Fourflax: for one and for all

Annie Studholme meets the brother and sister duo behind an Ashburton business creating flaxseed-based supplements for horses and pets

Jenna and Nick with poodle Rosie in a flax seed field

For many horse owners, taking care of their animals’ health is just as important as their own. 

It’s a principle that’s driven the the development of a small, family-owned company based in Mid Canterbury to become a busy and fast-growing producer and exporter of flax seed oil supplements for horses, cats and dogs.

Fourflax Ltd started simply selling flax seed oil, but over the last eight years has developed a symptom-specific range of 24 different products for animals under the ProVida brand, which aid digestion, improve coat and condition, and help with joint mobility. 

Flax seed oil is a prime source of Omega 3 essential fatty acid, which has anti-inflammatory properties and is said to have range of benefits to the circulatory, digestive, immune and reproductive systems, as well as being great for skin, hair, joints and muscles. 

Brother and sister, Nick Swift and Jenna White, run the company from Ashburton, and the locally-made products sell around New Zealand as well as being exported to China, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Korea and Australia.

Early beginnings

The origins of Fourflax trace back more than 30 years, when a group of enterprising mid-Canterbury farmers and businessmen including Gavin Prebble established Bio Oils Ashburton, to cold-press flax seed oil (also known as linseed) for human consumption. 

Gavin’s son, Daryl Prebble, later purchased the company, and together with Debbie Swift (Nick and Jenna’s mother), launched Fourflax as an offshoot in 2010, after spotting a gap in the animal health market. They’d noticed many animals were suffering from the same health issues affecting people, including joint problems, skin allergies and irritations.

“During the course of the business, they found that they were being approached by veterinarians and animal lovers asking for flax seed oil, as what they were currently buying from health food shops wasn’t in the necessary quantities for feeding to animals. It was all local initially. They started seeing good results and experienced good growth,” explains Jenna.

While Daryl and Debbie focused on Bio Oils, growing it to become the largest producer of cold-pressed flax seed oil and meal in the country, Nick took over the reins of Fourflax, initially doing everything from labelling, filling bottles and processing orders to sales and marketing.

“It was all me,” he laughs. “I literally jumped in a car and hit the road, driving the length of New Zealand, promoting the Fourflax brand. When I first started there was only 60 stockists, and we doubled that in the first year.”

After finishing university the following year, Jenna too joined the company, taking over sales and marketing, leaving Nick to focus on operations, production and new product development. “I was deciding what to do after finishing my studies, and Mum said, why don’t you come and help your brother out for a year? And the rest, as they say, is history,” she laughs.

The birth of ProVida

Between them, the siblings have taken Fourflax to a new level. As momentum grew, the company became the New Zealand distributors for the popular Nettex Equine range from the UK, which has a wide range of grooming, hoof and wound care products for horses.“We saw it as a great opportunity to expand and it sits nicely alongside what we already do. They are cost-effective products that really work,” says Jenna.

And shortly after, the company undertook a major rebranding of its Fourflax supplements range to the ProVida name.

“We had been working on it for a long time. As animal health suppliers, we wanted to create a new brand with a more scientific and professional feel, with an underlying sense of veterinary credibility to it. On the one hand, it had to feel like a clinical professional treatment, whilst on the other, it should evoke some of the natural feelings of care and affection one has towards animals.”

Jenna says their aim was to create a range of animal health supplements using flax seed oil or flax seed flake as a base, using only food-grade quality ingredients with proven health and wellness properties.

Many of the products in the current range have been developed in direct response to customer requests and feedback. 

“Hearing the success stories [from customers] gives us faith that we are on the right track. It gave us the confidence to build a range of products that will help animals live longer, happier lives without moving away from our core ingredient,” says Nick.

Having established a strong foothold in the New Zealand market, the next logical step was to take their products overseas, but neither of them were prepared for such rapid growth. “Eight years ago it wasn’t even on the cards, and now ProVida is available in seven countries. We just fell into it at the right time. This year will be another busy year for us as we continue to develop those markets. It’s hard work, but it’s so rewarding to know you are really making a difference.”

It seemed like the perfect time for Nick and Jenna to officially take over at the helm, purchasing the company outright at the start of 2019. “It’s a really exciting time for us to be taking over,” says Nick. 

Put the best in. Get the best out

While ProVida has developed a loyal client base through word of mouth, there’s still more education required about the benefits of feeding oil to horses, dogs and cats, says Jenna. 

“When we first started, there weren’t many oils on the market. It was hard work initially. We spent a lot of time going to A&Ps and shows trying to get it out there, talking to people about what it is and what the benefits of using it are.”

Not all oils are created equal, she explains. Flax seed oil boasts the highest natural source of Omega 3 essential fatty acid at almost 60 per cent, and also contains 15 per cent Omega 6 and 15 per cent Omega 9. 

Animals can’t manufacture these essential fatty acids in the body, but need them for overall health. A balanced diet is the key, and it’s the ratio between Omegas 3 and 6 that is important. 

Many horse feeds do not contain high levels of Omega 3, says Nick, so supplementing your horse’s feed with flax seed oil can help to rectify the omega imbalance, and encourage optimum skin, coat and hair condition, free mobility and strong hooves, as well as supporting the immune, circulatory and digestive systems.

Flax seed oil is also a powerful source of energy, with one cup of oil equivalent for four cups of grain. “It’s not a cheap oil; it is really effective and really high quality.”

From the cold-pressing of the oil, the flax seed flake is expelled. Essentially it’s a bi-product, but it too has some great health benefits being rich in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.

ProVida’s traceability from paddock to bottle is one of its greatest assets. “All of our flax seed is grown exclusively in Canterbury on contract through Bio Oils New Zealand, with farmer growers from as far north as Waiau and south to Temuka, and our apple cider vinegar is produced in Canterbury too,” says Nick.

Each crop is carefully monitored throughout the growing season, from seeding to harvest in late summer. The seed is then stored and pressed on-site in their Ashburton processing plant. Lines are cold-pressed one at a time to guarantee quality control, and then the oil is given time to settle naturally before being bottled and dispatched. 

He says the relationships they’ve developed with their growers is really important. “They really buy in to what we are doing. It means everything is traceable back to the paddock it was grown. We know exactly where every drop has come from.”