A tour hosted by the Alberta Farm Writers Association revealed the sheer diversity of agricultural production and processing in the Lethbridge area. It’s true much of that diversity is due to the favourable climate and availability of irrigation water. But the development of production agriculture and its related processing has more to do with the entrepreneurship of many of the people that live and work in the area. That development has seen the evolution of an ag industry that is worth billions to the economic wellbeing of the country. That industry on the whole supports thousands of fulltime jobs in production, processing, transportation, manufacturing, research and education. But what is equally as important is that most of those jobs tend to be steady, stable and long-term. Sure, they don’t provide the six-figure wages of the energy industry, but those jobs can disappear rather quickly in a downturn as many painfully find out. One notes that unemployment is somewhat lower in the Lethbridge area than other parts of the province. That’s not to say Lethbridge isn’t affected, the southern Alberta area has a significant energy sector economy, but it doesn’t dominate as much as it does elsewhere.
A new addition to the already diverse livestock production sector has been the establishment of a lamb feedlot near Picture Butte. Feeding lambs to finishing weights in large feedlots is not a new concept in Alberta, a number of them have been in operation over the past 50 years at various locations across the province. But this new lamb feedlot endeavour is different; it is large, very new and modern, and quite sophisticated in its operation and management. It would seem the shareholders were determined to make this facility the best state-of-the-art operation of its kind. It has a lamb handling operation that features equipment from Australia – some of it the first of its type in Canada. The operation is remarkably clean and well designed. It’s owned by shareholders of Canada Gold Beef, who also own Sungold Speciality Meats Ltd., which is Canada’s largest federally-inspected lamb processing plant in Innisfail. The lot has a capacity of 25,000 and its turnover last year was 45,000 lambs. It’s somewhat seasonal in operation with its peak during the fall and early winter and employs seven to 12 people. Some of the shareholders of the new lamb feedlot are themselves cattle feedlot operators; those entrepreneurs are some of the most sophisticated livestock managers (and bold risk takers) in the country. That type of professional expertise will serve this enterprise well.
Another new addition to the processing sector in Lethbridge is Egg Processing Innovations Cooperative (EPIC). This facility owned by Alberta egg producers takes surplus eggs, breaks them and turns them into bulk whole liquid eggs, yolks and whites that are in turn sold into the industrial market like bakeries, confectionaries and food processing. Those eggs used to be sent out of province for further processing. It’s a significant investment but shows considerable opportunities for expansion; research is ongoing for further use of the egg membranes and shells. A half dozen local folks are employed in the facility. The plant processes almost a million eggs per week with the latest in high tech equipment. It operates under the strictest of food safety standards set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The greenhouse industry in southern Alberta is already well-developed, but seems to be continually expanding. It’s another high-risk industry that takes skilled management and sophisticated marketing. It’s also a highly capital intensive business and would need friendly and understanding lending institutions. A visit to Rainbow Greenhouses in Iron Springs showed the scale of this world-class operation and its use of the latest high-tech greenhouse equipment. This facility produces mainly flowering plants under a whopping 34 acres of glass ( its roofs are polypropylene). It employs 30 fulltime and 75 seasonal people, who ride bicycles just to get around this vast facility. In the spring season they dispatch as many as 60 trucks a day with flowers destined for retailers across western Canada. Interestingly most of their water does not come from irrigation, they collect rain runoff from their acres and acres of roofs and store it in a large reservoir. The greenhouse operation does burn some coal for heating in the winter; the CO2 by-product of coal-burning is separated and pumped into the greenhouse for use by plants – an interesting green arrangement for a fuel that is so reviled by the politically correct. More on other ag initiatives next time.