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Farming’s hottest boomtown

Guide Canada: Lethbridge has emerged as one of Canada’s hottest centres of farm and ag entrepreneurialism. How hot is that? Well, read on…

The High Level Bridge in Lethbridge, Alta., is the longest and highest bridge of its type on Earth.

Ask anyone what they think of when they think of Alberta, and the same handful of images always come to mind. Think Banff, Jasper and the rolling foothills for a start.

Now, add Lethbridge, especially if you’re a farmer.

Then think excitement. Young people might be fleeing other parts of rural Canada, but not here. In Lethbridge, where the population now tops 100,000, 56 per cent are under 39.

Job opportunities abound, adds Trevor Lewington, CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge. “There’s a significant youthful feel to the city that gives us that incredible workforce to draw on.”

Lots is going right with Lethbridge. Really, though, it’s agriculture that shines.

With crop diversity that would make southern Ontario or interior B.C. blush, this area’s commitment is big business, helping foster an incredible variety of value-add activity.

Alberta has 70 per cent of Canada’s irrigation, and most of that is here in the south. The Lethbridge region has more than 8,000 kilometres of canals and pipelines along with 57 water storage reservoirs. In 2019, water delivered for irrigation use was just over two billion cubic metres.

In short, farmers decide when it rains, and when that is combined with the region’s hot weather, it’s easier to see how Lethbridge-area farmers are so productive with such a long list of commodities, including fruits, vegetables, sugar beets, potatoes, corn, hemp, row crops, seed canola and alfalfa.

There’s another spillover too. Within 60 minutes of downtown, there are three major potato processors, a canola crush plant, a sugar beet processor and a pork processor.

Trevor Lewington. photo: Courtesy Trevor Lewington

“When you buy a bag of potato chips from Thunder Bay to Victoria, it likely came from the Taber [PepsiCo] plant and was packaged in Lethbridge,” Lewington says.

Lethbridge is booming. Since 2017, investors have pumped $1.3 billion into the city and surrounding area.

This is a city with agriculture running through its veins. According to Lewington’s EDL, 20 per cent of Lethbridge’s GDP is from agricultural companies, which include all kinds of services such as inputs suppliers, machinery dealerships and other peripheral ag services.

To capitalize on that, five groups — EDL, the Town of Coaldale, Lethbridge County, the MD of Taber and Taber Economic Development — have formed an economic partnership dubbed Canada’s Premier Food Corridor along the east-west Highway 3 corridor, creating an agrifood marketing block with 60 stakeholder organizations situated one hour, at most, from Lethbridge.

Today, businesses within the CPFC generate $8 billion annually, with stakeholders including PepsiCo and Maple Leaf Foods, plus P and H Milling, Cavendish Farms, Viterra, Cargill, Bayer, the University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge College and a federal agricultural research centre.

And don’t overlook the 4,470 farms nearby, or their 4.2 million acres.

Optimism is contagious. Lewington insists the corridor’s municipalities see a big advantage in attracting investment whether it comes to their town or not. “We want to see that investor in the region,” he says. “If we go to market as a block and show the collective horsepower of our region, then it’s kind of like a ‘co-opetition’… All of the region benefits if the business is somewhere in the region.”

So how does it all look for the farm?

Below, meet three producers, one in cattle feeding and two in crop production. Each was raised in the region, and all believe that a career here brings out the best in everyone due to the overall competitive nature.

Never happy with the status quo, they continue to work hard and find innovative ways to expand, diversify and stand out in a populated and intensely competitive and burgeoning region of Canadian agriculture.


Jack of all trades

One farmer with three businesses? Sean Stanford is the new norm in this crowded marketplace

It’s not as though Sean Stanford is a stranger to the region. After all, the 36-year-old’s family roots here go back nearly 100 years and he still lives a stone’s throw from the family’s original homestead.

In other words, he’s been here long enough to know it hasn’t always been so rosy. In the early 2000s, drought and depressed grain prices hit time and again, and Gary, Stanford’s father, recommended he seek a career off-farm.

Sean Stanford. photo: Courtesy Sean Stanford

“Dad lost a lot of money those years,” Stanford says. “I didn’t take it very well. I love farming, but I understood where he was coming from. I wasn’t opposed to getting a backup plan.”

He became a licensed heavy-duty mechanic by age 20, but he just could not give up the love of scratching the dirt, and the presence of all those processors helped make it possible. Now, he grows malting barley on contract for Molson Coors with a proprietary American variety. The company demands production on irrigation so it can bank on a consistent product coming its way.

“It’s probably the best malt barley I’ve ever grown,” he says. “Most malt varieties have really tall straw, but this grew no higher than a feed variety.”

Stanford says the area definitely has come a long way since he was a kid watching Baby Boomers struggle to stay afloat.

“There seemed like there was a span of time where people didn’t come back, but they are coming back now,” he says. “That brings a lot of new blood, new ideas to old business, maybe it’s not new business, but old businesses being redone.”

It’s a region founded on self-dependence. Sitting still doesn’t earn you any points, and Stanford also launched a custom spraying operation in 2012. Not a novel idea by any stretch, tending to 20,000 acres for other farmers was a necessary step to keep up in a region that has a tendency to leave farmers behind if they aren’t looking forward.

“The competition is really fierce around here,” Stanford says plainly. “Me being a little fish in a big sea, that is why I came up with different ideas such as custom spraying and mechanics.”

The region has other benefits too. Stanford is growing grain in an area aptly named “feedlot alley” with Canada’s largest beef herd — one million hungry cows.

“I have ended up selling my CWRS (wheat) more for feed where most people cannot do that,” Stanford acknowledges. “Having ‘feedlot alley’ close by, it opens up more opportunities than just straight grain production.”

Alberta Terminals Ltd., owned and operated by Cargill. photo: Chris Yauck photography

Opportunities have also opened up in other ways. An all-new G3 high-throughput terminal has opened one hour away from Stanford’s farm. Within Lethbridge city limits, the Richardson canola crush plant has a recently expanded 700,000-tonne annual processing capacity, which the farmer simply labelled a “huge boost” to the area.

Still, his costs are climbing. There’s machinery, of course, and while dryland acres near his farm sell at $4,000 to $5,000, irrigated land is twice that.

With such high stakes, Stanford joined the provincial barley commission to advocate for the area’s farmers. It means he has travelled about the province more than other farmers, and he thinks this area is something special.

“Lifetime farmers in the region don’t even know how good we have got it,” he says.

“I have to stay on my toes quite a bit, stay sharp and keep my eyes open for opportunities,” he says. “Otherwise, I’ll get left behind in the dust.”

Hay man

Forage producer brings vertical integration to export-focused business

As Cale Hubka became more interested in farming, his timing was spot on. When he was about to hit 18, a large-scale irrigation project was finished on land farmed by his family at Barons, about 40 kilometres northwest of Lethbridge. That changed everything on the then-dryland farm.

Cale Hubka. photo: Courtesy Cale Hubka

“It has kind of opened up the door for new opportunities,” says Hubka, 34. “Prior to that it wasn’t very exciting out here. It’s more of a business now.”

Hubka started his own farm by 21 on rented land and immediately launched a custom baling business. As he slowly ramped up, his father began to slow down and in 2013, his dad retired, the two farms amalgamated, and Hubka became the chief decision-maker.

Hubka has since expanded the farm to more than double its initial footprint and specializes in forages. His location has proven a boon to his business. One hour from the American border, he ships into the northern United States as well as Quebec, Ontario, B.C., Saskatchewan and other parts of Alberta. Clientele include farmers, processors, retailers or anyone else interested in product.

Knowing that growing a product may not be enough, Hubka also owns and operates 520 Transport Ltd., a 12-rig custom trucking outfit which gives his freight a vertical integration advantage over others.

While it might seem to outsiders like he’s got a lot on his plate, it is fairly ordinary in the bustling Lethbridge region.

“It is a very unique area,” he says. “If you went and talked to people in small-town Saskatchewan, Manitoba or even in northern Alberta, I don’t think they truly know how intense it is down here.”

“The culture down here between farmers is quite a bit different and more progressive,” he explains. “People are very aggressive here.”

The aggression stems from, what else? The weather. The excellent growing degree days, general heat and, believe it or not, wind. The weather is a key asset to Hubka’s forages which need plenty of air for sun-curing prior to delivery.

“They rely on the weather down here and our irrigation for consistent product volume and quality,” he says. “With the weather typically on our side, it’s a lot easier with the wind and hot summers to dry the hay out, but also the water to grow the production to supply those customers.”

Bayer CropScience canola seed cleaning facility. photo: Chris Yauck photography

Hubka normally contends with 60- to 70-km/h winds, but also has nice 30 C to 33 C days at his farm in the summer. Higher in elevation and slightly northwest of Lethbridge, his mornings are usually 5 C cooler than others less than 30 minutes away from him.

Still like many others, Hubka is challenged by the area. He deals with issues of equipment costs, land prices for rented or owned acres, and irrigation equipment. Where he farms, irrigated production costs $11,000 per acre. Prices only increase as you approach Lethbridge proper.

“That’s the trouble with moving forward and growing. Expansion is difficult mainly due to the large capital involved in expanding.”

The young farmer stays as level-headed as he can. So far, the returns through irrigated land and value-added services such as trucking and custom haying have helped him believe he has what it takes to thrive in the area.

“It would be similar to Silicon Valley in California: the same type of people and the industry is all there,” he says. “If someone knows they want to be in ag in Western Canada, there is a high probability you will find any type of work or opportunity in the Lethbridge area.

“There are always people looking for good, like-minded people that want to grow the ag industry.”

Herd mentality

Cattle industry red hot in Feedlot Alley

Karleen Clark. photo: Courtesy Karleen Clark

“The the climate we have, pretty warm summers, that is really good for feeding cattle, that’s why you find ‘feedlot alley’ down here,” says Karleen Clark, the 28-year-old business manager on her family’s 25,000-head feedlot.

With 700,000 fed cattle in just the two counties closest to Lethbridge, Clark and her husband Jared work for her father Les’ feedlot, KCL Cattle Co., and are in a long-term transition to take over the operation.

They also farm 4,000 acres under irrigation, primarily growing silage corn and cereals in addition to a few cash crops, canola, feed grains and alfalfa. From the young woman’s perspective, water and weather are arguably the two biggest selling points of the region.

Plus, with major processing plants — JBS in Brooks and Cargill in High River — less than two hours from their home yard, the freight advantage cannot be overstated.

However, Clark also points to Lethbridge itself and its university and college, both with multiple agricultural programs. Clark got a bachelor’s of management at the University of Lethbridge, supplementing it with as many ag courses as she could, and has found that getting away from the day-to-day at the feedlot was a big positive.

“It helped me mature, not having to go straight into the business. Having that outside knowledge and discipline was good for me,” she explains, saying that co-op terms are more helpful than she ever imagined.

Kasko Cattle Company. photo: Chris Yauck photography

What she learned in school was quickly applied back at home, such as HR practices for its 60 employees and different risk management strategies that are particularly helpful in one of the most competitive agricultural industries in the country’s most saturated region.

It has helped her face the challenges of the area, which also include running out of land, high county tax and simply standing out in a crowd.

“Our operation is big business now,” she says. “Most cattle feeders and entrepreneurs are growing and improving. We’ve adapted a ton of new technologies, and that does pull you away from the small farm feel.”

To stay competitive, those adaptations include the recent introduction of roller-compacted concrete flooring in all of their pens. This floor style allows for easier shovelling out of manure, which makes cleanout easier and has been demonstrated to reduce methane emissions as well as improve overall cattle efficiency. The family also has a feed mill on site, essentially a prerequisite for any serious feedlot owner who finishes animals, and it has hired a full-time nutritionist to calculate rations to maximize production.

“It’s very technical and science-based, but we get to push ourselves with our new innovations and technologies,” she says with enthusiasm.

There are challenges, though. The home lot is less than 10 minutes from the city, which means one acre of irrigated land is about $15,000 these days. The business is hemmed in to the west by the Oldman River for runoff considerations while their other yard literally butts up against the 8,000-resident town of Coaldale, immediately east of Lethbridge.

There is a constant push and pull between people pro-expansion and those against it. Balancing the interest of acreage owners next to multi-million-dollar feeders is delicate.

“It’s not based on what we think would harm the community, but more public perception,” she says. “We work trying to bridge the gap between municipalities and cattle feeders. It does come down to communication a lot of the time.”

“With our irrigation infrastructure, the entrepreneurs, our spirit — what we have down here is going to push our agriculture sector more,” says Clark.

But this is still farming, she says. “There are still some handshake deals that go on. We are all families and all friends, so you get the best of both worlds, which is why I stay in the business. I see a lot of opportunity here.”


Essential Lethbridge facts:

  • With $1.4 billion in revenue, agriculture contributes 20 per cent of Lethbridge GDP.
  • Manufacturing, which includes agrifood processing, adds $765 million, i.e. 10.7 per cent.
  • 320 days of sunshine each year.
  • Lethbridge County generates $2.2 billion in farm receipts, the highest of any district in Alberta. Nearby Taber is second and Vulcan County is third.
  • The largest single investment in Lethbridge history was in 2016 when New Brunswick-based Cavendish farms created a frozen potato processing plant, which cost $430 million.
  • Richardson Oilseed Ltd. was the first company in the world to market canola oil. In 2016, the company announced a $120 million upgrade to its canola processing facility that would enable it to process an additional 250,000 metric tonnes of canola every year (total now 700,000 mt).
  • The number of fed cattle in Lethbridge County and the MD of Taber is more than 700,000.
  • Two packing plants, JBS in Brooks and Cargill in High River, are both less than two hours from Lethbridge.
  • Driving times include: 60 minutes to U.S. border, two hours to Calgary, 13 hours to Vancouver.
  • Home to The Viaduct, the famous name of The Lethbridge High Level Bridge. Completed in 1901, this CP is the longest and highest bridge of its type on planet Earth.

About the author

Contributor

Trevor Bacque

Trevor Bacque is a freelance writer and journalism instructor. He writes about agriculture, food and the business of both. He is Canada's executive committee member for the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.

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