AMI training program helps farmers get started with value-added, on-farm production
Birch syrup is the basis of a unique local food business in Wellington County. And an Agri-Food Management Institute (AMI) training program for farmers looking to delve into value-added production on-farm has been an important stepping stone in helping Wagram Springs near Moorefield move toward producing their own birch syrup products.
Kathy Beilke and her husband Bert had experience making maple syrup when Bert first heard about the possibility of tapping other trees, like the many yellow birch in their woodlot. They made their first batches of golden birch syrup in 2013.
“Even though you use the same process and equipment to tap birch as maple, it’s completely different from maple syrup,” Kathy explains. “It has a very different flavor profile and is used more like an ingredient than on its own.”
Closer to the nutritional value of honey than maple syrup, birch syrup’s sugar stems from the fructose family, whereas the sugar in maple syrup is sucrose. Birch syrup also contains natural anti-oxidants and is one of the only natural syrups with nutritional fibre.
Attending a few food shows to gauge interest led to restaurants and chefs who use Wagram Springs birch syrup, including Canoe Restaurant in Toronto and the southwestern-Ontario Borealis Group. Local food retailers like Fraberts Fresh Food in Fergus also carry their products, which now also include caramels, vinaigrette and vinegar.
It’s value-adding where the Beilkes see opportunity to expand their business; a desire to begin producing their own products led them to AMI’s Transition Smart program, which Kathy first heard about when she attended an AMI-hosted food entrepreneur conference in Barrie in 2016.
“We have been looking at value-adding, especially on the beverage side of birch sap. We’ve always been interested in developing our products further, such as licensing our farm to become a winery or craft brewery and creating a birch syrup-based mead, for example,” she says.
They had already done some prototype product development with the Guelph Food Technology Centre, and a partnership with a local meadery gave the Beilkes product to sell. Birch sap is highly seasonal, though, so they wanted more control over the timing and scheduling of their production.
“Anybody who has an idea to produce something on-farm definitely needs to take this type of course, because it teaches you the stages of business development and what to expect,” she says.
Although the Beilkes had already started down the value-adding path when Kathy took the course, her biggest learning from the program was the importance of having clear business and marketing plans for the product.
Another important step is researching municipal bylaws and regulations, particularly related to food production facilities – and good record-keeping is an absolute must.
“Food safety and traceability is so important, so keep good records and document everything,” Kathy says. “And especially if you are thinking of applying for any funding, it is absolutely essential to develop a business plan and know how you’re going to market your product.”
After taking Transition Smart, Kathy and Bert have taken a step back from the drive towards on-farm processing in the short-term. Instead, they’re now working with a co-packer to perfect their mead beverage recipe. That way, they don’t have to make major financial investments until they know they have a good product – and they’ll need product samples when they apply for their license with the alcohol and gaming commission.
“Every step is a learning process and the course is worthwhile to expand your knowledge, especially when it comes to the beginning steps,” she believes, adding that down the road, on-farm production of a seasonal product could give them co-packing capacity they could in turn offer to other local farmers. “This is good for our area and for rural economic development.”
This fall and winter, Transition Smart will be offered in Simcoe and Bradford West Gwillimbury. For more information sign up for the AMI newsletter or check their events page at: http://takeanewapproach.ca/events.
AMI receives funding from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.
By Lilian Schaer