at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, and when it took off there, they loaded up their car with it and drove to Toronto to knock on big-city doors. Everywhere, people loved the novelty of the camelina oil and the Three Farmers brand. The company got traction from the get-go.

In 2014, fired up by a media swirl celebrating the cool new oil and the sibling-sprung farm story behind it— including a turn on Dragons’ Den and ink in Maclean’s magazine—Three Farmers branched into other crops.

First came a line of Roasted Chickpeas, a product whose roasting challenged the sisters enough to push them into manufacturing (“We realized that no one in Canada could roast chickpeas for us”). The venture increased Three Farmers’ ownership of its products, extending it from eld to processing.

The whole roasted chickpea snack, available in flavours such as Balsamic & Cracked Pepper and Maple Cinnamon, sped past camelina oil and paved the path for Pea Pops: high-protein, low-fat, dry-roasted green peas available with bold seasonings, including Dill Pickle Pow and Sriracha Slap.

three-farmeres-cruncky-lentils-facebookMost recently, Crunchy Little Lentils hit the market in 2018—another “roasted pulse snack,” this one accommodating enough to also be a salad topper. (The lentils were a Canadian Grand Prix New Product Award finalist.)

The sisters always knew they’d be involved in something together. All six Vandenhurk siblings are inclined for empire-building, after all: “Growing up on a farm, you see what entrepreneurship is firsthand,” says Elysia. When she and her sister identified the opportunity to get behind a healthy food product with agricultural roots and a transparent supply line, it was so appealing their lack of formal experience didn’t occur to them. “Ignorance is bliss in something like this,” Elysia says.

Today, the three-product snack line is available at large and small grocers across the country, along with health food stores, airports, foodservice, golf courses and universities. Its multichannel presence extends to the United States, too, where the growth focus of the next stretch awaits.

The snacks are popular, say the sisters, for a couple of reasons. Their clean ingredients, for one, and the smart alternative these crunchy treats offer to greasier munchies. Their transparency, for another, which was key from the start and evidenced by the traceability number the company slaps on the back of all its packages, inviting consumers to track their foods. The younger generation is hungry for brands they can trust, says Natasha. “They want a story that aligns with their values so they don’t have to compromise on environmental standpoints or a healthy lifestyle to enjoy the product. We fill the gap.”

As for the original three farmers, the eponymous trio that planted the company’s seeds and still sits on its board? They’re thrilled by the growth.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’June/July issue.

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