WANTED – Blood Tribe farmers and ranchers

WANTED – Blood Tribe farmers and ranchers

With over 350,000 acres of farm and pasture land stretching from the foothills of Waterton National Park to the City of Lethbridge, the Blood Tribe of southern Alberta is hoping to lead more tribe members back to the land. 

Historically, Blood Tribe members farmed and grazed much of their own land but by the 1960s the land was opened up to non-native farmers. While it brought in needed revenue for the band, it did little to entice the next generation of custodians. Today, 17 lease-holders have short-term permits to farm the more than 200,000 cultivated irrigated and non-irrigated band acres.

The Blood Tribe membership is 12,000 strong but just 217 members are employed in on-reserve agriculture working in full time, part time and seasonal positions.  The workers are spread thin between the natural beef program, the seed potato business and the growing international hay export business.

The reserve population membership is growing in leaps and bounds and 67 percent of the membership is under the age of 25.

If there ever was a pivotal time for revival –it is now. To that end, the Blood Tribe has created a farming training program as part of strategy to reduce the 30 percent reserve unemployment.

“We do have Blood Tribe members who farm their own land and run their own cattle, but every year that number grows smaller as these ranchers and farmers age. Over the years, we have tried various approaches to this problem, but what makes this initiative different, is that we took a much more collaborative approach. We joined forces with Lethbridge College and Red Crow College to design the new agriculture curriculum,”says Blood Tribe employment and skills training director Wayna Beebe.

“We also screened a large number of possible entrants into the program and looked at their ability to be engaged, their history, interests and their passion for success. Within our human resource plan, we hope to eventually create between 400 and 500 jobs. We estimate that there is about $50 million in profits leaving the reserve annually in the agriculture sector so it’s in the band’s best interest to cultivate the next generation of farmers and ranchers.”

 

Agriculture 2015

The new agriculture curriculum is divided into two parts: 50 percent theory and 50 percent hands-on-learning. The 30 selected students have already completed the fall term at Red Crow Community College and are now at Lethbridge College. During the year-long program, they will learn about soils, agriculture safety, college success and livestock management; managing the soil, operating and maintaining heavy equipment and how to manage irrigation projects. In the spring, the group will continue their studies fanning out to diverse work experiences on reserve.

$750,000 has been earmarked for the program for the 2014/2015 school year and the band hopes to continue on with a second program once the students graduate in the fall of 2015.

“I don’t believe our community understands the business of agriculture today. They still see it as a small farm operation, and don’t realize many of our agriculture products are sold internationally. As we continue to grow, we need tech transfer people, accountants, managers, labourers and marketers to name a few professions,”says Beebe.

“We can tailor training to match so many areas of interest whether it be mechanics, equipment training or a specific management course –the window is wide open for our people.”

In readiness for future expansion, the tribe has already begun investing some of the land lease profits into agriculture equipment and band member training. They have also secured some commitments from current land leaseholders to employ some of the Blood Tribe members in their existing farming operations.

 

Land –water –human resources

Calvin Crosschild is the chief operating officer/general manager of the Blood Tribe Ag Project (BTAP). He grew up on a ranch on reserve and attended Olds College to  obtain a farm and ranch certificate; a general agriculture Diploma and irrigation Diploma certification at Lethbridge College and completed a one-year civil engineering course focusing on municipal and water resources. He has managed the band’s agriculture acres and non-agriculture acres, but now solely focuses on the economic growth tied to agriculture. He admits the failure and success of expansion is tied to the buy in from Blood Tribe members. 

“Success is ours to take - we have fresh water –a pristine land base –and access to human resources. In order to achieve our elders’vision, we need to attract several hundred Blood Tribe members to work with us into the future,”says Crosschild.

“Our elders understood what bringing fresh onto the reserve would mean to our ability to become a successful farming nation. The negotiations with the federal and provincial government took more than ten years to complete to achieve water agreements and in 1991, BTAP was incorporated.”

“We are recognized as being Canada’s largest irrigation project and second in North America. It is one of the most efficient environmental uses of irrigation because of the closed pipeline delivery system with automated level flow control so no spill goes back to the river. Whatever is diverted we use every drop.”

A recent agriculture economic study found that out of the approximate 60 million bushels of grain produced in southern Alberta, the Blood Tribe land produces roughly 15 to 20 million of them. And they have visions of doing much better. Their all-encompassing vision is to be a profitable, independent, nationally renowned agriculture corporation for the benefit of all Blood Tribe members.

With 104 BTAP and 18 Mataki irrigation pivots there are a total of 122 pivots ranging from seven towers per pivot to 19 towers per pivot. The Blood Tribe maintenance and operations crew alone are kept busy servicing all the irrigation equipment which feeds the band’s export hay operation and grazing acres for their natural beef herd. They are increasing their export Timothy and alfalfa acres to 7,200 this year and plan to add another 3,000 acres soon after.”

The band has high hopes that out of the 30 members chosen to participate in the new agriculture training initiative some will end up in soils and crops, livestock, other management positions and marketing.

“With our increased customer base overseas for our agriculture products, we need someone that can efficiently and expertly deal with export documentation and another person to look after all the IT –the list of future expertise is long and diverse,”says an obviously passionate Crosschild.

“We have a lot of resources and expectations riding on the success of this type of agriculture entry program and we will watch it carefully and be ready to tweak wherever necessary to help it succeed.”

“The economic future of the Blood Tribe depends on it.”

By Bonnie Warnyca