What is GRO???

I mentioned in a previous article the importance of agricultural associations in our farming communities. I think that it is so important to become involved, get to know the people in your area and share the massive amount of knowledge that you have with your local agricultural community. At conferences and seminars, I truly believe that a large part of knowledge gained comes from the other producers that I have the opportunity to network with.

With that in mind, I would like to introduce you to Gateway Research Organization (GRO), a non-profit agricultural research association for the Westlock region. We originally started as the Pembina Forage Association back in 1975 and made the decision to change our name in 1994 as we began to include crop research to our existing forage, pasture and livestock research.  At GRO we feel that it is so incredibly important for producers to have unbiased localized research to base their decisions on. Because all of our trials are right here in the Westlock area; our plots are subject to the same temperatures, weather conditions, soil conditions, weed and disease pressure as the pastures, forages, and crops of our supporting neighbors. What this means from a practical perspective is that the information that we gather through our research on plants, products, rotations, and practices can actually be used to help make informed decisions on your farm without risking the investment that some of these things can require.

So what exactly do we do? Throughout the summer we take care of the many cereal, as well as oilseed crops, cover crops, silages, legumes and grass forage trials that we run. We also have a heifer pasture that we manage throughout the summer season, where we can experiment with different types of rotations, watering methods, fencing products, and corral setups. All of these studies would be useless without meeting and getting to know our neighboring farmers, so from an extension aspect we spend a lot of time planning and putting on events. Agriculture is nothing without community and events such as our crop walk, the fusarium head blight demo, our pasture walk, the bus trip to Canolapalooza and so much more, gives us the chance to bring the community together. Our winters are generally spent analyzing the research data and hosting events within our community while planning for the next plot trial season.

With so much going on at Gateway Research Organization we need a good team to keep everything running smoothly. Throughout the summer we usually employ two or three students. This year we had a great group; Sami Siegle returned to us for a second summer, Lilly Artemenko and Fito Zamudio all helped out greatly with the day to day operations. These three terrific students were led by Rick Tarasuik who is our Crop Field Technician and ensures that our trials and all of our field work runs smoothly. For the harvest season we have been very grateful to have Avery Tarasuik helping with the plots, she has been a great asset during such a busy time of year. Amber Kenyon is new to our team this year and works in the capacity of Farm Energy Outreach Officer, she also helps run our social media and website. Sandeep Nain is the General Manager here at GRO, he is the visionary and implements the new trials each year. He also does a great job of keeping us all on track. Directing the entire operation is our terrific group of directors. Each of the eleven directors brings a completely different, forward-thinking, agricultural perspective and background to the table. We feel that this is so important and necessary to keep our operations truly unbiased and practical right down to the roots.

I know what you are thinking… How can I become involved with such a fascinating organization? The first step is to sign up for a membership. With membership renewals coming up in January, this is the perfect time to sign up and get involved. Membership gives you access to our annual report (that features all of the results from the year’s fieldwork), quarterly newsletter, as well as discounted admission fees to the events that we host. Our AGM is a great place to come and meet the team, get some great information and network with other outstanding producers. We are also always happy to give tours of our plots and answer questions by phone or e-mail at (780)345-4546 or grohome@telus.net. We look forward to hearing from you!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

Small Abattoir Licenses in Alberta

At the beginning of the year I had the pleasure of attending a weekend event in Alix, Alberta, hosted by the Alberta chapter of Young Agrarians. There were a number of very interesting speakers, but a young couple from British Columbia really stood out. Tristan and Aubyn Banwell manage Spray Creek Ranch near Lillooet, BC. They presented on a number of different topics, but the one that really got me thinking was about their on farm abattoir facility. They spoke of an on farm license to butcher that they were able to get through the provincial government that allows them to butcher a limited number of animals for direct marketing into their region.

Since 2011 in British Columbia it has been possible to apply for, and receive, a small on farm processor license. These class D and E licenses come with some restrictions (you can slaughter a limited amount of meat, how you sell the meat that you slaughter is restricted, the region that you sell in is restricted and with a class E license there cannot be professional slaughter services available within a two hour drive of your farm), but what they do is enable smaller producers that are looking to direct market, or even just sell to their neighbours, the ability to do this.

Currently in Alberta it is incredibly difficult for most small farmers to access a provincially inspected abattoir. The only processing facility available in our province right now for farmers looking to direct market is Pigeon Lake Poultry Processors. This leaves a very large gap in our ability to get small scale, local chickens and turkeys into the hands of the consumers. Especially if you are a fair distance away from Pigeon Lake. I have heard of a few producers that will truck their chickens down to Pigeon Lake from as far as Grande Prairie. Realistically, you would either need to be processing a very large number of chickens, or mark your prices up so high that there would be very few people willing to pay the exorbitant prices, to make the journey worthwhile.

There has been so much talk lately of how we should be buying locally raised and grown food. Farmers markets in the last few years have been teeming with consumers looking to meet the farmer that they are purchasing their food from. An increasing number of producers are looking into direct marketing as an option to insulate themselves from potentially volatile market prices. We are starting to see more of this in beef, pork, vegetables and fruit. Yet direct marketing chicken continues to be unachievable for most producers. By bringing in legislation that allows direct marketers to butcher animals on farm in small numbers, in localized regions, and sell that meat to a certain sector, we would allow room for competitiveness in the industry and could potentially add another avenue for smaller producers to make a profit in an industry that has been gradually pushing out the little guys.

It is very encouraging to listen to farmers like the Banwells speak of how they have been successfully using this model in British Columbia. A system like this could make a large difference in the profitability of small farms in Alberta. It would also make it easier for people new to agriculture to get their foot in the door, as small animals such as chickens do not need the land base that our current agricultural systems require. Having conversations around this is the first step towards change, so let’s start having these conversations!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

The Buzz Around Energy Efficiency

With energy efficiency being the buzzword that it is, I find that people usually have one of two reactions when they hear it. There is a group of people that get incredibly excited, drop everything that they are doing and listen intently to whatever the next words out of the buzzword dropper’s mouth might be, in hopes of hearing about what direction the latest and greatest, world changing technology will head in. The other group of people respond in almost exactly the opposite way. This group basically does the equivalent to putting their fingers in their ears while shouting out ‘lalalala’. Each group definitely has their reasons for these two reactions and all of these reasons are perfectly valid. That being said I am going to give the reasons why I consider myself to be in the first group.

The very first reason that I am a fan of energy efficient technologies is that they are just down right interesting. I see things like LED lighting, combined heat and power units, variable speed drives, tankless water heaters and other such technologies to be fascinating; much in the same way that I was enchanted the first time that I sat down to a desktop computer connected to the internet. What amazes me about these things is the depth of human creativity and how much easier we can make our lives with just a little bit of imagination.

The second reason comes right down to the wallet. Energy efficiency saves us money. Far too often I hear the saying, “farmers feed your family, then take a second job to feed their own”. I absolutely realize that this is our current reality here in Alberta. That being said, changing out non-energy efficient technologies with the efficient varieties are easy ways to reduce our yearly bills by a large amount, depending on what our current inputs are. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry has done a few case studies on this and just on changing out the lighting alone on one colony farm, not only paid for itself within 9 months, but is now projected to save this farm over $15,000 per year. In a case study of a greenhouse, some simple changes were made, like moving the heat pipes in the nursery and sealing the roof and wall leaks. These changes would pay for themselves in four years and then save $2000 a year in energy costs after that. Case studies such as these have also been repeated with broiler retrofits. Any extra money that stays in my wallet at the end of the year is definitely welcome.

Of course the third reason for my excitement about energy efficiency is the one that is always lying somewhere in the background. Sustainability. If by making simple changes we can make life easier for our children and grandchildren, then in my mind it is well worth the effort. By becoming more sustainable both financially and environmentally, we are ensuring that there are healthy farms for our descendants to run in the future. I see energy efficiency as the first step to ensuring that this scenario is the one that my family gets to witness.

These are some of the reasons behind my passion for energy efficiency. The great thing is that there are programs such as the Farm Energy and Agri-Processing Program and the On Farm Solar Photovoltaic Program in place to help us get up and running with these technologies. If you are interested in energy efficiency and unsure on where to start, energy assessments are a terrific place to begin. These will give you a good idea of where the majority of your energy is currently being used so that you can start to make the changes that will save you money. The nice thing about energy assessments is that they are also funded by 50% up to $9000. There are currently three energy outreach officers in place around the province to answer questions and help with applications. In the north you can contact Amber Kenyon with Gateway Research Organization at (780)307-7849. In the east Lyle Lawrence with Lakeland College is your go to guy and you can reach him at (780)581-8403 and then in the south we have Vern Steinborn with SouthGrow at (403)894-0050. Let’s make our farming operations just that little bit more profitable by introducing some new energy efficient technologies!

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Organization

The Relevance of Agricultural Associations

Compared to the majority of farmers that I meet, I came into the world of agriculture much later in life. Having grown up in the city of Vancouver, BC, there was not a lot of farming to be had. It was rare even to find a backyard garden. Lucky for me the area that I grew up in had an abundance of wild berries and natural landscapes!

When I met my husband, Steve, I was immersed in a whole new world. Originally I just followed him around everywhere on the farm, drilling him for answers to the ‘why’s’ of what he was doing. I learned everything from cattle handling skills, to fence repair, to water system builds and maintenance, to soil health, and even more than I ever thought that I would want to know about dung beetles and other similar types of bugs! Part of following Steve around included attending conferences and seminars with him throughout the winter. This was such a huge blessing, the amount of information available at these events was unlimited. Not only was there a plethora of engaging speakers at every single one, but the networking sessions throughout (lunch, dinner and meetings) had me speaking with such a wide variety of producers that all had so many different perspectives. I found that there was something to learn from every person that I crossed paths with, and usually more than just one something.

The majority of these conferences, seminars and speakers are hosted by local agricultural associations. Whether they are applied research associations, forage associations or other similar groups, they all have a hand in hosting speakers and conferences. They are at the front lines of bringing unity to the many wonderful producers across the country and the best part is that these groups are unbiased. These agricultural associations are generally led by a volunteer board of directors. This board typically represents the broad range of producers and growers that I have had the pleasure of meeting throughout my farming experience. Every single one of these people have a say in how the agricultural association will be run.

There is another aspect to agricultural associations that I found to be unique to the farming industry. The idea of applied research. To think that these groups spend the majority of their time and funds each year testing new methods and products to bring their producers relevant information and unbiased research is amazing. Agriculture is incredibly unique in that what works in one location may not work in the next. What grows here in the Westlock region of Alberta may not grow in the Drayton Valley region. This is where the applied research comes in so handy. By producing the ‘error’ part of ‘trial and error’ and sharing that information, these research associations can save their producers both time and money.

I personally am so thankful to the many terrific groups that are in place across the country keeping producers informed and on the same page. Without them I would have spent a lot more time learning and would have made a whole lot more mistakes before I ever made it to the point in agriculture that I am now. If you are not a part of your local agricultural association, today is a great day to get in touch with them. Most groups host tours of their research plots and are happy to have producers out asking questions. If you are unsure who your local agricultural association is, ARECA (Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta) is a great resource and can be found at www.areca.ab.ca.

Amber Kenyon
Gateway Research Association

Energy Efficient Technology at Your Fingertips

Efficiency and sustainability. Two words that we have been hearing a lot of in the past couple of years. A quick look at Google Trends shows that these two words have followed the same interest lines throughout this year. This same Google Trends chart shows just how unique Alberta is when it comes to where our focus and priorities are. We are the only province, outside of the very Eastern part of Canada, which has more interest in the word efficiency than we do in the word sustainability. What if we could have the best of both worlds and have efficiency and sustainability tied together, to be able to achieve both simultaneously?

With the cost share programs in place by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, this becomes entirely realistic. The first funding program that we will look at is the Farm Energy and Agri-Processing Program (FEAP). FEAP shares costs with both producers and agri-processors on energy efficient investments. The Program is designed to encourage energy management which will result in cost savings, energy conservation, and ultimately, reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Energy efficiency helps to create both economic and environmental sustainability. This program offers financial support, subject to financial constraint, to applicants who incorporate high efficiency equipment that is identified in the applicable funding list in their construction and/or retrofitting projects. With costs being shared on things such as; insulation, submeters, energy assessments and audits, lighting, heating and refrigeration equipment, ventilation, cattle waterers and more, this is a great time to start your construction project or to consider retrofitting some of your old equipment with new models that will save you money.

The other program that is well worth mentioning is the On Farm Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Program. This program provides funding towards solar photovoltaics on Alberta farms which enables producers to conserve non-renewable fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions, ultimately reducing the environmental footprint of Alberta’s agriculture industry. The Solar Photovoltaics Program addresses two important industry priorities; the first is improved environmental stewardship. When producers make investments in clean energy and reduced carbon emissions, they are recognized for their commitment to sustainable practices. The second priority that this program addresses is improved energy management. Producers who install photovoltaic systems tend to take a renewed interest in their electricity usage; this leads to additional efficiency investments.

As someone with solar panels installed on my home and in use on many parts of my farm, I can honestly say that this technology is one that I would not want to be without. The funding that is available through the On Farm Solar PV Program, makes a solar installation quite a reasonable investment for your farm. When the solar install follows the guidelines set out by the program $0.75/W of costs can be shared for up to 35% of eligible expenses for systems that are below 100 kW. For systems between 100.01 kW and 150 kW the cost share is $0.56/W up to 27% of eligible expenses.

With these funding programs in place, there is no better time than now to make our farms both efficient and sustainable. There are energy outreach officers in place throughout the province to answer questions and provide information to interested producers and agri-processors.

In the North-Western part of Alberta contact Amber Kenyon at (780)307-7849 or groextension@telus.net. For the Eastern section contact Lyle Lawrence at (780)581-8403 or lyle.lawrence@lakelandcollege.ca, and in the South the energy outreach officer is Vern Steinborn at (403)894-0050 or vern.steinborn@southgrow.com