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Judges toast winemakers as young farmer nominees

Sue Echlin and Vance Lester had chores to do before their trip to Regina.

It was actually one big chore: picking 8,000 pounds of rhubarb.

Two days later, the couple accepted the award as Saskatchewan’s Outstanding Young Farmer nominees for 2012.

“We gotta go home and pick rhubarb again, I think,” Echlin said, laughing, after three judges selected the couple from Perdue as this year’s winner.

They typically harvest 20,000 pounds of fruit from three pickings of their 1,100 plants and need to at least double that to meet the demand for their Living Sky Winery.

They also grow apples, raspberries, haskap and saskatoons and have expanded their products to include port, ice wine, mistelle and cider.

Echlin said faith is also an important ingredient.

“When you plant trees seven years ahead and hope that they’re going to grow fruit and then hope that we’ll make wine and then hope that people will buy your wine, it’s taken a lot of just sort of faith and confidence,” she told reporters.

“You can’t be a farmer and be afraid of risk.”

Living Sky Winery has won 10 medals at national wine competitions since it was established in 2005.

The couple entered four wines in the recent Northwest Wine Summit and took home a gold and three silver medals in their first international competition.

Lester said they also feel honoured to be recognized at home.

“This is a room full of smart, innovative, forward-thinking farmers,” he said.

“I think Saskatchewan agriculture is innovative and people here find ways to do great things, and I think maybe we’re a reflection of what can be done in Saskatchewan.”

The winery is a non-traditional business for the province, but it also operates on a different business model.

“We’re taking the wine out to the people rather than having them come to us,” Lester said.

“We sell at farmers’ markets at both Saskatoon and Regina. We deliver and we’re being carried in several of the greatest restaurants in Saskatchewan, all the way from Forget to Lloydminster.”

Living Sky wines are not available in the province’s liquor stores. Echlin said they can’t keep up as it is and are selling out faster than they would like to.

“Who would have thought seven years ago that growth would be our challenge?” said Lester.

The winery also uses a different model for its labour needs. Echlin calls it non-traditional.

They access help from a nearby Hutterite colony but also from the city.

“We have a stable of young professionals that have otherwise full-time jobs that want to get back to the farm,” she said. “They’re mostly farm kids, so there’s lawyers and some health and safety professionals and they come pick for us just for fun.”

The couple also recently got in-volved with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program, in which volunteers work on organic farms around the world. Belgians are now working at Living Sky.

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