Agriculture in Southern Alberta
From the prairies of Southern Alberta west to the rolling foothills and eastern slopes of the Rockies, agriculture has played a primary role in establishing the economic prosperity of Southern Alberta. The climate and topography of the region are conducive to the various types of agricultural operations established within this area. Livestock have always been an important part of the prairie landscape, but with the introduction of different types of farming methods, the face of agriculture has changed significantly over the decades. The advent of irrigation and the formation of the various irrigation districts, combined with the construction of the Oldman River Dam (completed in 1991), have further helped to diversify agricultural operations in Southern Alberta. What was once the “bread basket of the world” is no more. Wheat, once the primary crop grown, is now in competition with a variety of other crops. Oilseeds, sugar beets, potatoes, various vegetables such as peas, beans, corn, carrots etc., sunflowers as well as different varieties of feed and cereal grains are examples of crops being raised successfully in Southern Alberta. Greenhouses, already established
in many urban centers, are now sprouting up in rural areas with irrigation, thus helping to further diversify the agricultural economy. Large commercial greenhouse operations have been constructed in areas with irrigation, good accessibility to markets and suitable soil requirements. These facilities supply plants to larger businesses in nearby cities. Other horticultural operations have become important producers of flowers, vegetables and fruits that help supply local markets. Organic vegetables and crops are now being raised in the region to help fill the needs of the growing and more specialized market of organic foods. The livestock industry has also changed. One can still see herds of cattle grazing in pastures but the small feedlot operations are far less prevalent. Many have been replaced by large feeding facilities known as “confined feeding operations” or CFOs. The same holds true for the rest of the livestock sector which includes a variety of animals and birds - hogs, chickens, dairy animals, horses, sheep, turkeys etc. The growth of CFOs was encouraged by the favourable Southern Alberta climate, an abundance of feed and water supplies and accessibility to markets, especially the huge American marketplace. In no other region of the province was there the growth and expansion of CFOs as was experienced within the County of Lethbridge, primarily north of the Oldman River. The famous “Feedlot Alley” was born boasting the largest concentrated confined feeding area in Canada. Other areas within Southern Alberta also have CFOs, but not in the numbers this particular region has within its confines. The highways have become the avenue of transportation for animals and feed to the different CFOs in Southern Alberta as well as the different livestock processing facilities.
Such developments and expansions in the agricultural industry have impacted entire communities within the south. The smaller community grain elevators have been replaced by centrally located grain handling terminals located adjacent to the main railway lines. Grain from these communities is now being trucked to the main terminals instead of the local elevators, most of which have been demolished. The infrastructure of the rural areas has been and will have to be upgraded and maintained to withstand the increased activity from the heavy truck traffic. Cities have grown and expanded to meet the demands of the dynamic agricultural economy. The “value-added” philosophy has encouraged the growth of businesses and the construction of new facilities to meet the needs of the agricultural sector. Many of the jobs have been filled by migrant workers who have taken up residence, with their families, in communities near their workplace. Social structure in these communities has changed to accommodate the diverse ethnic and cultural groups. Schools as well as the health care system have been forced to address the changing population within the south. Not to be excluded, are the impacts that these agricultural operations and processing industries may have on the environment. Water quality and air quality issues are the primary concern of residents living within proximity of such facilities. The question important to all is : can such growth be sustainable in the long term? The changing face of agriculture affects all. Will the resources be available to deal with these changes? The future holds the answers to our questions, but…is that really enough to justify not being proactive? Afterall, do we and our families not represent the future?