For most Canadians, putting Saskatchewan and wine in the same sentence doesn’t seem to fit. In fact, Saskatchewan consumers drink the least amount of wine per capita compared to every other province. That isn’t slowing down growth for Living Sky Winery, say husband and wife team Susan Echlin and Vance Lester, named the 2012 Saskatchewan Outstanding Young Farmers. “We are constantly sold out,” says Susan from their Perdue area farm, 60 kilometres west of Saskatoon. “We can’t keep up with demand.” It is a good problem to have for a winery that has only been producing fruit wines for 2 years.
Living Sky Winery started with a wine tour in British Columbia. “Vance and I always have enjoyed wines and went on a winery tour in BC. We came to a fruit winery, found their product to be wonderful and couldn’t find a reason as to why we couldn’t produce a similar product in Northern Saskatchewan. That was in 2004, so by 2005 the first of the fruit was planted. “Certainly one of the challenges was the fact this hadn’t been done this far north in Saskatchewan before,” says Susan thinking back. “It was new territory.” But, through trial and error came the first fruit wines in 2010. Two years later, and they’ve completed their five year strategic plan and now need to create a new one. “We weren’t counting on this kind of opportunity.”
Susan notes that one area that needs addressing is human resources. “When we started this, we didn’t think about the people we needed to help run the business. Our challenge is everyone around here drives into Saskatoon for work, but we are too far from the city to get anyone from there to drive out and work.” They’ve worked with the organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which has brought mostly European volunteers out to the farm to work, in exchange for accommodations and meals. “It is not a long term solution, but it has filled our needs.” Into next year they’ll be making technology investments to help automate some of the processes to help reduce their need for labour.
So what has made them so successful so quickly? It likely comes down to three priorities that go into every decision they make. “Priority number one for us is the brand that we want Living Sky Winery to be,” says Susan.
“That affects everything from what kind of fruit we plant, to how we grow and bottle our product. That brand encompasses everything from being artisan to being true to the prairie’s.” That ties into their second priority, which is always asking the questions ‘is this good for our community’ and ‘is it good for the environment’. “We want to be good citizens locally and globally, and we think about that constantly.” Their third priority proves they are a business savvy winery. “Profitability is an obvious factor as we look at expenses and revenues and ensure we can continue to be viable long-term.” That being said, Susan says their dreams are pretty simple. “We wanted to start a winery that would allow us to work full-time on the farm and maintain a family business. We didn’t get into this to become rich or seek out big investments, just to produce a great tasting product that is true to what we want.”
As for being awarded as Saskatchewan Outstanding Young Farmers, Susan says it is, “Pretty cool. Selfishly though it is an amazing opportunity that we get to connect with past winners that have a lot of this business of agriculture figured out, and we are just grateful to be able to learn from them.”
You can find Living Sky Winery online at LivingSkyWinery.com.