In addition to the facilities visited by the Alberta Farm Writers’ Association tour that were featured in a previous column, two other operations were visited that had one thing in common. Both operations started with entrepreneurs who had a dream and the determination to succeed. They faced setbacks in their early days, but they overcame adversities and continue to move ahead with passion and success. One of them is Green Prairie International; this company processes forages into a variety of compressed products for livestock feeding. The company was founded by John Van Hierden in 1988; prior to that he was a hay dealer focusing on shipments to Fraser Valley dairy farmers. He found that a huge market existed for high quality forages in Asia and began exporting container loads of compressed Timothy hay to dairy farms in Japan. He had to invent hay compression machinery as none was available. Since then, expansion has been continuous in quantity shipped and the addition of new forage products for different markets. The volume is astonishing with over 5,000 containers per year shipped to overseas customers in Asia and other countries. Containers go via Vancouver, BC and Long Beach, California. The operation has gone beyond just hay compression and now includes growing, harvesting, drying, mixing, cubing, pelleting and research.
The overriding rule in this business is that quality is extremely critical to foreign buyers with an intense green colour being the main selling factor. The other factor that affects this business is that exports are highly impacted by the value of the Canadian dollar. This operation faces tough competition from hay exporters in the western USA, particularly the Columbia Valley who are closer to export ports. An at par loonie puts Canadian hay exports at a severe disadvantage. To expand their marketing opportunities this company now owns a hay processing facility in Utah. Interestingly, owner John Van Hierden did point out one forage plant development that could devastate a big part of his export business. The concern is the approval of a variety of GM Alfalfa. He made it clear that his export customers do not want any forage product that might contain a genetically engineered plant. That sends a clear message to any growers who may be contemplating planting GM Alfalfa for better production levels.
Perhaps one of the most amazing of diversified agricultural operations in the Lethbridge area is a company called Earthly Matters. The company was founded by Dan and Steph Rollingson and is in the worm business. This operation sells a range of products, but mainly sells live worms and their castings (worm excrement) to a wide variety of customers from schools to horticulture to site reclamation companies. It’s a modest operation, but last year sold over 19 tons of worm-related products including compost, castings, worms, fish bait, and a compost tea. Not bad for an operation that began eight years ago in the Rollingson’s garage. There were some early setbacks and a learning curve, but demand continues to increase every year as the operation is fine-tuned and expanded. The main variety of earthworm is a European species of night crawler that thrives better than most domestic types. Interestingly, the owners still have some of the original worms they acquired eight years ago – which attests to the longevity of the simple worm. The Rollingsons are also involved with a school education program which promotes worm raising kits to introduce students to the composting process and its positive affect on soil structure. The big potential for Earthly Matters would seem to be in the organic plant business which requires natural fertilizers like worm castings to provide vital nutrients to the soil.
A much welcomed stop on the farm writers’ tour was the Coulee Brew Company facility in Lethbridge. This brand new operation, which features state of the art brewing equipment and a restaurant, is bigger than a small craft brewery – it’s more medium sized. They have already brewed up a variety of unique beers, all of which passed the taste test of thirsty farm writers. Interestingly, the brewing company is determined to use locally grown ingredients for their beer varieties. All of their malt barley and other cereals are locally sourced. The company is also involved in finding and supporting the growing of a variety of beer hops in Alberta. This would be another ag diversification step, as all hops used for brewing in Alberta are now sourced from the US and Europe. Hay, worms, and hops – it’s diversification at its best.