Barley growers take grain-to-glass approach

On the Farm: Hilton Ventures and Origins Malting and Brewing Co. in Alberta has embraced innovation for decades

STRATHMORE, Alta. — The Hilton family farm has always been about change, seizing on numerous innovations over the years to expand their business.

The southern Alberta farm has evolved into a grain-to-glass operation, meaning it bottles beer made from its own malt barley, and also sells barley to a buyer in the United States

“It’s been really good to us and good for our family,” said Spencer Hilton, a co-owner of Hilton Ventures and Origins Malting and Brewing Co., while recently speaking at Canada’s Agriculture Summit, hosted by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

“There has been pretty awesome growth, with strong demand and great results. The community has supported us. It’s been awesome,” he said.

The family farms 12,300 acres on pockets of land that stretch from the Calgary to the Drumheller area.

Hilton credited new technologies developed by businesses, change in government policy, business partners that bridged connections, his family and the community for the farm’s success.

He said abolishing the Canadian Wheat Board, for instance, allowed the Hiltons to sell to Lagunitas, a brewery in California.

The family farms 12,300 acres on pockets of land that stretch from Calgary to the Drumheller area. | Meleah Geeraert photo

As well, provincial legislative changes in 2017 meant the family could do their own brewing, he added, which brought consumers closer to the farm.

“It’s so important to tell our story and this story of agriculture,” Hilton said. “We get to connect people to our family and to the soil, which is where it all starts.”

Hilton Ventures produces about 33,000 tonnes annually for Lagunitas. The company has partnered with Rahr Malting in the venture.

He said there were only five producers who partnered with Rahr when Hilton Ventures first began selling to the California brewery. Now, Hilton said, there are 14 producers who participate in the program.

“Imagine all that change,” he said. “There are all these farm families connected and dedicated to an appreciative end-user. The barley is malted by Rahr right here in Alberta, shipped to Lagunitas in California and turned into great beer. We drink the beer, that’s the cycle.”

But launching a brewery and malting business wasn’t the only change the family has undertaken.

For more than 100 years, the Hiltons have adopted new practices to improve crop quality, yield and soil health.

In the 1950s, for example, Hilton said the family summerfallowed and tilled regularly. The practice helped get rid of weeds, but the soil was deteriorating and yields were low.

He doesn’t blame previous generations, given they were doing the best they could with what they had, but the family realized it was time to make some changes to improve their fields.

“There was a growing urgency in the family to do better,” he said. “We recognized it wasn’t sustainable. The land was a depreciating asset.”

They turned to local soil scientists for help, learning of minimal tillage and continuous cropping. By the mid 1970s, Hilton said, the family was doing no-till and directly seeding every acre.

As well, during that time, manufacturers were providing better tools, he added.

He said equipment today produces fewer emissions, ensures no waste or overlap, as well as precisely applies seed and fertilizer. Lots of data can be used to improve management of fields. There are gains in capacity, auto-yield calibration and auto steer.

“It is amazing, but the most important thing is the cabs are awesome,” he said with a laugh.

As equipment improved, the Hiltons were also introduced to glyphosate, which Hilton said has been extremely helpful.

“Roundup has been an amazing tool for us in Western Canada, and we haven’t overused it like other parts of the world,” Hilton said.

He said he welcomes debate over the issue. He wants producers to have conversations with consumers about glyphosate, pointing to research as a window for those discussions.

“Let’s re-assure people,” he said. “We have to communicate. There has to be many voices from all sectors.”

With the new technology, Hilton said the farm has improved its soil. Their yields are two-to-four times larger than they were in the late 1950s, he said.

“Soil is not just dirt,” he said.

“We have healthier, more resilient soils, full of microbes and mycorrhiza. It is a beautiful living entity. We are fortunate enough to have relatively young soils in the world. They are high mineral soils that can absorb carbon through best management practices.”

Hilton has operated the farm with his wife, Lynne, as well as his brother, Sterling and his wife, Lianna.

Spencer and Lynne’s son, Dane, is part of the operation, and their other son, Reid, is working toward a partnership. Their daughter, Meleah, and her husband, Kyle, have also joined.

It’s a multi-generational family operation. Spencer said he believes they have done a good job of attracting the younger generation, but more needs to be done to get younger people back on to the farm.

As well, innovation from everyone in industry is key to advance agriculture, he added.

“We can’t relax or rest,” he said. “We need to encourage the industry and our partners in crop protection and fertility to continue to innovate, develop and invest. We also need the banks to continue that strong investment.”

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