We spoke with Allen Zak, CEO of Zak Organics. He runs a 4th generation family farm and produces certified organic snacks. We found out why his green peas are the best tasting, which symbol is the most undervalued in the food business today, and where all of their missing inventory was going.
Were you born and raised in Saskatchewan?
I feel very lucky to have been born and raised in a great community called Fir Mountain, located in south central Saskatchewan. It is located near the Grasslands National Park with beautiful rolling hills, brush and large pockets of good farmland. I spent much of my early years enjoying the outdoors, riding bikes, playing sports and helping out on the farm. Ours is a tight knit community where neighbours wave to one another on the road and really pitch in when there is a need. It is also a wonderful place to raise a family where hard-work and determination are needed every day.
You’re a fourth-generation farmer. Were the generations before you also passionate about organic farming?
The original homestead in my family was founded in 1911 and is land that my family still has and farms today. Whenever I am there I always think it would be interesting to talk to my ancestors and discuss the changes that have occurred in farming. I think they would be quite amazed to see the changes to agriculture and proud of the way we are taking care of the land. They were also passionate about farming and like farmers today were always looking for better ways of doing things.
Why is it important to have a certified organic product?
As an organic farmer, it is very important to work with Mother Nature and not against it. As a farmer, I see a big difference between organic farming and conventional farming. Organic farmers are not allowed to use chemicals, fertilizers or GMOs. We have to use more natural means of growing crops such as seed timing and higher seed densities to control weeds and green manure plow downs to add fertility to soils. But as a food processor I have learned that the difference between conventional and organic food is multiplied. Organic food contains organic certified ingredients which ensures the highest quality and integrity. Conventional food does not have the same oversight or regulations. Although it is more recognized than it once was, I think that the organic symbol on a package is the most undervalued symbol in the food business today.
Why did you decide to bring food products to the market?
The biggest reason for me was that I wanted to meet the people that our food was feeding. I feel that the food industry has become so complex and layered that farmers feel dis-connected from consumers and really don’t know where their product goes or how it is used, and consumers feel confused about where their food comes from and how it is being produced. It is the reason I love going to farmers markets and trade shows with our Crunchy Peas. It is a lot of fun giving someone a sample of our peas, answering their questions about how our family grows our peas, cleans, bakes, spices and then packages them.
We often confuse your crunchy peas with crunchy chickpeas. Are we the only ones?
We get asked this question a lot at farmers markets. Chickpeas and green peas both belong to a plant family called legumes, that also include lentils and beans. They both fixate nitrogen for our soils using rhizobia bacteria that attach to their roots. At Zak Organics, we love all legumes for how they help build our soils. We find that when baked, our green peas have a really nice taste and texture that are quite different from chickpeas. Green peas are a very resilient plant and defends itself against plant fungi and disease much better than chickpeas. Chickpeas are quite susceptible to Ascochyta Blight and Anthracnose fungi with conventional chickpeas growers often needing to apply between two and five fungicide applications in a season. So, we like growing green peas! And not just any green peas, but a special variety of green peas. We grew and bake tested with help from the Food Centre of Saskatchewan many varieties of pea to get to our winner. Many pea variety are better suited for soup or flour. The variety we grow now has superior qualities for roasting. The first year or two, we likely had the only organic green peas of this type in Canada.
How did you know how to take an idea and turn it into a national food product enjoyed by so many?
It really has been a process of learning as you go. I needed more business training and so I went back to university from 2009-2011 to get my MBA and develop my business skills. But, the best thing I did, was early on in the process admit to myself that I really did not know enough to try and build the food business I envisioned. We have brought on some terrific people to help us build our company and it is our people that are Zak Organics’ most valuable asset.
Sometimes when we call, we catch you in a tractor in the fields. How much of your work is still farming?
There are busy times on the farm, such as seeding and harvest, where it is “all hands-on deck”. During this time, the work becomes the singular focus for the farm. It means long hours and everyone pitching in. During other times when it is less busy on the farm our time will be devoted to our food company.
Not every kid loves green peas (yet). Do yours?
Everyone in our family loves them and have been our taste testers from the very beginning. Early on we had many bags going missing from our inventory. It turned out our youngest sons’ hockey team had taken a real liking to them and he was smuggling them to the dressing room for the guys in his hockey bag.
What’s your favorite flavour?
My favorite flavour is a mix I make myself with our Sea Salt & Lime and our Sweet Cocoa. I love salted dark chocolate and the lime kicker is unreal. Our best-selling flavour though is our Garden Herb. People love the organic dill that we put on those (we do!). You can see the dill on the pea. No artificial dill flavouring like in other snacks, it is the real deal. We are continuing to innovate and have a new flavour coming out soon that we are really excited about. I think it is the best flavour to date. Stay tuned.
Do your kids want to be farmers when they grow up? Do they help on the farm now?
Both our teenage boys run all of our farm machinery and are significant help on the farm. Time will tell if they decide to be farmers. It would be great if they want to farm. We are encouraging them to follow their dreams and support whatever they decide to do in life.