Westlock Seeding Cleaning Co-op has taken on a massive new project — building a whole new plant.
Over the years business has increased at the Westlock Seed Cleaning Co-op, including adding services such as pedigreed seed sales. As business at the plant grew, the time spent running it rose until it was going 24/7.
“It’s kind of a shame that we’re having to build this new plant, because this plant still does have some life to it. But physically we’ve outgrown it,” Wayne Walker, manager of Westlock Seed Cleaning Co-op, says in a phone interview.
The plant was initially built in 1949 but sadly perished in a fire in 1974. The community rallied together and rebuilt in 1975. The rebuilt plant is the plant still operating to this day.
For Walker, he’s been part of the plant going on four decades as of this spring. He started at the plant working part time and as the years went on his job evolved until he took over as the manager in 1987.
“I grew up on a farm and I have always been passionate about agriculture,” Walker explains. “It was a way to stay connected to agriculture. And I knew once I got to the managers role, I did see there was avenues to grow this business.”
When Walker took over management of the plant, they were cleaning around 400,00 bushels of seed per year and there were a few seed growers selling their seed through the plant. Walker was mentored by Art Gorda, an inspector with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who taught him about seed grading and pedigreed seed production. Gorda mentioned there were more seed growers in the area who could be good fits for selling seed at the plant.
“I started contacting the seed growers around Westlock to get them to come back here and put some bins in. And so that’s kind of how it started,” he explains.
At the time there were only 20 bins surrounding the plant that were used for seed storage. There are now 137 bins with more than half a million bushels of pedigreed seed storage space, and 22 seed growers sell their seed through the plant.
“Pedigreed seed cleaning was the avenue that I saw the greatest growth potential in when I first started. It kind of morphed into more and more seed sales, because we had a big enough yard and growers were able to put their own bins here. We charge them a rate for leaving their bins here, plus we charge them for sales,” Walker says.
Westlock Seed Cleaning Co-op Board Chair Colin Felstad is one of the seed growers who sells his seed at the plant. Selling his seed at the plant allows him to focus on growing the seed and not have to hire staff to work in his yard during the spring when farmers are picking up seed.
“It works well. I think we have 22 seed growers that work out of the Westlock Plant. And I suspect many of them would be like me, if you had to do it all off your own farm, we probably wouldn’t. So it’s a good opportunity for local seed growers,” he says in a phone interview.
There’s pedigreed and farm saved seed cleaning services offered at the plant, along with commercial seed treating. The plant acts as a drop off point to send seed samples to SGS Canada for testing. They do have the capability to do grain separations, but due to how busy they are cleaning seed they’re unable to which is one of the reasons they started looking at building a new plant.
The current plant has to be run 24 hours a day from the last week of October until the end of April to fulfill the seed cleaning demand. Westlock Seed Cleaning Co-op has cleaned just under two million bushels of seed per year for the past three years. Five years ago the co-op completed a strategic plan laying out their goal for the next 15 years. Felstad says the board’s sentiment was that they wanted to keep growing the plant and it’s business.
“We have pretty much built out this plant as much as we can without a lengthy shutdown. So, if we wanted to add on and renovate the present plant we would probably have to shut down for a year, which really isn’t an option for any business, right? We can’t say to our customers, well, you got to go somewhere else for a year. So, we determined that we needed to have a new build,” he explains.
Adjacent land to the west of the seed cleaning plant in the Westlock industrial park became available, so the co-op purchased it for the new plant to be built on. The current plant is able to run and be fully functional while the new plant is in construction next to it. There has been no decisions made yet about what will happen to the current plant when the new plant opens.
Construction on the new plant broke ground last fall and is expected to be done in the fall of 2024. Financing for it is being done through a loan with Farm Credit Canada. The existing plant is capable of cleaning 500 bushels of seed per hour, with the new plants capacity to be double that. There will be 90,000 bushels of storage and three scales. It will be much more automated than the current plant which will help to address ongoing labour shortage issues that are being seen across agriculture in Canada.
“It means we’ll have a modern up to date facility with the latest technology in it. The technology keeps changing in seed cleaning as it does in other industries,” Felstad says. “Hopefully, it’s a generational project, hopefully it’s current for a generation and we hope that it’ll have opportunities to expand in the future.”
Header photo — (L-R) Westlock Seed Cleaning Co-op employees Austin Houle, Chad Benson, Coleton Peterson, Wayne Walker, Jackie Huppertz, Mackenzie Walker, Neil Greenfield, and Randy Musterer. Photo: Westlock Seed Cleaning Co-op
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