When hay farmers Susan Kirkpatrick and her husband Murray decided it was time to sell the family farm and retire, they knew they didn’t want to stay in Alberta. “In Alberta, you don’t have summer,” explains Susan, “and those winters.….” In search of milder weather for their retirement years, the couple moved to British Columbia.
“We have winters here, but one of our first observations was that snow does fall straight from the sky. In Alberta, that doesn’t happen.”
Not long into their first retirement year, however, Susan and her husband admitted defeat. Farming was still in their blood. But instead of hay, the farming couple decided to try a new challenge and invest in a product they had never heard of before: haskap berries. Through her research, Susan learned that the health benefits of the berry are significant.
“Not only is it two to five times higher in antioxidants than various types of blueberries, but it also contains a high concentration of Cyanidin 3-glucoside(C3G), which is a flavonoid, a strong antioxidant that reduces inflammation, which may prevent type II diabetes and fight cancer.”
After she read an article about the berry also being low maintenance, machine harvestable, and not requiring a lot of manual effort – precisely what the couple had been looking for – Susan ordered their first plants the next day. Today, with 51,000 plants in the ground, spread over 55 acres, KIRKABERRY Farms is now the largest commercial producing grower in B.C. Although harvesting takes place from mid-June to the end of July, production continues year-round in the farm’s facility, where they make freeze-dried powder, freeze-dried berries, a unique freeze-dried yogurt, ice cream and cheesecake, all using the haskap berries. Being the first is challenging and making innovative products is also a challenge.
“We tried just about everything,” says Susan. “We started with jams and juices and a few other test products, like vinaigrette and BBQ sauce.” However, Susan learned something troubling that changed everything.
“All of those products require to be pasteurized or heated. Like the jams, you have to bring it to a boil. Heat will destroy the antioxidants, and haskaps are one of the highest antioxidant berries that can be grown in Canada. We thought, why would we do that when we had a very healthy berry?”
After much research, Susan found an ideal solution to the problem: freeze-drying.
“It’s the only process that we’re aware of that retains 97% of the antioxidants.”
Freeze drying was also a convenient solution to the problem of, as Susan describes it, “being in the middle of nowhere.”
The farm now ships all over Canada and into the United States.
“We ship bulk powder to a company in the US that uses it for making a nutraceutical product. They add the powder to their capsules.”
Susan is open about the many challenges she has faced along the way, including how she and her husband initially underestimated how much work this new enterprise would entail.
“We’ve had to do a lot of experimenting with the berries because there was no one to go to for advice. We had to do everything ourselves. We had to learn how to grow them, prune them, fertilize them, and keep the birds away because birds love them. Then we had to learn how to harvest them, process them, freeze them, and box them. It’s been a lot of work for this stage in our lives. We’re working seven days a week, even in the summertime.”
Susan says you can have the best product in the world, but if people don’t understand or know what it is, marketing will be a challenge.
“I think that a successful company has to provide quality and service. They are the two most important things you have to do. But we have also had to put a lot into educating the public about the berry, and Covid hit us hard. It hit us right at the worst time because we were finally just starting to get enough production that we could get out to a lot of stores. So that part’s been very difficult. We’re still not a success yet, as we aren’t making any money yet.”
When asked if given a chance to do it all over again, would she have still started this new venture, Susan laughs and says, “Probably not. We’re ready to retire again.”
Her best advice to anyone starting a new business?
“Make sure that whatever you’re doing, you understand the challenge of getting it to the marketplace because, in the end, marketing is a key role in its ultimate success.”