Why would anyone earning a good income in the Alberta oil industry quit and go farming?
Ask Ron Hamilton. After 25 years as an oilfield surveyor, and without a single day’s worth of experience in agriculture, he and his wife Sheila bought a quarter section of farmland near Armena, Alberta.
“We wanted to get out of the city,” Hamilton, 54, told visiting Canadian farm journalists touring his organic poultry farm south of Edmonton. “But we also just fell in love with the acreage,” he adds. Health challenges in the family plus a desire to make a career change were also part of their decision to exit urban life. They moved here in 1992.
Today the Hamiltons’ Sunworks Farm is a leading Canadian direct-marketing business and among the largest certified organic pastured poultry operations in the country.
None of this was part of their early plans. “We just thought we’d be some kind of hobby farmer,” says Hamilton. “I’d spend a couple of months at home and then go back to the oilpatch for the winter.”
A holistic management course in the mid-1990s helped them get started. In 1997 they raised 100 pastured chickens. It was a small start on a farm business that’s now grown to annual production of 100,000 broilers, turkeys and layers that are producing a million eggs per year.
Sunworks Farm’s production is all certified humanely raised and organic, with their birds housed in small batches in open-bottomed pens moved daily to a fresh patch of alfalfa/ grass forage. They added a feed mill in 2007 for the organic grains they purchase and have plans to add on-farm processing facilities in the future.
Virtually all their production (90 per cent) is sold through Alberta’s two main farmers’ markets, the Old Strathcona Market in Edmonton and the Calgary Farmers’ Market at Currie Barracks – and Sheila and Ron are present at every one of them – 51 weekends a year.
In other words, it’s a far cry from said hobby farm. It’s become a business that employs several on-farm employees, sells other organic producers’ pork, lamb and bison, and earns the Hamiltons a living. They aren’t taking off-farm jobs to keep this one going.
“We’re not getting rich, but we’re definitely making a living at it,” says Ron. “We wouldn’t be doing it if we weren’t.”
LEASE QUOTA AGREEMENTS
And they might not be doing it at all were it not for some fundamental supports available in Alberta to new agricultural entrants like themselves.
One is the provisions under Alberta’s Chicken Producers Marketing Regulation that makes quota available to organic producers through lease agreements.
It’s a valuable program that’s helped entrants like themselves ease into a supply-managed sector, Hamilton said. “That ability to lease quota has made our farm grow forward.”
The presence of not one, but the two major farmers’ markets – and both indoor, year-round markets – found in Edmonton and Calgary is the other fundamental support to businesses like theirs.
These markets are where they were able to connect to a continuously expanding customer base; without these access points to a market they’d never have grown to their current capacity.
“Our business would be nowhere near where it is right now if we didn’t have year-round markets,” he said.
Hamilton predicts a strong long-term outlook for organic production, but stresses the key to any success with businesses like theirs is focused attention on creating face-toface relationships with consumers.
Organic food consumers tend to divide among those interested merely because it’s trendy, and those wholly committed to making their food purchases this way, says Hamilton.
“We have the committed customers,” he says.
The Hamiltons, meanwhile, are committed producers, intent on sustaining a business that produces high-quality organic food and keeps a constant presence among those wanting to buy it.
It’s actually the latter that he and Sheila now focus on, adds Ron.
He’s more comfortable calling himself a marketer than farmer nowadays. That’s not to say some of those 90-plus hours a week aren’t spent actively involved in the day-to-day operations.
“But I actually enjoy the marketing side of it more,” he says. “When we started out we were farmers, but we’ve developed from farmers to marketers. I now say to people ‘I really don’t farm. But I’ve got great people on the farm who love farming.’