Rich Vesta is about to buy himself another beef plant.
The former president of JBS’s U.S. beef division spent the ’90s buying slaughterhouses to grow capacity at his company, Packerland Packing, and now he’s set his sights on the deserted Rancher’s Beef plant east of Balzac.
“It’s an excellent plant,” he said of the $40-million facility, set to be renamed Harmony Beef. “As I’ve looked at plants across the nation and North America, there’s not a lot of plants that match up to this one in terms of food safety, work safety, and HACCP plans.”
The deal with the plant’s current owner, Sunterra Farms, is expected to close Nov. 1, but Vesta will need to invest over $18 million to bring the plant back into operation after its six-year closure.
“We’ve got an awful lot of work to do on the inside. We anticipate we’ll start production on the first of June next year.”
Once the work is completed, Vesta expects to run between 725 and 775 head a day through the facility.
The beef industry is just glad that the plant will be up and running again.
“I think it will do us more good open and killing cattle than it did shut,” said Brent Chaffee, chairman of Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association. “Although it won’t solve all the ills in the industry, it’s a really good step in that direction.”
Western Stock Growers’ Association president Aaron Brower also hailed the deal.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an advantage for the whole industry here.”
“From a producer perspective, it’s going to add another bidder to our selling,” added Doug Sawyer, chairman of Alberta Beef Producers.
“Any time you get more competition, it’s always positive. It adds capacity to the Canadian industry.
“We’re exporting live cattle into the U.S., and any time we export a live animal, we’re also exporting the processing of that live animal to the U.S. If we can keep those jobs and that infrastructure here in Alberta, that’s positive.”
Chaffee said he hopes the plant will also offer producers greater access to niche markets.
“I think it’s not only holding more value added in Canada but will also hopefully give some additional market access to some of the niche players that don’t have the capacity to supply markets that they’ve been going after just because of the kill volumes that are available,” said Chaffee.
As a smaller player, Harmony Beef may be able to develop markets in the EU, China, and Japan, he said.
The trick will be meeting the demand in those markets, according to Sawyer.
“We’re struggling with our really small plants to be able to service some of the markets that are out there,” he said.
The domestic market will be the first priority, but Europe is on his radar, Vesta said.
“As I understand, this is the largest EU-approved plant in Canada, so I’m sure that will be a big part of our focus,” said Vesta.
Although he doesn’t yet have any firm marketing plans in place, Vesta said he will draw on his nearly 50 years of experience in meat.
“In terms of capital, expertise, and know-how, we think we’re the right people to do this, and we’re excited about the opportunity,” said Vesta. “We look forward to marketing Alberta beef.”