Farming the new frontiers

By Tim Kalinowski


Farming has always been, in many ways, about trial and error. Trying out new equipment types, new crops, new chemicals, new seeding and harvesting techniques and new ideas, in general, is all a part of being a successful farmer these days.
However, there is the normal range of trial and error and then there are those out there on the cutting edge like Bow Island-based Thacker Specialty Crops.
“We are always looking for something new and different which has better margins,” explains Dale Thacker, founder of Thacker Specialty Crops.
“We essentially made the move into mint and some of these other specialty crops about 32 years-ago.
“There was a whole bunch of different reasons for us to get into it.We had a lot of boys on the farm, so we had to improve the profitability of the farm so everybody could take home a pay-cheque at the end of the day.
“We also looked for things where we could increase our competitive advantage against other types of crops grown in the area.
“Over the years we have tried all sorts of things,” he says.“Right now, though, we are growing spearmint, dill, hemp, and then some more standard ones like peas, lentils, hybrid-seed canola and faba beans.”
If you ask Thacker what are some of the other things he has tried over the past three decades, it boggles the mind the array of things he has gotten into and out of over that time period.
“We originally got into the essential oils with a crop called Monarda (wild bergamot). It was a neat plant; it was a very high quality perennial, but it was a difficult market to break into. However, it did get us into other essential oil crops. For example, we grew everything from Monarda, to French tarragon, to hyssop.
“Hyssop was way too small a market for the acres. Forty acres was enough to supply the world for a couple of years; so that didn’t turn out to be a good one to try,” he says with a laugh. “We also grew catnip, several different basil plants… But again, it didn’t lend itself to large acreage so we got away from it.”
Thacker, who runs the operation alongside sons Kyle and Gavin and son-in-law Cole, admits there are unique challenges to growing some of these obscure crops.
“Lots of these crops are really expensive to establish. And sometimes, like with mint, it can take years before you can get a good crop. You have to have some stability and you have to have some contracts to grow these things. When you are dealing with these really finite markets, you also have to be careful you don’t run out and put half the country into a certain crop.”
He gives an example of how over-growing a finite market like these can take you from boom to bust in no time flat.
“Mint is a great example there,” explains Thacker. “A few years ago the supply was low, the price was high. Now with both the peppermint and spearmint markets are badly over-supplied, and the price is crashing as a result.”
Thacker says you also have to be willing to put in the time and effort to learn how to grow some of these specialty crops well, and meet every requirement of the companies you are dealing with.
“If you want to grow a crop that has a larger profit margin, it requires more management, it requires more effort and it requires more time.
“Some of the ways we handle the complexity is we have a full-time agronomist on staff who helps keeps things running smoothly. We  work hard at it. More and more we have to be certified through food safe programs, we have to be kosher-certified and all these sorts of things.
“It requires effort and it requires time to do this type of farming well.”
You also have to be watching the market constantly. and be open to all the new possibilities out there, he says.
“We are always looking for the next thing on the horizon,” confirms Thacker. “We have little test plots of all sorts of different things going all the time. If you want to make money, you have to put extra effort in. That requires research, growing things correctly or innovating new pieces of equipment or techniques to make that happen.”
Since many of the products Thacker Specialty Farms grows havelimited acres to meet a specific companies requirement or demand, you can’t afford to miss if you want to keep your customers happy.
“We are lucky here in Canada because with many of these crops we have very high quality,” explains Thacker. “So quality always buys you market share. But often what you have to do is carry inventories because if there is a bad year, say you get a hailstorm, that market still requires you supply it.
“So what we have done over the years is carry large inventories, stored them very well in a temperature-controlled environment to make sure the quality remains the same. This is the way we have do business.
“If you have a contract with these companies, you have to deliver on it. Because we have done that now consistently for 30 years, we have a reputation of delivering what we say we’re going to deliver. What happens is you get that phone call first.”
Despite the complexities and risks involved, Thacker says he cannot imagine going back to a more standard type of farming operation after all these years on the outer frontiers of modern agriculture.
“With a lot of farms the boys are leaving and heading to the city,” says Thacker. “In my case, the entire family is staying here. We are out in front, and we enjoy what we do. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed farming more.”

Photos courtesy Thacker Specialty Crops
Dale Thacker, (middle) founder of Thacker Specialty Crops near Bow Island, has been pushing the boundaries of farming in Alberta for over three decades, and reaped the rewards along the way. Above: Thacker Specialty Farms uses custom-made equipment to handle their varieties. Below: Spearmint planting by hand in spring.