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Saskatchewan’s outstanding young farmers

Sue Echlin and Vance Lester, 2012 winners of Saskatchewan Outstanding Young Farmers award, seem to have found the perfect blend of passion and practicality.

Some might say establishing a winery on the Prairies is an act of pure passion, and more than a little risky. But Living Sky Winery, opened in 2010, has already won 12 national and international medals for its wines. Echlin and Lester have been included in Western Living magazine’s “Top 40 Foodies Under 40,” and they’ve been finalists for the ABEX award for “Best New Venture.”

And along the way, they’re having a wonderful time.

It all began on a wine tour in British Columbia. “We’d gone to all the usual grape wineries and they were awesome,” says Sue. “And then we ended up at one called Forbidden Fruit — nectarine, apple and pear — and it was amazing. And we thought, ‘Why can’t we do that in Saskatchewan?’ So, now we are!”

Back in Saskatchewan, they already had a farm, a quarter section near Perdue, 65 km west of Saskatoon, which they’d planted to hay while they looked for something that would allow them both to work full-time on the farm.

In 2005, they planted their first fruit. Today, they grow and make wine from cherries, rhubarb, black currents, raspberries and haskap (a berry) in a 10 acre orchard which they plan to expand by two to four acres. They located the orchard by a large pond for the rare times they need to water. “We’re not certified organic, but operate as if we are,” says Sue.

They purchased the old Co-op store in a nearby town, and completely retrofitted it into a CFIA inspected facility with tank space for about 11,000 litres of wine at any one time. Production reached 18,000 litres in 2012.

“We’ve been lucky in that my background is in marketing and Vance is a biologist by training, so we had a bit of an inside track at the start,” Sue says. “We worked closely with the government to make sure we were doing everything correctly, visited as many wineries as we could, talked to other wine folks… and of course, hired Dominic.”

In fact, hiring Dominic Rivard, a world-renowned fruit wine consultant was the very first thing they did, even before they began planting trees. “We figured we could make bad wine for two years while we figured it out and then go broke, or we could make amazing wine right off the bat with Dominic’s help,” says Sue.

Sue is in charge of marketing, while Vance is the operations manager. But in practice, they say, they both do a bit of everything, with the help of seasonal part-time employees during fruit harvest.

So far, social media is their main marketing tool, and it’s been remarkably successful. They sell at the Saskatoon and Regina Farmers’ Markets and their products — table and dessert wines and ciders — are carried by a number of restaurants and sold from the winery.

That blend of passion and practicality is also reflected in their business philosophy: “With everything we do we consider the impact on the environment and on our community. We reduce, reuse and recycle. We care not only for our orchard, but for the environment that surrounds it, whether beast, fowl or flora. We believe ardently that local foods and services contribute to the community in a positive way, and try to purchase everything we can from our friends and neighbours. We also believe that life is bloody short and you’d better enjoy every second of it!”

What contributes most to their success? “Vance would say, ‘our aversion to pain,’” says Sue. “We can push ourselves pretty hard to get stuff done. But we also work smart. Lots of strategic planning goes a long way.”

There have been challenges along the way. Wine making is a new and highly regulated industry in Saskatchewan, and like any farming enterprise, fruit growing is affected by weather.

Nevertheless, the future looks good. Two years in, Sue and Vance are already at the five-year part of their five-year plan. “We are taking the winter to reassess who we want to be when we grow up,” says Sue. “There definitely will be growth and expansion; we just have to figure how, and how much.” †

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