“Other seed companies started asking for fescue, and dad got thinking that it would be a good business he could do for himself.”
Foster’s Seed and Feed, a long-established business in the Peace area, last month officially opened the doors of a newly acquired franchise for two equipment manufacturers. Lexion combines and Bourgault seeding and tillage equipment are the flagships of Foster’s Agri-World out of a new 14,000-sq. ft. facility in Beaverlodge.
The seeds of a business that would ultimately span three generations – so far – began in 1952 when the company was incorporated by Johnny Foster.
Johnny came to Canada from Ireland in 1929. After 15 years of beekeeping activities at the Beaverlodge Research Station, Johnny ventured on to his real desire – farming. He bought some land near town, and started buying grain for Early Seed and Feed out of Saskatoon.
In the late 1940s, creeping red fescue was creeping into Peace area crops and new varieties were being developed at the research station. Fescue was the trend, and Johnny started growing some too with good success. “In those days, fescue was selling for 50 cents per pound,” says son Norm. “That’s like $3/lb. today.”
It was enough to whet the senior Foster’s appetite – and add some needed cash to the family coffers. Johnny left the research station and established Foster’s Seed and Feed in 1952. “Other seed companies started asking for fescue, and dad got thinking that it would be a good business he could do for himself,” says Norm.
The first cleaning plant built in the 1950s still stands a few hundred feet from today’s facility on the outskirts of town. “We did about five jute bags an hour in those days,” recalls Norm. Today, the plant processes up to 75 bags an hour.
Though Johnny had two sons and three daughters, it was ultimately only Norm who stayed on in the family business. When his dad retired in 1971, Norm took over the helm of the business and grew it to the substantial wholesale and retail business it is today. But it wasn’t all about feed and seed.
Norm calls himself a “bit of a gambler” and he never was one to rest on his laurels. He’s dabbled in a few things along the way, namely recreational vehicle sales outlets in Grande Prairie, Beaverlodge, Dawson Creek and Fort St. John in the early ’70s up to 1986.
From 1995 to 2004, Foster’s added commercial trailers, cargo vans and flat decks sales out of locations in Beaverlodge, Grande Prairie and Devon. Norm even owned a higher-end men’s wear shop in Grande Prairie for a few years.
For Norm, all roads eventually lead back to Beaverlodge and the core business. In 1993, Foster’s moved from its main street location to a larger location on the outskirts, where a retail store offers farm supply, vet supply, fence posts and pet food. In 2008, an expansion to the cleaning plant almost doubled the facility’s capacity, giving it an annual volume of 15-20 million pounds.
The company also has a farm division, growing a variety of oats, canola and peas on 4,500 acres near Beaverlodge. It also operates a custom grain drying operation there.
Fescue remains the backbone of Foster’s. It can be grown anywhere, but the Peace region is one of the few areas it sets seed. About 90 per cent of Foster’s production is exported to the U. S., the remainder to points in Canada and Europe.
Norm’s son Jesse and colleague Jason Hipkins approached Norm about a year ago with an idea – a new line of farm equipment. Norm recalls his immediate reaction to acquiring the Lexion franchise, “Are you out of your mind?”
It didn’t take long to convince him – Hipkins, a former employee, had spent the last few years selling the Lexion line.
The new facility sits adjacent to Foster’s farm and garden centre, flanked by a lineup of Lexion combines, Bourgault seeding and tillage equipment and most recently McCormick Tractors and Wheatheart Augers.
Norm says the only way the new Agri-World division will succeed is with a solid employee base. Jesse (general manager) alongside sales manager Hipkins lead a staff of nine full-and part-time staff.
Don’t expect Norm to be out the door anytime soon, however. His idea of retirement isn’t spending all winter in California. “It’s about being able to come and go as I want,” he says. “This is my life. I can’t leave this and I don’t want to.”