Success By Trial And Error

When John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote took over the reins of their third generation family grain farm near Leask, SK, turning it into a large-scale operation like many of their neighbours, was not in the cards. Instead, they sold the farm and invested the proceeds into something they enjoyed. And it paid off. In less than 10 years, Black Fox Farm & Distillery has become the only cut flower producer on the Prairies and an award winning distiller of gin and whiskey.

“We loved being farmers and we liked grain farming,” says Barb. “But if I’m being honest, we didn’t like it that much.” In 2006, the Cote family took a two-year sabbatical, heading off to Chile and Mexico, to expose themselves and their children to different cultures and languages.

Distillery is an award winning distiller of gin and whisky and the only cut flower producer on the Prairies.

“At the time, John worked as a consultant to canola growers in Kazakhstan,” says Barb. “These farms were 100,000 hectares in size. During that time our neighbours’ farms back in Canada were also continuing to grow. Our expansion was limited, and we weren’t into farming on that scale.” So instead of doing something bigger they decided to do something different.

Around 2010, the Cotes took advantage of high land prices and sold their 3,000-acre farm. They could have settled into early retirement with the proceeds, but Barb says neither of them was ready for a “town life” quite yet.

“We sold our land in four days and bought a small 80-acre piece of land on the outskirts of Saskatoon,” she says. “This was expensive land so you had to make every acre count. Our plan was to grow vegetables and start up a winery. We both had agriculture degrees and had studied on five continents so we figured we could take what we already knew and make the change easily.”

The vegetable venture got very real, very quickly. “In our first year we grew an acre of corn, but without any marketing know- how we ended up donating it,” says Barb. “The next year we decided to scale up to five acres and we got corn borer so ended up composting five acres of corn. That’s when we decided to approach things a little differently and come up with a better plan.”

First they needed capital. While the farm sale gave them a healthy amount to invest in their business, it wasn’t enough. They approached banks and lenders with their ideas but many were not well-versed in agriculture and food businesses. Even so, the Cotes were able to secure funding due in no small part to their reputation — showcasing past successes and highlighting their experience in the industry.

The Cotes produce gin and whisky using locally grown ingredients including their own grain. For Black Fox, 2020 was a banner year, winning several awards including master and gold medals at the 2020 World Whisky Masters.

The Cotes’ first financial success came through their cut flower business. A good deal on tulip bulbs got them into it and, at one point, they expanded to seven acres of cut flowers, making their farm the biggest — and the only — cut flower producer on the Prairies. Taking a step back, they realized they wanted to be closer to the consumer, so they shifted the cut flower business into a U-pick operation.

With that part of their business a success, the duo turned to their winery plans. They started out growing raspberries and haskap, a berry suited to cold weather growing conditions, with the intention of making fruit wine. But one of the main goals of their career shift was to do what they enjoyed, and they didn’t really enjoy wine or wine production, so they turned their attention to gin and eventually whisky.

“We knew nothing about distilling, but we were willing to learn. John took courses in the U.S. and we reached out to whomever was willing to talk to us,” says Barb. “We started at first by distilling gin. It was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimenting, but we had the proceeds from our flower business to allow us the time to learn. Eventually we figured it out.”

Producing gin and whisky in Saskatchewan using locally grown ingredients, including their own grain, was a unique endeavour, which is why they named their business after a unique creature — the black fox, a rarely-found cousin of the common red fox found across the Prairies.

And they have been rewarded for their perseverance. Black Fox Farm & Distillery was awarded master and gold medals at the 2020 World Whisky Masters, gold at the 2020 International Wine and Spirits Competition and gold at the 2020 Artisan Spirit Competition.

One of their recently released whiskies was listed in the top 20 whiskies of the world. Black Fox has increased its marketing efforts and now, in addition to sales in Saskatchewan, it has expanded into Alberta and Ontario, China and Denmark, which, Barb says, is a gateway into the EU.

“Distilling brings with it challenges that farming never had,” she says. “Every bottle choice, barrel type, lid seal and label size can cause a major issue but generally, you never make the same mistake twice. We’ve had amazing success and devastating setbacks. We’ve never worked harder but at the same time we’ve never had more fun.”

When the pandemic hit, like many distillers, they started making hand sanitizer. But, because they use their own grain for distilling, this was considered too valuable for making an ubiquitous pandemic product, so they brought in ethanol in order to produce sanitizer.

“One of the benefits of this farm during the COVID-19 pandemic is that we have space,” says Barb. “We could social distance and people could still come to the U-pick to get flowers, enjoy tastings for our gin and whisky, and we were even able to set up a patio for people to come and enjoy a drink. It was something for people to do during restricted times.”

While the U-pick flowers remains a part of their business, their focus is on growing the distillery. It was designed with growth in mind. “We want to focus on the spirits end of the business and to connect people to the Saskatchewan terroir,” says Barb.

“B.C. has become known for its grapes and wineries. Saskatchewan has some of the best grain growers in the world and we should be able to produce some of the best spirits in the world. There is lots of potential in growth of production and tourism in this area.”