Harvesting the Forest – An Interview with Randy Johns

By Heather Exner-Pirot

This month we interview Randy Johns, the CEO of Keewatin Community Development Association (KCDA), based in La Ronge.

HEP: What are non-timber forest products? Which products do we have in Saskatchewan?

RJ: Non-timber forest products (NTFP) include any plant that grows in the forest that isn’t used for lumber. Everything from the material on the forest floor to alternate uses for trees can be included. These products can have many different uses. They could be used for food and beverage, that’s one category; another one is nutraceuticals – ingredients for healthy drinks and vitamins and so on. Another use is for personal care products – ingredients for skin cream for example. And then industrial usage, as ingredients for cleaners and so on.

In Saskatchewan, the ones most people know of are wild mushrooms. They’re harvested and sold worldwide. We also have lots of berries – blueberries and cranberries or lingonberries.

There’s also a good market for wild rice. It’s not endemic to Saskatchewan; it was more of a Great Lakes plant to begin with. But since the 1930s it has been grown here and has become a successful commercial product. We can harvest about 1 million pounds of wild rice in a good year. That retails for $7 a pound at the end of the value chain, to give a sense of the size of the market.

Other products KCDA is specialising in are blends of plants for teas and other food usages, and conducting some R & D (research and development) on other plants. We’ve mainly been supplying fireweed plants for skin cream but are looking at other products.

HEP: What is the market for non-timber forest products like?

RJ: It’s developing. There’s a trend worldwide in food consumption and other areas too for natural and organic products that’s pretty well-defined. People are more concerned with what they are putting in and on their bodies.

Non-timber forest products fit in there, and the market is growing, but they are not as well known. It’s not like organically grown grains for example. They are new products that have to be introduced to the audience.

We are also involved with Ag-West Bio (Saskatchewan’s bioscience industry association) to put together research on wild rice in terms of production and efficiencies, and evaluation of the protein content. There’s not been a lot of R & D in that sector since the 1990s. In fact, all of the plants we are harvesting could use more research in terms of evaluating the chemical properties they have.

HEP: How do you collect or harvest your products?

RJ: We work with locals, primarily Indigenous peoples, that go on to the land and do the harvesting. We target specific plants and give training in sustainable harvesting methods and identification before people go out. We pay by volume, usually by the pound. We try to predict the amount we will need and then target an amount of plant to harvest.

Two aspects drive our business. One is the sustainability of the harvest. The other aspect is our ethics – the ethics of the harvest. We need to be respectful of the Indigenous culture and usages of the plants. We have an advisory committee of Northerners involved in the traditional usages and they let us know if there are concerns. For example, there are some plants widely used as traditional medicines and we restrict our harvesting of those. We don’t want to compete with people that are using it traditionally. We need to make sure they have the plant available to them. Rat root is a prime example. It’s fairly scarce as it is. Whereas fireweed is very abundant and there isn’t much traditional usage.

HEP: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in developing this sector?

RJ: The main challenges are twofold. One is the market; developing the market. We have fermented fireweed tea, and it’s a great product. But people don’t know they like it until they try it. Retailers are also skeptical. So it takes work to introduce a new product to consumers.

And second, is developing our harvest capacity. I see these as two legs that walk together – the market and the capacity. They have to be coordinated with each other.

Not many people in Saskatchewan are doing non-timber, but there is a lot of agri-food experience in the province to draw on. We have to play the game with the same rules but figure out our own approach too because we have a different context.

For example we are not organically certified. Everything we harvest comes from its natural state, from pristine boreal forest. But in order to get certified you need inspectors to certify an area and that’s very challenging. The certification system is really set up for grids in a quarter section of farmland, not for hundreds of kilometers of boreal forest. We are still working on that.

HEP: Where do you hope to see this business in ten years’ time?

RJ: In ten years’ time we are hoping that the business will be operating as a stand-alone outside of KCDA. Our intent is to nurture and incubate the business to the point that it works on its own. We are also looking to move into essential oils that can be used in fragrances or even some industrial usages.

I have dollar figures in my mind that we have to hit to achieve that – around a million dollars. It would be not a small but a medium sized business, with manufacturing and production right in northern Saskatchewan.

We already work with 50-100 harvesters. In the future, it would be great to have a positive economic impact for 500 people, with a solid number of full-time jobs as well as casual labour for a lot of people.

Learn more KCDA’s non-timber forest products, and shop for your own northern Saskatchewan teas and mushrooms, at borealheartland.ca  or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/borealheartland/