Harmony Beef owner eager to get plant door open

$18 million in renovations | Alberta cattle producers hope the former Rancher’s Beef facility will be open this summer

LETHBRIDGE — Rich Vesta was impressed with the overall design and concept of the Rancher’s Beef plant when he visited it for the first time.

The plant in Balzac, Alta., had been closed since 2005, but peering through the dust and cobwebs, he could see the potential of what had been a dream of western ranchers who invested in a state of the art beef processing plant at the height of the BSE crisis.

“We want to vindicate why this plant was built. It is a world class facility,” he told the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association annual meeting in Lethbridge Jan. 22.

“Another plant like this will never be built.”

He said the cost to build a facility of this type is out of reach in today’s dollars.

As well, Vesta has a different vision for the facility as more plants close in the United States because of a lack of cattle and profits.

He sealed the deal to buy it last November and with $18 million in renovations, it is expected to be open this summer.

Vesta has renamed it Harmony Beef.

Located east of Balzac and northeast of Calgary, it is the largest European Union certified plant in Canada and can handle 800 head per shift.

“There is no other plant like it in North America on a food safety or technological basis,” he said.

Vesta is also realistic. He has been in the meat business since he started working for a butcher as a 14-year-old Illinois farm boy.

He worked his way to the top and gained a reputation as a fixer who could turn struggling plants into profitable businesses.

He worked with all the big ones over the years, such as Land O’ Lakes, Swift’s, Montfort, Packerland and JBS USA.

He bought Packerland with financing from John Hancock Insurance and turned it around.

“We killed Holsteins and cows, but we did it better than anyone else,” he said.

JBS owner Wesley Batista then offered Vesta a two year contract to turn the Brazilian company’s U.S. acquisitions into viable businesses.

One of his approaches when overseeing a troubled plant was to reduce waste.

For example, the JBS plant in Greely, Colorado, was killing as many as 6,000 head per day. He cut the line speeds back to 4,200 so that workers had more time to do the job properly. There was less waste, and the beef yield improved.

He looked at the Balzac plant when he retired from JBS and finally bought it from the Price family of Acme, Alta., which owns Sunterra Meats and a chain of high end grocery stores in Calgary and Edmonton.

Vesta said it took two years to get the deal done.

“We’re very determined,” he said.

Western Canadian producers are placing considerable hope at his feet after packers and feedlots have bled red ink in recent years. A new plant with different marketing plans that might include Europe may renew producer confidence.

“At 800 head a day we are not going to be a cure all for Western Canada, but we are going to make a difference,” he said.

While many plants tried to start during the BSE situation, this one was among a couple that actually processed some beef. However, it eventually succumbed to a lack of cash and struggles with regulations and food safety.

This time round, the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association has passed a resolution to work with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure the proper food safety procedures are in place so the plant is able to open in June.

“We can’t force anybody to do anything, but please, somebody, communicate back to the Alberta cattle feeders that Harmony Beef will open without a hitch,” said Rick Paskal, who feeds cattle at Picture Butte.

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