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The Little Berry That Could

The well-known children’s storyThe Little Engine That Couldillustrates that with perseverance, optimism and the deep-rooted belief thatit can be done,even the littlest among us can climb mountains. It would appear that for saskatoon berry grower and manufacturer Sandra Purdy, these same characteristics also slay dragons.

Purdy’s company, Prairie Berries Inc., is a Canadian food-based company recognized in the marketplace for its production of frozen IQF (individually quick frozen) saskatoon berries, saskatoon-based fruit toppings, pie fillings, purées, concentrates, chocolate-coated saskatoons and dried saskatoon berries.

“In the early 1990s the grain farming industry was suffering. In response, Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food began to provide producers with information on diversification. At the time, I was commuting 1-1/2 hours a day to work. I began to think about doing something that would allow me to be closer to home,” says Purdy. “The University of Saskatchewan was experimenting with different fruits that could be grown on the Prairies. We wanted to see what it would take to get into the fruit business so my husband and I travelled to Oregon and Washington state to visit fruit farms.”

In 1993, Purdy planted her first saskatoons on a small 10-acre orchard on the family grain farm located at Keeler, in south-central Saskatchewan. Purdy soon recognized the potential for growth in the saskatoon berry industry and by 2007 the family got out of grain farming altogether and invested with a strategic partner to plant a 120-acre saskatoon berry orchard. The move helped to ensure a consistent supply of saskatoon berries for domestic and international markets. Now, with the help of growers across Western Canada, Prairie Berry Inc. has reached the point where it can produce the supply necessary to take the saskatoon berry to much larger markets.

The increase in production meant that they had to increase their processing capacity. “For three years we experimented with different technology for processing and freezing the berries. Today, our nitrogen freezing tunnel will freeze fresh berries in less than a minute. This process preserves all the goodness of the berry and has us export ready,” says Purdy. The processing plant is conveniently located right on the farm.

Like many small businesses, the biggest challenge to expanding is marketing. For Purdy, the question was how to achieve brand recognition for the fruit; to make more people aware of the health benefits of the saskatoon berry and to grow the business internationally. “I know that the quickest way to an end point is to ask for help,” says Purdy. In this case, help came in the form of an audition call for season five of CBC’s “Dragon’s Den” — a series that matches entrepreneurs with venture capitalists looking for an investment and a good return on their money.

Purdy was looking for a $250,000 investment in exchange for 49.9 per cent of the company. With a viewing audience each week of over 500,000, Purdy knew that even if she didn’t come away with an investment, the marketing value of appearing on “Dragon’s Den” would go a long way towards her goal of making the saskatoon berry as well known as the blueberry and the cranberry.

Purdy enlisted the assistance of her niece, Alison Ozog, who is a graduate student in the department of food and bioproduct sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, in her pitch to the dragons. Four of the five dragons passed, on the investment opportunity, citing either a personal lack of knowledge of the industry or unrealistic marketing dollar projections on Purdy’s part as their reasons. Arlene Dickinson, owner of Venture Communications and one of Canada’s most renowned independent marketing communications entrepreneurs, saw the potential in Purdy’s pitch. Dickinson agreed with the business valuation presented but in addition to the 49.9 per cent share in the company, requested a royalty of 10 per cent of everything Prairie Berries sells over 400,000 pounds in exchange for providing Prairie Berries with $250,000 worth of her company’s services.

“At first we were overwhelmed by what goes into producing a show like ‘Dragon’s Den’ but the CBC was great. We were assigned a producer and a financial adviser to assist us prior to making our pitch,” says Purdy, “and working with Arlene has been very positive. We are close to signing our deal so there will be a followup segment on an upcoming episode.”

Purdy’s advice to fellow entrepreneurs, “leadership is about knowing your strengths, knowing when to let go, knowing when to ask for help and finally knowing that your passion can blind you from the obvious. Success is really failure turned inside out.”

TerriKerbratwritesfromLumsden,Sask.

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