Small is the new Big
This issue, we pay tribute to Atlantic Canada’s entrepreneurial heartland by sharing the stories of small, independent businesses from across the region. Though they represent diverse sectors, they are united by their creativity and determination to succeed.
We could begin today’s globe-girdling adventure almost anywhere and at almost any time.
In eastern Siberia, perhaps. Circa 1756. That’s when a Russian explorer and naturalist first identified the delectably healthful properties of a blue-ish, tart-tasting, strange-looking, oblong fruit from the lonicera caerulea plant.
Or perhaps on Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern island, during the 1940s when the fruit (oozing two to three times the cancer-combatting anti-oxidants of blueberries and tasting like a flavour-bombing blueberry-blackberry-raspberry mash-up) not only picked up its exotic-sounding haskap name and won its reputation as the “fruit of longevity” but also spawned its first commercial orchards in order to supply the fruit to local bakeries.
Or we might choose to begin our story in the early 2000s on the Canadian prairies where Dr. Bob Bors, the head of the University of Saskatchewan’s fruit program, combined a foul-tasting Russian variety of a “funny little crop nobody had ever heard of” with its northern Japanese cousin — and fathered a new Canadian super-crop.
But, for our purposes, let’s begin closer to home in the fall of 2011 on a farmer’s field near Blockhouse, N.S., where a hardy band of come-from-aways planted a first test acre of Dr. Bob’s haskap plants.
That wasn’t exactly the plan. Simon Fineman, a British-Israeli who chairs Timbmet Group, one of the U.K.’s leading timber companies, had bought a vacation property on Nova Scotia’s south shore. Wanting to become more than just an occasional visitor, Fineman decided he would start his own sustainable forestry project in the province. But he quickly discovered Nova Scotia’s primarily softwood woodlands were not as mature as he’d expected. So he and a couple of ex-pats he’d hired to help him began “looking for other ways to keep us going while the forest grew.”
They experimented unsuccessfully with growing hops, market vegetables and even arctic kiwi before a why-not Google search for “super berries” led them to Bob Bors’ haskap bushes. In addition to all its antioxidants, potassium, calcium, Vitamin C and other healthful goodness, they quickly discovered hardy haskap plants not only thrive in cold climates with soggy, oxygen-deprived soils (can you say Nova Scotia?) but they also produce fruit earlier than the province’s traditional fruit crops.
Liam Tayler, one of Fineman’s ex-pats, remembers the results of that initial planting as “spectacular.”
And the rest, as they say, is prologue.
On this early July morning — haskap harvesting season — Tayler is showing me around corporate headquarters in a refurbished waterfront building on Mahone Bay’s Main Street. While the offices are on the second floor and there’s an apartment for visiting executives and investors on the third, the minimalist, modern main-floor showroom has become the public face of haskap in all its commercial glory. Display cases not only boast for-sale supplies of haskap juice (winner of a 2013 product innovation award from the World Congress of Food Science and Technology) and dried haskap berries, but also an eclectic collection of haskap jams, jellies, sauces, smoothies and chutneys, not to mention haskap-flavoured ice cream, pastries, maple syrup, wine and liqueurs, and not to forget — this is the fruit of longevity, after all — even a line of skin care products.
Most of what’s on sale, Tayler is quick and proud to point out, has been produced in cooperation with existing local businesses. Lunenburg’s Terra Beata Cranberry Farms, for example, was about to lay off staff for the season when it struck a deal to produce haskap juice. Tantallon’s Acadian Maple Products bottles haskap maple syrup, Mahone Bay’s Helen B’s hand makes haskap preserves. “Our goal,” Tayler says, “is not to be a grow-freeze-export commodity producer. We want to add value and create a new much-needed high-value crop for Nova Scotia.”
Officially, Tayler’s title is commercial director but he describes himself as a “general dogsbody,” immersed in every aspect of the businesses.
Tayler’s presence seems almost as serendipitous as the berry itself. A U.K.-born biologist and marketer, he washed up in Nova Scotia from Africa in early 2011 following an 18-month stint as a looking-for-something-different trainee sailor aboard the three-masted, N.S.-based tall ship Picton Castle. During his round-the-world adventure, Tayler fell in love with the vessel’s third mate, a woman from Yarmouth County who invited him to “come live in Nova Scotia.” They now have two children with a third on the way.
After settling in Chester on the south shore, Tayler emailed his friends back in Africa to let them know his new coordinates.
“What do you mean, Chester?” replied one old friend he’d worked with on a forestry project in Ghana. “I live in Chester!”
Tayler laughs, marveling at the unlikeliness of it all. “I had moved to within 200 metres of where my friend was then living.”
Better, his friend was already working for a Brit named Fineman on a sustainable forestry scheme. Was Tayler interested in joining them? Although Tayler says his university botany courses had sparked an interest in sustainability as well as “functional foods, foods linked to health that are good for the body,” he is quick to confess “I never thought I’d be excited about a berry!”
Tayler has since become not only excited but also a key player in three related companies (all owned by Fineman, his wife and two U.K. investors) that now form the cornerstone of Nova Scotia’s fledgling haskap berry industry. And Tayler himself is among those who predict the haskap industry could someday overtake blueberries and become a $500-million-a-year signature provincial agriculture business.
First among the inter-connected corporate entities, of course, there is Haskapa, the public face/product development and brand marketing arm of their haskap empire. Haskapa is not only continuously expanding and tweaking the product line — it turns out says Tayler, that Polish and Russian-bred berries produce better condiments while the Saskatchewan varieties are higher in antioxidants and sweeter, making them more attractive for juice production — but the company is also now working with Dalhousie University’s agriculture and process engineering departments to extend the growing season and optimize production and shelf life while learning more about the berry’s muscle-mending, brain-building health benefits.
Then there’s Lahave Natural Farms, a related company that grows its own haskap orchards on the province’s south shore and provides the base on which the company, and the broader industry, can develop.
Finally, there’s Lahave Orchards. It not only sells individual haskap plants to hundreds of large and small farmers, hobbyists and gardening clubs in Nova Scotia and the U.K. but it also develops turn-key orchards aimed more at hands-free investors than hands-dirty farmers. For a minimum investment of $400,000, you could have bought a 10-acre tract that Lahave Orchards would prepare, plant, manage, harvest — and then buy back your berries at the end of the season. Its initial offering was so successful, Tayler says the company has since taken down the website promoting it.
Lahave’s apparent success as an investment vehicle may not be all that surprising. Compared to blueberries, which currently generate about 50-cents a pound for those who grow them, haskap berries can fetch farmers up to $5-a-pound. That said, you must be a patient farmer — or investor. Haskap bushes take five years to fully mature. Once the plants reach maturity, however, Tayler suggests those $400,000 investors can expect returns of $200,000 a year on their investment. And no one knows how long they’ll continue to produce. “Some plants are still producing after 60 years,” Tayler says, “but we we’re being very conservative and suggesting five to 20 years.” He notes that those interested in investing in, and/or growing haskap berries tend to be either young and entrepreneurial, or early retirees with patient money who want to be active in growing their own retirement funds.
Fineman’s own haskap ventures are clearly growing — and quickly. “Eighteen months ago,” Tayler says, “there were eight of us.” Now there are 22, not to mention those hired for the harvest and others working at area businesses producing haskap products.
The real question now, however, is where to from here?
Although Haskapa had “fantastic early support” from the Sobeys grocery chain, which patriotically carried the local products in its stores, Tayler acknowledges the haskap line ultimately may not be “a supermarket product.” It may be better suited to boutiques like Haskapa’s own Mahone Bay outlet. Which may explain why Haskapa recently opened a second all-things-haskap boutique in Halifax’s trendy waterfront Bishop’s Landing in order to cater to souvenir-seeking cruise ship passengers and other tourists, as well as health-conscious consumers and high-end local customers.
In fact, Haskapa hopes to position its products (proudly made from what Tayler calls “the most expensive berry in the world”) as “premium.” They’re certainly pricey enough. A 500-ml bottle of haskap juice, for example, retails for $19.99.
The issue, Tayler says, is simple supply and demand. In its first year of operations, the company grew 600 pounds of berries. In year two, it harvested eight tons; last year, the haul was 18; and this year they’ll top out at 35 tons. That sounds like a lot until you realize it takes three-quarters of a pound of berries to make just one jar of jam!
Demand continues to grow. Last year, Lahave had to supplement its local harvests with berries bought from Quebec, Saskatchewan and even Poland. Chinese companies have also expressed interest in buying its harvest. “One company there wanted a sample of 200 kilograms to test,” Tayler marvels. “That’s eight tons of berries!”
To keep up with growth, Tayler says the company’s U.K.-based owners have invested millions in development, most of it without financial or even moral support from the Nova Scotia government. “At first, the province wasn’t interested in taking a risk on this weird group of people with their funny accents,” Tayler says, but adds: “That’s changing. In the last 18 months, people have begun to see the potential.” In fact, Premier Stephen McNeil was scheduled to be on hand for a photo-op when Haskapa’s Bishop’s Landing shop officially opened in August. “The idea has a lot more traction now.”
With skeptical locals too. In 2013, the company staged an Open Farm Day to showcase its haskap dreams. “We didn’t do hardly any advertising, and 600 people showed up. Now,” he says, “there’s lots of interest.”