Think Sask Leaderboard Jan 2021

Open Skies and Opportunities: Entrepreneurship in Rural Saskatchewan

Sunnyside Dairy, Martensville

Sunnyside Dairy, Martensville

Saskatchewan is a place filled with entrepreneurs, and it shows. Over 98.8% of the more than 150,000 business enterprises in the province are small (employing fewer than 50 employees).1  That statistic alone show what an entrepreneurial province Saskatchewan is. Entrepreneurs and their ventures aren’t exclusive to our cities, either. Business owners and investors can find opportunity off the beaten path. Rural Saskatchewan is home to some very remarkable enterprises, finding great success among the fields and country roads, encouraged by economic development organizations and municipal governments assisting with regulatory issues.

Saskatchewan Community Futures organizations have been assisting entrepreneurs in the province for more than 25 years, offering advice, loans and programs designed to launch successful ventures in rural areas. Community Futures is driven by 13 independent local offices across the province, with services accessible by any small business located outside of Regina and Saskatoon – and all services are free of charge. “We support entrepreneurs and their communities in many ways,” says Jason Denbow, Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Community Futures association. “We’re designed to take more risk than traditional lenders, which is a definite asset when dealing with start-up ventures. Start-ups make up the largest part of our client base.” The organization understands the challenges of business development in rural areas, such as access to capital and labour. They work with clients to mitigate the challenges to get enterprises to a “bankable” position, and typically spend up to six months working with each client. “Time and care matter in what we do,” says Denbow. “Our statistics show that our process works. Our clients’ survival and growth rates are much higher than entrepreneurs that didn’t have our help.”

Another organization, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM), is also a believer in the entrepreneurial potential in rural Saskatchewan. They have been serving rural Saskatchewan for over a century. Incorporated in 1905, SARM has been the voice of rural Saskatchewan leading autonomous municipalities in creating a vibrant, diverse economy for the province. They have seen the rural landscape change over the last one hundred years as rural municipalities innovate and adapt to meet the needs of communities. “SARM sees the agriculture industry and agri-business flourishing across rural Saskatchewan, and that there is plenty of opportunity in rural municipalities to grow in other areas,” says SARM President Ray Orb.  “As technology becomes more accessible and broadband connectivity increases, we see that rural Saskatchewan has the opportunity to connect to the global market creating endless opportunities for entrepreneurs.” While each RM is unique in its challenges and opportunities, SARM helps build capacity in rural municipal government to ensure effective governance that supports healthy and vibrant communities. “SARM believes in rural Saskatchewan,” says Orb.  “Our RMs are resilient and SARM will continue to strive to ensure rural municipalities are in the best position to capitalize on opportunities.”

For entrepreneurs looking for a rural location for a venture, it can be difficult to find the right location. Technology firm Townfolio recognized the need for a place to find economic development information. Founders Davie Lee and Ryley Iverson designed a software product that is a literal clearing house for economic development initiatives across the country. Aspiring entrepreneurs and prospective investors can view profiles on municipalities, gain valuable insights into regions and find contact details for economic developers. Townfolio knows Saskatchewan well—they’re based in Saskatoon. “We have it written on our white-board to ‘save Main Street’. That is, we see trends working against our small communities and we want to reverse that. We need to get the secret out about the opportunities outside of the major cities and shout to the world. We proudly started this company in Saskatchewan and we’ve essentially covered the entire province from the cities to villages to RMs,” says Ryley Iverson, Townfolio CEO and Co-founder.

With entrepreneurship is alive and well in rural Saskatchewan, supported by organizations like Community Futures Saskatchewan, SARM and Townfolio, opportunities for new and established ventures can be spotted in every corner. Industry West reached out to four Saskatchewan companies to see what they had to say about running a business in a rural area.

Farmyard Market & Sunnyside Dairy, Martensville

Farmyard Market, Martensville

Martha and Bas Froese-Kooijenga run a farmyard store and 30-cow dairy on their farm near Martensville. They purchased the farm from Martha’s parents in the late 1990s, and over the past decade turned their farm into a successful retail operation, selling pork, beef, chicken, lamb, bison, locally-caught fish, eggs and a host of homemade products including perogies and pies. “We started as a 12 cow dairy in 1998,” says Martha Froese-Kooijenga. “Over the years, we grew our business to include more locally grown and made foods, selling them from our barn to retail customers.” The Froese-Kooijengas realized they needed to formalize their growing business. They worked with their rural municipality and health inspectors to take their operation to the next level. “The rural municipality and the Saskatoon Health Region were wonderful to work with, and they helped us get through the process to convert our garage into a retail store.” Five years later, the Froese-Kooijengas are now entering the next phase of their venture with Sunnyside Dairy. They have 30 pastured Holstein cows, and will begin selling milk from their farm with a milk dispenser—the first in Saskatchewan. “We reached out to a dairy on Vancouver Island to learn about their milk dispensary, and recently completed our pasteurization course,” says Froese-Kooijenga. “This fall, retail customers will be able to buy milk from us directly, and we will begin work on offering dairy products like farm fresh butter and cheese.” The market employs four people and is open year-round, six days a week.

Solo Italia Fine Pasta Inc., Ogema

Solo Italia Pasta, Ogema

Marco and Tracey de Michele operate a wholesale and retail pasta and pizza company on Ogema’s Main Street. Marco, a native of Italy, met his wife Tracey (who hails from Ogema) on holiday in Costa Rica. The couple decided to make their home in Tracey’s hometown, and Marco set out to find a career in his new homeland. “I drywalled with my father-in-law the first year I was in Canada,” says Marco de Michele. “Drywall wasn’t for me. I took a trip to Regina’s Italian Star Deli and the idea for my business came to me.” Marco wanted to bring a taste of Italy to his new home, and after discussions with Italian Star’s owners and owners of a local Italian restaurant, he began to make pasta in Ogema. Marco and Tracey, with help from Tracey’s father and the town, turned an old butcher shop into their pasta making venture— Solo Italia Fine Pasta Inc. was born. An unfortunate breakdown of the pasta machine led to the company’s foray into pizza. “Our machine broke down and it took a month and a half to fix,” says de Michele. “I returned to my roots again and started making Neapolitan-style pizza and built a wood-fired oven.” Today, Solo Italia Fine Pasta Inc. sells pasta, ravioli, bread, pizza, lasagna and tiramisu from their Ogema storefront, and to retailers across Saskatchewan—employing eight people. “The town and the province have been so supportive of us from the start,” says de Michele. “There are challenges some days—like the weather and getting supplies delivered—but starting our business in Ogema was a great idea.”

Timothy Daniels Clothing, Assiniboia

Timothy Daniels Clothing, Assiniboia

Timothy Daniels Clothing has been an Assiniboia institution for more than 30 years. The current owner, Timothy Daniels Conners, was a barber looking for a change when he purchased the store in 1988. What was once a western wear store is now home to fashions for the whole family, and has fans from across Saskatchewan. “We’ve evolved over the years, keeping up with changing tastes and trends,” says Conners. “We’ve probably been through seven major shifts in the last three decades.” The company enjoys success serving southern Saskatchewan, with out-of-town customers making a special trip to Assiniboia to see in person what manager Ashley Kaal curates on Instagram and Facebook. “Social media has been huge for us. We attract new customers and stay connected with our loyal followers,” says Kaal “We get compliments from customers, especially those visiting the area, about how unique and interesting our store is for a rural community.” While being a traditional fashion retailer has its challenges, in the connected world, Tim and Ashley see every day the commitment people have to supporting local businesses.  “Independent businesses like ours are rare, and that is part of our success,” says Connors. “We’re doing something unique in a special place, and our customers love it.”

My Mutual Insurance, Waldheim

My Mutual Insurance, Waldheim

In 1894 (11 years before Saskatchewan became a province), a group of Russian Mennonites came together in Waldheim to start a small insurance company to serve their tightly-knit community. 124 years later, that company is going strong, doing business from the town where it all began. “In the 1940s, the company began to sell insurance to customers outside the Mennonite community,” says Valerie Fehr, My Mutual CEO. “The company sold auto insurance before SGI was even formed.” Today, My Mutual Insurance offers a full suite of insurance products to brokers across the province, and employs 32 people. “Two years ago, the company reaffirmed its commitment to stay in rural Saskatchewan,” says Fehr. “We worked with the town to build our head office in the town we’re proud to call home.” Growth in Saskatoon over the last decade has made Waldheim even closer to the “city”, attracting both employees and residents to the town of 1,500. While there are challenges to doing business in a rural area—distances can mean long drives to work with customers and brokers—those challenges are disappearing. “Technology has helped us reach out more than before,” says Fehr. “We have staff in Caronport, Morse, Warman, Rosthern and Hepburn. Success for My Mutual Insurance is dependent on our people, not the location. With that being said, we laid our roots in Waldheim, Saskatchewan almost 125 years ago and are thrilled to continue growing where it all began.”