Farmers launched bold plan

LLOYDMINSTER, Sask. — If it’s true that the first five years in business are the toughest, then John and Robin Acton must wonder what lies ahead for their Lower Shannon Farms.

Three years ago they took a chance that people in northwestern Saskatchewan would appreciate and, more importantly, buy locally grown produce year-round.

They were right.

Business has doubled each year.

“And there’s still room to grow,” said Robin.

They won’t have problems coming up with more products to offer or enterprises to establish, but for now they are trying to do the best job they can with the food they already offer.

That includes year-round vegetables grown in their greenhouse, eggs, strawberries, meat from several types of livestock and grain.

John said people questioned their decision to establish a year-round vegetable operation so far north.

“When I look back, absolutely,” he said

However, they were encouraged when they heard people complain about the quality of vegetables available in grocery stores and say that they would buy local produce of better quality if someone could grow it.

“We’ve proven that we can,” he said.

The business employs 10 people full-time and more during the busy summer months when an outdoor garden and strawberries, which are grown in grow tunnels until October, require attention.

Lower Shannon Farms is located on the farm founded by Robin’s grandparents in 1926 but is named after John’s grandfather’s farm in Sligo, Ireland.

John came to Canada from Dublin and worked for Alberta Agriculture as a dairy specialist and inspector. However, he also farmed with Robin’s uncles. Robin was raised in the nearby city of Lloydminster and was often at the farm.

The grain farm continues to operate with the help of an uncle now in his 80s. The 3,200 acres are seeded to flax, wheat, oats, peas and green feed. As well, a return to non-genetically modified canola is planned soon.

It’s part of the Acton’s concept of a farm-to-fork business that uses no pesticides but is not certified organic because it uses fertilizer. They promote local, natural food grown without antibiotics, and they intend for the entire operation to be self-sustainable.

The animals on the farm, including cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, turkeys, broilers and layers, are raised naturally. Their feed comes from the grain operation, and the chickens also eat clippings from the greenhouse tomatoes.

“And they’re all outside, except for the layers,” said John.

They have access to the outdoors but prefer to be inside.

However, the pride and joy of Lower Shannon Farms is definitely the 15,500 sq. foot greenhouse in which tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and salad greens grow and are harvested year-round. They are also experimenting with crops such as Jerusalem artichokes and oka, a root vegetable similar to a yam.

The greenhouse is heated by natural gas. It and electricity are are the largest operating cost, especially when the plants require 12 to 14 hours of light a day.

Saskatchewan typically enjoys a lot of sunshine, but John said there were only two days’ worth last December, which created challenging growing conditions, even indoors.

“On a heavy overcast day, you need the lights on all night,” he said.

Plans for the future, in keeping with the idea of a sustainable operation, include the installation of a flax bale-fired boiler to replace the natural gas.

Water used in the greenhouse is recycled, as is the soil in which the vegetables grow. The Actons would eventually like to use their own farm compost as the growing medium.

The greenhouse was built with expansion in mind. Other expansion possibilities include a cold cellar, in which vegetables can be stored longer, and beehives to help with pollination in the outdoor garden and provide honey.

Establishing a commercial kitchen is a priority for this year. Off-spec produce is now going into salsa and tomato-based jelly. The products have been tested at the Food Centre in Saskatoon and require local health authority approval before they can be sold anywhere other than the farm.

In addition to the on-farm store, the farm has a weekly presence at the Border City Farmer’s Market, supplies the Lloydminster and District Co-op grocery store and sells to restaurants.

Robin said their popularity is the result of the trend toward natural food and the growing desire of people to know where their food was grown or raised.

Plus, it just tastes better, the couple says.

“We work hard to keep prices at market,” Robin said.

“To this point we’ve been able to keep our costs at very competitive levels.”

Contact karen.briere@producer.com

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