Farm diversification takes an unusual turn

Matt Cole shrink wraps a large boat in the bright spacious shop that used to be a dairy barn.  |  Maria Johnson photo

On the Farm: When grain farming wasn’t enough, this Alberta family expanded into boats, and then shrink wrappings

BENTLEY, Alta. — Ongoing uncertainty around changes to the Canadian dairy system influenced Dennis and Laurie Duncan’s decision to sell their 70 dairy cows at their third generation farm.

“We sold five years ago due to the threat of losing quota to trade negotiations,” Dennis said.

“Now we’re just grain.”

Coulee Ridge Farms grows canola, wheat, and barley on 2,000 acres.

After 44 years of milking cows, it was an easy transition.

“We’re busy for a month in the spring and two months in the fall compared to 365 days a year,” he said.

The “we” includes two of the Duncans’ four daughters and their husbands. Shelby and Ty Lethbridge live in the same yard while Darci and Matt Cole live a half mile away with their three young daughters. Shelby is expecting her first child in December.

Matt and Ty help with spring seeding and fall harvest.

“They’re both farm boys so they knew what they were getting into,” Dennis said.

While the farm operation may be “just grain,” there’s a whole lot more than farming going on.

The decision on what direction to take when the cows left was clear — it drove past the farm every day on the blacktop.

“We’re on the main highway to one of the busiest boat launches at Sylvan Lake,” Dennis said.

Sylvan Lake is a popular central Alberta tourist destination attracting more than a million visitors a year. Water sports abound, and hundreds of cabins surround the lake.

He estimates that in summer up to 200 boats a day go by their farm on trailers.

“The day we sold the dairy we talked about a marine business.”

They eventually formed Rainy Creek Marine.

The 23,000 sq. foot former dairy barn was renovated into a bright, spacious shop.

“We winterize and service about 200 boats a year and store about 100 over the winter.”

Another business idea began to surface when customers picking up serviced boats inquired about the possibility of having them protectively shrink wrapped for the winter.

“Our mechanic knew how to shrink wrap … and showed us,” Dennis said.

“So we bought the equipment and plastic.”

Some of their marine customers were oilfield people who suggested there could also be shrink wrap opportunities in the oil patch. The word got out, and “before long the phone started ringing, so we started another business.”

Dennis, left, and Laurie Duncan run their businesses with the help of their family — Scarlett, Matt and Addi Cole, Shelby and Ty Lethbridge, and Darci Cole, holding baby Emmy. The Duncans also have two other daughters: one is a Spanish teacher in Calgary and the other is an accountant currently sailing from Rhode Island to Australia. | Maria Johnson photo

Enter Alberta Shrink Wrap, a strong player in the shrink wrap industry in Western Canada.

Shrink wrap is a heat-sealed, waterproof, polyethylene film that creates a form-fitting, protective cover safeguarding against damages created by transport, weather, moisture, and pests.

The mobile service can wrap and protect all manner of items including oilfield equipment, engines, compressors, modules, buildings, helicopters and scaffolding. Jobs have been completed at major construction sites in Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge.

ASW has wrapped large-scale art installations for transport as well as museum items. Dennis said a contract with the National Music Centre in Calgary saw his company wrap the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio to protect it against drywall dust during in-house renovations.

“We wrapped the Hell On Wheels train,” added daughter Shelby, referring to the American Western television series filmed near Calgary.

Starting ASW has had its challenges.

“It’s a very new industry … with its own learning curve,” he said.

“Every call is an adventure.”

He’s grateful to have made connections with an established shrink wrap company in the eastern United States that ASW can call for advice.

With a farm and two businesses on the go, finding time to fit in everything takes a bit of juggling.

“The marine winterizing totally overlaps with harvest,” Shelby said.

Labour for ASW contracts is close by.

“We employ mostly local farmers,” Dennis said.

“We’ll call them up and ask if they want to go shrink wrap for a few days. As farmers, we know they have the work ethic.”

Dennis, who is officially the sales and public relations man, does a little bit of everything. Laurie, who’s always done the Coulee Ridge Farms books, has added in those from Rainy Creek Marine and ASW, as well as invoicing. Darci handles administrative duties and the ASW/Rainy Creek Marine website.

Matt quotes ASW jobs while Ty runs crews. This is aside from their full-time jobs: Ty is an aircraft mechanic and Matt is a carpenter, which are skills that come in handy.

This large farm combined with multiple businesses involving several generations is an example of the importance of a sound succession plan. The Duncans have fostered conversations, attended succession workshops and taken important steps to ease the eventual transition of ownership and responsibility to the next generation.

Of primary importance today is that the family enjoys working together.

“It’s rewarding,” said Laurie.

Added Dennis: “And most days a lot of fun.”

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