Nova Scotia Organics is #1


by Marni Andrews

Nova Scotia Organics, a Canadian organic herbal products company based in Halifax, has accomplished something remarkable. With their recent USDA organic certification for the entire product line, they now have the only full line of all USDA-certified organic vitamins, minerals and herbals on the Canadian market, with about 40 SKUS. The company, formally known as Naturally Nova Scotia, has rebranded itself to reflect this certification.

Founder Nancy Smithers says she changed the company name because “the word ‘naturally’ does not say anything, but ‘organics’ means quality and no chemicals.” She says it feels good to move from being a firm with products made with organic ingredients to one with all products 100% certified organic.

Smithers has been a pioneer in the field of all natural (and now certified organic) supplements for more than 20 years. As with many entrepreneurs, she entered her field in an unexpected way. In 1993, her sister, a physiotherapist, asked her for a supply of natural healing remedies for her practice. Smithers, who had grown up immersed in nature, researched local plants.

With the help of a herbalist, she learned what could be produced locally. Smithers started with tinctures of typical medicinal herbs such as borage, dandelion root, echinacea, red clover, heal-all, calendula and chamomile to target colds, female issues, immunity, allergies, pains, and coughs. “I incorporated in the first year of operation because I knew I would sell the tinctures,” she says.

While there were no major obstacles because she started small by wild crafting herbs, she found that preparing herbs in her kitchen was a problem. She needed a larger facility and purchased a 250-acre property she calls “the farm” five minutes from her house. She began growing her herbs there and followed organic farming practices, without synthetic herbicides and fertilizers.

The early years were full of lessons learned, starting with the basics of identifying different herbs as seedlings. Smithers grew seedlings in the greenhouses and transplanted them in the summer. She survived by hiring summer students.

And then came the selling. “This was a challenge because I was very nervous about going into stores and selling my products even though I realized they were wonderful. People asked me questions I was not expecting,” says Smithers, who adds that the first year was tough trying to explain to people why they should choose her products rather than others.

Her advice to anyone considering the same path is to plan carefully, have a vision and be realistic about where you are going. And don’t grow too fast too soon.

“Don’t be afraid, but be careful,” she cautions. It is a complex industry “that big pharma has gotten into, and they have a lot of money. I could have done something easier in life, but I love what I do. It is not a business for the faint of heart!”

Her other early lessons were economic. With no government funding available, Smithers was facing a considerable investment in machinery. “When I first started there was not much equipment around for my industry. My herb press came from the U.S., and my first freeze dryer from the U.K. My first labeling machine came from Canada and my first encapsulating machine from India,” she explains.

The purchase of the freeze dryer came when she realized after several years of producing tinctures that her market was looking for a pill format. And then came the challenge of tableting.

“Tableting certified organic ingredients is not easy because you can’t use flow agents, silicon dioxide, magnesium stearate, all the things that non-organic people use to keep tablets together,” says Smithers. “I had to hire a tableting expert to show us how to get the tablets to stick together. It is always a learning curve when you are in an industry like this!”

Smithers has promoted her products through the annual Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) shows in Toronto and Vancouver and has advertised in magazines. She got a distributor in Canada and made the bold move to expand into Japan in 1999 because the Canadian market was small and she had to spend a lot of money on research.

She also knew she wasn’t yet ready for the U.S. market. “Certified organic was not mainstream, and (U.S) consumers did not understand its importance. The Japanese appreciate organic products.” Opening a firm in Japan is no different than opening up somewhere else,” says Smithers. “The thing I had to learn was the culture. I have been in the Japanese market for 16 years, so I am accepted.”

Today, Smithers sells three-quarters of her products outside Canada. The primary export markets for Nova Scotia Organics are the U.S. (which she entered last year and will be focusing on this year), Japan and the European Union. In the next five years, she hopes to expand quickly in the U.S. market.

Her best sellers are Nova Greens in Canada, Berry Beauty products in Japan and certified organic multivitamins in the U.S. She employs between 10 and 20 people in Nova Scotia, including her son.

Smithers is very excited to change her encapsulated line to a certified organic capsule, a breakthrough for the market. “There is no other website with this kind of comprehensive line of only USDA-certified organic supplements,” she says. “Many people sell one or two certified organic products but not everything. I never have and never will produce anything that is not organic certified.”

Nova Scotia Organics will be exhibiting this season at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, March 10-13.