Prairie farm proves viability of apple orchards

On the Farm: Petrofka Orchard features 1,500 mature apple trees on 45 acres overlooking North Saskatchewan River

If you’ve ever driven north of Saskatoon toward the rural community of Blaine Lake, Sask., then there’s a good chance you’ve driven past the small piece of paradise that Diana Fedosoff calls home.

The Petrofka Orchard, located about 55 kilometres north of Saskatoon, consists of 46 acres of picturesque land overlooking the North Saskatchewan River.

The orchard contains about 1,500 mature apple trees, as well as plum trees, haskap and sour cherries.

“I thought it would be a good retirement plan…,” Fedosoff says with a chuckle.

“When you buy an apple orchard, you’re not just buying the land. You’re buying the land, the business, the lifestyle and everything else that goes along with it.”

Petrofka Orchard is well known to those who travel north of Saskatoon on Highway 12.

The business includes two apple orchards, another 600 replacement apple trees in a nursery, a retail storefront and café, a fully-equipped processing facility, a residence, a collection of outbuildings and a riverfront environment that can quickly capture the imagination.

“I thought it would be something where I could use my entrepreneurship to develop products and take care of the business side of things — running the store, operating the retail, offering tours and that kind of stuff,” says Fedosoff, who bought the orchard in 2014.

At the time, Fedosoff lived and worked in Saskatoon but she also had business interests to the Blaine Lake area.

She and her “wasband” (former husband) owned riverfront land in the area and were contemplating expanding their landholdings when the Petrofka Orchard caught their attention.

Six years of blood, sweat and tears later, Fedosoff looks at her time on the orchard as a gift and a challenge.

Growing apples on the Canadian Prairies isn’t for the faint of heart, she says. In fact, growing apples for a living in Saskatchewan might be even more difficult than growing grain for a living.

From the 1,500 productive apple trees on the orchard, Fedosoff will harvest about 17,000 pounds of apples in a good year.

In years when production is lower, she buys apples from other prairie growers, as long as their fruit is organically produced and chemical free.

Of the apples that are grown at Petrofka, most are prairie varieties, originating from the University of Saskatchewan fruit and horticulture program headed by fruit-breeding legend Bob Bors.

“Prairie Sensation is my favorite apple,” says Fedosoff.

“It’s a University of Saskatchewan variety and it’s somewhere between a Gala and a Pink Lady. I’ve had those grow to almost a pound.”

To say the orchard keeps Fedosoff busy would be an understatement.

In her peak season, 16-hour workdays are not uncommon.

She typically hires five to eight seasonal employees each year. Any jobs that aren’t handled by employees are taken care of by Fedosoff, the business’s top executive officer, business manager, tree pruner, baker, processing supervisor, product development officer, maintenance foreman and chief bottle washer.

Pruning — the key to a successful organic apple orchard — takes Fedosoff as much as three to four weeks every spring.

“It’s probably the No. 1 thing,” she says.

“If you have the orchard well-pruned, then you get the larger apples. You don’t get as many apples but your actual product is much superior….”

Petrofka Orchard’s primary connection to the consumer is its café and storefront retail counter, which offers visitors a chance to purchase a taste of homemade prairie goodness.

“I produce over 60 products,” says Fedosoff.

“Everything including … pies, jams, jellies, mustards, relishes, drinks, apple cider vinegar…. I actually wish I’d stop inventing new products but for some reason I just keep expanding….”

All products are processed on-site in a 2,500 sq. foot, government-certified processing building.

About 80 to 90 percent of the orchard’s inventory is sold on site.

The remainder is sold through arrangements with other Saskatchewan food retailers.

And if a slice of Petrofka Orchard’s fresh apple pie isn’t enough to satisfy your cravings, then a slice of Doukhobor Clay Oven Bread almost certainly will.

Fedosoff’s Doukhobor bread pays tribute to disenfranchised Doukhobor settlers, who homesteaded in the Petrofka area more than a century ago.

In 2019, when she wasn’t busy maintaining the orchard, managing the business, developing new products or changing the oil in her Bobcat, Fedosoff managed to sell more than $35,000 worth of clay-oven baked goods, including Doukhobor bread, apple cinnamon buns and perogy buns.

“It’s not a one-woman operation anymore,” says Fedosoff, who expanded the orchard’s year-over-year revenues by 47 percent last year.

All of that hard work and energy can take a toll on a person, Fedosoff concedes.

This year, concerned about the workload and her own well-being, she put her beloved orchard up for sale. She still plans to operate the orchard, storefront and café as per usual this year. Opening day is slated for May 14. But beginning in 2021, she’s hoping the enterprise will be under new ownership.

“I don’t want to leave and I don’t want to sell, but this is just the reality of things,” she says.

“It’s been a great experience and I think it’s a very good business opportunity … but you have to make sure that you really stay on top of your crop and you have to diversify like heck…,” she adds.

“With this perfect location, there’s so much opportunity to expand the business by opening up a cidery, for example, or operating as a wedding venue, or maybe even open up a fine-dining restaurant.”

“The location here is so awesome and we’ve had great support from our customers.”

“As long as you’re willing to put in the hard work and the long hours… you can make a very successful business (as a prairie fruit grower).”

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