Gary and Susan Snow
Back in the early 1990s a long established farming family in Creston could see trouble looming on the horizon with apples.
“Sue’s brother and father were the first to rip out their apples and replant with cherries, which were the next best thing,” says Gary Snow, whose wife Susan was a member of that family.
Two decades later the Snows not only see trouble coming for the cherry market, they’re hip deep in it. For the last five to six years, there’s been a steady decline in cherry prices, increased competition from Washington State, and poor weather, which resulted in their entire 2009 crop being reduced to cull status.
“Culls used to be two or three per cent, but now it’s 20 to 30 per cent because the fruit has to be absolutely perfect or it’s kicked back.”
It isn’t just the Snows of course – the entire farming community is feeling the pressure.
“At one time there were five [fruit] brokers but now it’s down to three because of a poor market. At lot of farms changed hands this year,” says Gary.
In the short term to survive they remortgaged, but what they really needed to do was innovate with what they had - 21 acres of Lapin, Sweetheart, Kootenay and Skeena cherries.
Susan says the decision was to make and sell cherry juice under the Tabletree name. “We went into the juice business to go up one rung on the ladder.”
Cherry juice is not often seen on the market shelves because it is difficult to make.
“The pit was an issue because it has cyanide in it,” Susan says.
Another is the appearance. The bright red cherry juice that drips down your chin when you bite into a plump piece of fruit will, if left out, turn an unappetizing brown colour as it oxidizes.
Getting the money together to finance such a project was another obvious challenge.
The money issue was partially surmounted by successfully competing in the BC Innovation Council’s (BCIC) Commercialization of Agricultural Program, CAT for short.
“It was actually like Dragons’ Den on a huge scale,” Susan says.
Their initial proposal was rewarded with a $10,000 grant to produce an in-depth business plan and pitch it to a panel of business representatives, academics and investment experts.
In the end they came in second place among all competitors, which was good enough to land them a total of $160,000 if they could raise matching funds on their own for most of that sum.
With money in hand the Snows set about tackling the technical challenges.
The pair relate the story of how, after producing a few bottles they arranged to meet Dr. Tom Beverage, a retired Summerland Station researcher, who specialized in making fruit juices.
Beverage met them at a café where he carefully studied their bottle. Gary says Beverage stared at it for so long they were both sure he was about to tell them of a terrible flaw.
What Beverage was doing was holding the bottle up to the light to study the refraction between the boundary of juice and air in the bottle neck. This is where the telltale hint of brown would be revealed, which means the producers have failed in their efforts to prevent oxidation of the cherry juice.
What the Snows didn’t know, as Beverage’s study of the juice drew agonizingly on, is that he wasn’t able to find the expected telltale brown colour. In the end, he congratulated the pair on their success.
The cyanide in the pit is a problem because most commercial juicing processes crush a certain percentage of pits, releasing the cyanide into the juice. The Snows won’t say exactly how they overcame the problem, stressing it is part of their proprietary process, but Gary will say they have developed a machine that works. Whether the same process can be used on a large scale, remains to be seen.
Susan is convinced their preservative-free product is a winner, based on health attributes and flavour.
“We wanted to make sure the juice was all healthy – it’s all juice with a touch of cinnamon and honey. The cinnamon and honey was to give the juice a nice finish.”
Every food entrepreneur knows making a good product is only the first hurdle. Next is getting people to try it.
“With all due modesty our marketing department sucks. We’re farmers, not marketers,” Gary says.
They began locally, getting the juice into four Creston establishments. Gary says response has been very good. “We sell incredibly well at farmers markets, partly to get the name out.”
While they are also selling in Trail, Penticton, Rossland and Nelson (a complete list of stores is available on the website: www.tabletreejuice.com) they have picked up some supermarket chains in Calgary and Toronto. Gary laments it has been harder to persuade B.C. stores to pick it up than in other provinces.
The couple is also exploring Washington markets because of easy access to the eastern part of the state from Creston.
If the Snows succeed they believe their fortune should help other Creston growers, from whom they hope to purchase cherries in the future. ■