By Kristin Catherwood, Director of Living Heritage

 

In 2017, Heritage Saskatchewan released fifteen videos to recognize Canada150, in which we featured a number of individuals across the province who reflected the rich diversity of our living heritage landscape. We interviewed Natassia Bezoplenko, owner of Northlore Goods, and Nicole Huriet, owner of Daybreak Mill, about how living heritage informs their respective business practices. Recently, I caught up with them to see how they have been weathering the COVID19 economic storm.

Since 2017, both businesses have grown and changed. Natassia and her partner, Lucas, who now also works for the company, relocated Northlore Goods from  the Saskatoon area to Winnipeg. Their studio space and shop are located in an old warehouse building in Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District. The move allowed them to expand, offer hands-on workshops for patrons, but Natassia has stayed close to her core philosophy of sustainable, locally sourced, and wild-crafted ingredients. Spruce tips, poplar buds and rose hips are foraged locally in Manitoba, though the gardening aspect has changed. Natassia used to grow many of her ingredients herself, and now contracts a gardener in the Saskatoon area to grow the herbs used in her products. “I’ll go visit her throughout the season. It’s been really important for me to have that direct contact.” At the end of the season, she goes out with family for a large harvest, brings it back to Winnipeg, hangs it up and processes it. Her aesthetic and packaging are carefully curated to evoke the high plains and also appeal to urban consumers. Natassia: “I want someone in New York to pick up this bar of soap and be just as interested in it as someone in rural Saskatchewan. I’m sending stuff to PO boxes in rural prairie towns, and also wholesale orders to places in LA and New York, which makes me so happy.”

Meanwhile, near North Portal, Saskatchewan, Daybreak Mill has been steadily growing its business since our interview in 2017. This is in large part due to social media and word of mouth, according to Nicole. “As the word got out there about us, more people were ordering online. There’s been a gradual increase of everything we’ve already been doing. We haven’t changed our methods, but I’m looking into new methods, including regenerative organic certification – focuses on no-till, biodiversity. I’m looking to implement that on the farm.” Daybreak Mill also updated its packaging with a new logo and compostable bags, and like Northlore Goods, the branding and aesthetic are true to the products and likely contribute to its ongoing growth. Both businesses have a strong social media presence, loyal customer bases, and established online shops, which they believe have been key to navigating their way through this crisis.

Throughout the pandemic, Natassia has been using her business as a way to help others by producing new products like hand sanitizer, and donating a percentage of proceeds to a community organization.  “I am a homebody and I could have sat at home and wait it out, but I remember distinctly thinking I have an opportunity to serve. That energized me – and I think it was really helpful, just even for mental health, to feel like I had a purpose. “How does this matter, what I do now? How does any of this matter? So being able to work on something really practical that was needed, felt good. I tried to position myself, how to be of service.” She is donating half the proceeds of hand sanitizer sales to Winnipeg’s Main Street Project. “It was really important for me not to profit off the pandemic, so I decided to charge a little more so that I could be able to provide a hefty donation to this organization, who were doing really important work in the community to get people off the street and set up in self isolation units. It was important to me to not just not forget about the most vulnerable members of our society but to actively help them.”

For Daybreak Mill, the pandemic brought them more business than they’ve ever had before. Nicole remembers: “We started getting questions from customers at the beginning of March asking about our stock, if we had enough supply. Then it was declared a pandemic, and we started getting lots or orders, and huge orders, like having to send orders to individual customers out on skids. We usually mill on demand, to ensure freshness. Our cooler started getting empty, our grain started running out, so I had someone come in to work a night shift milling flour, and had three extra people come in for packaging, because we had orders coming in like mad. We had 100 orders to fill at any given time all throughout March. My mom, uncle, and a former employee were all able to come in and give us a hand. I was really lucky to have people come in to help me get through this time. The mill was running from 5 am until 8 -11 pm at night, for three weeks to a month. That whole month, I can’t really remember – it was all a bit of a blur, it was just crazy.”

Natassia and Nicole both felt a strong desire to be of service through their respective businesses during the pandemic. Natassia was early on resigning herself to the reality that her business may not survive, but she stayed true to her business philosophy. “At the beginning I sort of felt like I had to let go of my business, like ‘obviously luxury bath care won’t make it out of this.’ I knew there was a very good chance that it might not survive, and that if it did go down, I wanted to do it in service of people. Businesses aren’t charities. I don’t expect people to be buying from me just to keep me going, but I’ve received so many kind, thoughtful messages from people saying how the products are helping them connect with themselves, and their bodies, during this really stressful time. That has been so incredibly rewarding to know that not only do people care about what I do and what I make, but also that they are getting something good out of the products.”

Nicole knew that agricultural products are always needed, but perhaps valued more during times of uncertainty. “I was very grateful to be in the food business, because people always have to eat. It’s a stable business to be in. And we did have several customers who sent emails thanking us for what we do. That really helped us get through it, honestly. Because there were times that it was really, really hard, but knowing that what we were doing was essential, it was kind of humbling. Like, that what we were doing was contributing to a greater good.”  No doubt some of those customers (myself included) stocked up on flour to make bread, as discussed in my April blog post “The Stuff of Life.” Nicole also noticed people were stocking up on staples like whole grains and legumes. I remember reading a social media post in early April from Daybreak Mill assuring customers that they had plenty of grain left in the bins. There is great comfort in times of uncertainty in knowing that we can procure necessary goods, especially food, from local sources, and Daybreak Mill, already well established, was perfectly positioned to fill that need.

What struck me in my conversations with both women, which has not changed since I talked to them in 2017, is their strong foundations in living heritage. They do what they do not only because they love it, but because it is meaningful and serves a greater good. Their businesses are an expression of their personal identities, an outlet for their creativity, and a base for their passionate commitment to sustainable business practices that do good for the earth and for their communities. It’s clear that it’s about much more than the bottom line, and as this unforeseen crisis hit, their businesses have so far shown deep resilience. Rooted in living heritage, grounded in community connections, and sustained by creativity and hard work, Northlore Goods and Daybreak Mill are inspiring examples of how small businesses strengthen our communities.