A chip off the block
By Treena Hein
By Treena Hein
Adrian and Draupadi Quinn produced one acre of kale during their first year of production. They went on to grow 10 acres and then 28 acres. They now use kale from about 150 acres grown on their own and neighbouring farms.
Going from zero to full speed with a new venture is exciting. It also takes an incredible amount of determination, vision and an ability to see problems as interesting challenges and not annoyances.
In the case of Ultimate Kale Chips, the venture benefited from the extensive experience of its founders, Adrian and Draupadi Quinn. But that experience wasn’t in kale farming. Instead, they’ve grown in the last five years from knowing virtually nothing about farming to growing large amounts of organic kale – and running a successful value-added kale business.
The family’s epic kale chip journey is a strong reflection of a journey that Adrian Quinn had already taken with Kokimo candles. Back in 1995, Quinn had started producing something called the Candy Candle in the barn at his parents’ farm. He first sold them to friends and family and, eventually, to local gift shops. Now, the Kokimo line – consisting of candles made with food-grade wax, natural scents, baby oil and cotton wicks – can be found in thousands of retail outlets across Canada and around the world.
Growing a business from nothing to an international success was already in Adrian’s resume, but kale farming was not. And how the family got into farming kale and then making kale chips came about purely by happenstance.
It started with Adrian and Draupadi’s desire to move to the country, to find a place where their growing boys could have some animals and explore nature. They found a former tobacco farm in Castleton and fell in love with the place.
“It was as a diamond in the rough for sure, with some arable land, some forest and some wetlands with spring water,” says Quinn. “At the start, we were buying vegetables from a farmer-neighbour and he ran out, and suggested to me that if we wanted more kale, we should grow it ourselves. I told that to my wife and she said, ‘Great, let’s do it!’”
The couple began to envision their farm as a consumer-supported agriculture (CSA) venture with a focus on kale. But a trip to a gift show in California – related to Kokimo candles – changed all that. It was the first time they had tried kale chips – in this case, baked ones made in small batches for eating the same day – and they were impressed.
“We all reach for snack food from time to time, and we know they can contain a lot of chemicals and not much nutritional value,” says Adrian. “We saw a chance to create our own Ontario-made kale chips that are extremely nutritious and all-natural. The drying is key. We were growing and drying hay at the time, and we were surprised that it kept its nutritional value so well through the drying process. We figured we could do that for kale. And drying does preserve all the enzymes and nutrients.
“After we’d experimented for a while and everyone we knew had tried them, a friend who happened to be a health food distributor said he could sell a lot of these. So we went for it.”
To make the chips on a commercial scale, they would need a lot more kale, a processing facility, flavouring ingredients and more. The first step was to formalize the business (called Brandneu Foods Canada), the branding (Solar Raw Food) and the product name (Ultimate Kale Chips).
The couple gutted the barn on their farm and created a commercial kitchen, then acquired some propane-powered cabinet dehydrators so they could experiment with drying times and temperatures. Later, a grant from Northumberland Community Futures enabled them to acquire four more cabinet dehydrators and double production.
At the same time, the Quinns experimented with flavouring ingredients, from coconut sugar and beet powder to red peppercorns and curry spices.
“We didn’t want to use oil in the creation of the chips for a few reasons, so we ended up trying a mixture of ground-up sunflower seeds and cashews soaked overnight in water,” Adrian explains. “It works well. We add the flavourings to that and spray it on the kale pieces, dehydrate them for 14 hours, and package them in bags with nitrogen gas. This gives us a great shelf life.”
He adds customers provided a lot of help for the development of the current five flavours.
All the while, kale acreage was growing. The first year the Quinns produced one acre, then 10, and then 28. They now use kale from about 150 acres grown on their own and neighbouring farms.
“Five years ago, dirt was something I had seen before but never knew how to use,” Quinn says. “I had never farmed, but my grandfather was a farmer and I worked with him a bit in my youth and I always wanted to learn more.”
The soil is sandy in the Castleton area, so the Quinns add their own nutrient-dense organic material created through anaerobic (underground) composting, which involves the addition of microorganisms and a fermentation period of six months. They also apply desalinated and dehydrated seawater to the soil.
The Ultimate Kale Chip is now sold in hundreds of health food stores – and will soon be joined by another kale product, Kaley’s Kale Chips. This product features potato chip flavourings, added after dehydration to make them more intense.
“The objective from the start with all our products is to be all-natural,” Quinn says. “Both brands of chips are organic, gluten-free, MSG free and GMO-free. We have distributors in many countries lined up to buy Kaley’s, so it’s very exciting.”
Kaley’s chips are being made at a new processing facility in Cobourg, Ont., which is outfitted with a conveyor natural gas dehydrator. The incoming air is pre-heated with the outgoing air, which cuts energy use by 65 per cent.
The Quinns are happy to say they’ve always been able to hire locally. The kale business provides 11 full-time and three part-time jobs at the farm and farm processing facility. The new Cobourg processing and distribution centre adds 18 more jobs.
These days, the biggest challenge the Quinns face in their operation is securing more kale.
“Recent increases in commodity prices means surplus land has disappeared,” Adrian notes. “But we’re working with local farmers and we’ve convinced some of them to grow kale, and now we are getting some farmers calling us saying they have the odd hay field to offer. We also need to mechanize the harvest.”
There can be up to six harvests of kale every season and Quinn says that it’s quite a bit more lucrative than cash crops.
“So, it’s a nice collaboration with farmers in our area. We have a goal of getting at least 1,000 acres under production, with 80 per cent or more being made into kale chips.”
The Quinns were extremely excited and proud when they received the top prize – the Premier’s Award – in the 2014 round of the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.
“We were just delighted to have received this honour,” Quinn says. “We have achieved a great deal, but it’s all about improving on what’s come before.”