“All the experience we have been able to give has made them very good workers… they could walk on any farm in Western Canada and become a valued member of any farm team.”
With miles of ripe spring wheat waving in the gentle westerly breeze and Chief Mountain just across the international boundary in Montana, it looks like the backdrop for fall harvest at hundreds of locations in southern Alberta. But this is the harvest on the Blood Reserve, and the Lethbridge Inland Terminal is the main market target for the Blood Tribe Agriculture Initiative (BTAP).
Career farmer colin Frank manages the initiative’s tribal-owned land base, 10,440 acres in two key locations. About 5,000 acres are north of the Belly River, and almost one-third of the BTAP’s concentrated irrigation project and the rest of the dryland crop production is near Spring Coulee.
Frank has one eye on the sky and the other surveying four giant John Deere combines with straight-cut headers gulping 36-foot strips in different sections of the irrigated land base. “I’d like five or six more days of this great weather to get the rest of the crop off… But I’m not so sure,” he said during a stop.
BTAP chief executive officer Shawn Stang of Lethbridge agrees with the weather assessment, and every bushel of wheat that could be harvested this day will be harvested. “These fellows will go as long as they can still thresh grain until the rain comes,” said Stang. “These initiative workers are putting in 160 to 180 hours every two weeks. I think some of them would stay on those combines until you had to pry them away.”
They are blessed this year with a bumper crop, but lack semi-trailer truck hauling capacity, and even a second grain cart that collects the grain from the combines. When there are trucks, grain is moved either to the Lethbridge Inland Terminal, if there is room within the
Canadian Wheat Board delivery system, or to the giant steel grain bins near the BTAP headquarters a few miles south.
This is a band initiative, driven by job creation, new investment opportunity to capitalize it with farm machinery, shareholder status in the Lethbridge Inland Terminal and most important, a chance for the Bloods to take back their land from mostly white renters.
It is a chance to replace assured cash rent with the more lucrative and rewarding farm ownership and management – Bloods finally working Blood lands to produce quality agricultural products.
With that equity base in place to open financing doors, the initiative was created in 2006. Work started with new equipment on 4,600 acres of dryland. It worked, and the movement to start taking back the Blood lands was on. With 240,000 acres of arable land, including perhaps 20,000 acres irrigated, the initiative fits well with the land renters. Its strength is the ability to grow and expand the farmed land base at the vision of chief and council – how much more can be invested to expand the production base? How many more full-time jobs can be created and supported?
The initiative grows some grass and hay crops and feed grain crops to feed its expanding cattle herd in addition to the wheat, durum and canola that goes to domestic and international markets. Stang expects 500,000 bushels of grain will be available for sale from this year’s harvest.
Another export might be the very manpower base that allows Frank to relax at times.
“All the experience we have been able to give has made them very good workers,” said Stang. “They could walk on any farm in Western Canada and become a valued member of any farm team.”
That is why Frank adds new employees at times, such as Duayne Delaney who was in watching and learning mode during this phase of harvest, keeping in close contact with Frank.
Stang said one of Frank’s greatest managerial strengths is demonstrating the work ethic needed in a large-scale farming venture. “During the season even my wife wonders where I am at times,” said Frank.
He is always first on site and the last to leave. Because of that confidence in the workers, all have been required to qualify for an air brakes ticket to allow them to drive tandem trucks and semis if needed. And that simply adds to their employability.
Frank knows agriculture because he grew up with it, working with his father Wilton and brother Harley on a small parcel of land with old and small equipment in the shadow of the St. Mary Dam. But the work ethic and the training paid dividends. He studied a year at Lethbridge College in ag mechanics before working for the defunct Blood Band Farms. He ended up working for Joachim Hengerer, Canada’s biggest farmer, who leases 90,000 acres on the reserve and owns more off the reserve.
It was the new initiative that brought Frank back to the Blood land with skills to be able to manage a large-scale operation. He likes the growth of the operation in three years, realizing that Blood Reserve chief and council hold the key to future expansion and growth in the growing drive the take back the land.