In our series, “A Start-up Story,” Industry West talks to Saskatchewan start-ups and their journey to entrepreneurship. Meet Julie Shirley, and her rural-based company: Blue Heron Gardens.
A few years ago, Julie Shirley was looking for a way to escape the city and the ‘rat race.’ She was working as a Medical Laboratory Technologist at a local hospital and wanted to make a change. Julie, along with husband Jeff, decided to make the move out of the city to the Cudworth area, about 45 minutes from Saskatoon. They found a quarter section of land on Lake Lezard, complete with a blue heron rookery nearby. It was perfect. “We wanted to create a self-sufficient place where we could live and I could work,” says Julie.
Julie decided to start a business using the land at her new rural home. She began her own market garden and beekeeping operation. Her company’s name, Blue Heron Gardens, comes from the blue herons that call the nearby lake home. Julie found mentors Tony and Simon Lalonde to teach her everything she needed to know about beekeeping and set out to learn her trade. She also planted 100 haskap berry bushes and welcomed a pride of peacocks to the farm. Today, the farm is home to 200 beehives, and she produces 50,000 pounds of honey a year along with beeswax, candles and more.
It’s been a constant learning experience as she built her rural venture. “I learned quickly that market gardening wasn’t going to be what I’d hoped, and the beekeeping was where I needed to focus my efforts,” says Julie. “I am very lucky to have a wonderful mentor in beekeeping that has helped me build to where I am today.” Julie has also learned the value of business planning, and understanding costs, profitability and return on investment. “I have gained so much knowledge since I began my business, especially about the unique capital costs in what I do,” she says. “Also, I have learned that for me to be successful I needed to start slowly, plan well, and stick to the plan.
Julie’s hard work is paying off. She was recently awarded a grant from Western Economic Diversification, through its Women Entrepreneurship Project. The grant came at the perfect time, as Julie was hitting the ceiling in terms of capacity. The $100,000 grant will allow Julie to scale up her venture and expand into new markets. “I am going to invest in a new building and new equipment that will allow me to grow the number of value-added products I offer,” says Julie. “The money will also allow me to grow outside of Saskatchewan and Canada.”
Julie is happy she left her city life behind to start a new chapter in rural Saskatchewan, and her hard work is paying off. “It took several years and a lot of planning and learning, but it’s been worth it,” she says. “I get to do what I love in a beautiful place. I can’t ask for more.”
Learn more at blueherongarden.ca