By Trevor Bacque

Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes and primary agriculture is a hotbed for this practice. At Strathmore, Alta., the Hilton family has examined its origin to extend its heritage for yet another generation by once again changing the game.

What began more than 100 years ago by English homesteaders has made quite a contribution to Canadian agriculture over the last century.

The risk taking and adventurous nature of Gordon and Viola Hilton during the ‘50s through until the ‘90s saw the family farm achieve great success. However, it was one giant “gamble” in the ‘70s that truly paid dividends and altered the face of modern farming practices forever in Canada, and beyond.

Regular trips down to the Lethbridge area to see what agricultural researcher Wayne Lindwall was up to had a tremendous impact in Gordon’s life and farming philosophy. Lindwall was trying out something many thought to be ridiculous. It was called no-till farming. 

Between the ‘30s and ‘70s they saw firsthand the devastation caused by erosion on their land north of Strathmore, and, while discouraged, they did not have a solution to combat the issue. That is, until they met Lindwall. 

“He was researching no-till at a time when nobody wanted to know about no-till,” says Spencer Hilton, the 63-year-old son of Gordon and Viola. “He determined it was a good practice he wanted to research. Our father was one of the first to grow and promote soil conservation techniques.”

With their outlier of a farm doing away with summerfallow in the mid-‘60s, Gordon began to modify existing equipment to adapt to his new system. In 1978, he helped established the Alberta No-Till Farmers Association-later renamed the Alberta Conservation Tillage Society-and served as its initial chair. Two years later he purchased a Pioneer No-Till seed drill from Palouse in Washington State. 

Gordon and a literal handfull other farmers across the Prairies adopted the techniques while scores more snickered. It didn’t take long for the returns to follow with the ability to manage more acres and have a greater volume of grain to sell throughout the year, especially at a time when virtually nobody else did such a thing.

“Like many ideas, it starts with technology,” says Spencer. “It had then become not just an idea but the economics started to kick in as well. Then it’s economics and a good idea, then it becomes the norm. The paradigm has shifted and it’s now the norm.”

In 1990, Gordon was inducted into the Soil Conservation Council of Canada’s hall of fame for his life’s work. It marked the first time a farmer had been inducted into the organization hallowed ranks. Fourteen years later he would be inducted into the Alberta Agriculture hall of fame for the same work.

A legacy of their own

Today, the primary owner operators are Spencer, wife Lynne and their two sons Dane and Reid alongside Sterling and his wife Lianna. 

They grow a rotation of Prairie staples canola, milling wheat and malting barley across 16,000 acres of land.

With the dissolution of the Wheat Board’s monopoly in 2012, new grain marketing opportunities were beginning to be spoken about, but few had concrete plans. The Hiltons always wanted to connect closer to end-users, but had never been given a look at doing so. By chance, an American brewer, Tony McGee of the famous Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, Calif., wanted to secure his malt supply while his brewery prepared for a massive expansion. He connected with his network to be introduced to the best malt growers in Alberta. It quickly led him to the Hiltons.

“That ability to see behind the curtain and trying to find additional items that we could do on our farm with specialty contracts, that just opened up a whole new realm for our farm of wanting an ability to always be able to deal with people that want to use our products,” says Sterling, 48. “What that allowed us to do for our farm was to get comfortable with dealing with end users’ expectations and Lagunitas’ pinch points that were important to them.”

McGee met a number of other farmers and at the end of the process a 15-member farmer cohort formed, dubbing themselves the Chinook Arch Growers. With 14 farmers in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan, this group of farmers negotiates price and term for malting barley direct with the brewery before it is then contracted to Rahr Malting to be malted – a very unique twist; even most direct models still go farmer-processor-end user.

“There is real value for our farm to tell our story, especially when you see the local movement,” says Sterling of the craft beer boom across Canada. “We didn’t really know how valuable our malt barley in Western Canada was until these guys were praising ours compared to malts they’ve worked with in the past. That information to us was that we are sitting on some high-end products.”

It made the Hiltons collectively ask themselves an important question, one that would take them down yet another path of diversification and financial sustainability for future generations.

“Why not in our hometown?” says Spencer. “That whole Lagunitas allowed us to be more comfortable in looking at different opportunities at the farm level.”

Alberta agronomics

The malting barley produced at the Hiltons’ farm performs well at a malthouse, earning top marks in both plumpness and extract consistency, two critical components for quality malting and brewing. What’s more is the farm’s elevation is a great asset. At about 3,000 feet above sea level, disease pressure is less than it is in many other parts of the Prairies. The elevation also means very cool nights even in the middle of summer, perfect for barley, a cool season crop that doesn’t thrive on excess moisture or heat. The family exclusively grows CDC Copeland, one of the stalwart malting varieties alongside AC Metcalfe. While certain producers opt to straight cut the barley in August and dry it down to spec, the Hiltons still prefer to swath and pick it all up at once after a uniform drying period, weather permitting. 

This year the Hiltons have faced a similar fate as many, though, due to the dreaded heat dome that ravaged most of the Prairies. Hot and dry weather means this was a down year no matter what metric was used. 

“We will be significantly down in terms of production, but we’re spread out,” says Spencer. “There are some areas that will produce reasonably well and some won’t be very good at all. It will be close to half of average. This is the worst drought since the ‘30s.”

They remain hopeful, however, to have enough for their Lagunitas contract and their own venture. As the experience with Lagunitas began to unfold, they thought there may be an opportunity at home to try something similar. 

Origin Malting and Brewing

Five years ago, Spencer’s son-in-law Kyle Geeraert was working for a pulse trader when he came across equipment geared towards craft malting. After conversations with many family members, it was collectively decided that a malthouse and brewery were the natural choice to diversify income and business through the farm – connecting their barley fields to the taproom.

“He took it from idea and did a lot of the work to make into a business,” says Sterling.

The farm legacy continues through the brewery and malthouse, which has allowed for other family members to become involved, as well. Origin was a way for Sterling to keep his children interested in the family business, as well with one daughter still employed at the brewery.

“They weren’t that interested in being part of the primary agricultural production, but the two of age have worked at Origin and that is what they are more excited about,” he says. “We look at it as diversification and still being involved in ag … doesn’t necessarily have to be in the seats of a tractor.”

After securing a building in Strathmore, equipment was installed and the malting and brewing process began in late 2017. The family just celebrated four years of business over the Heritage Day Long Weekend, which ties in with their local rodeo. They purposely chose the weekend to begin their value-added operation to bring together the community through farming.

Today, the facility produces about 800 tonnes of malt per year and 2,000 hectolitres (200,000 litres) of beer, currently enough to satisfy demand, but the family knows that could easily grow – and they hope it does.

They also supply more than 60 additional breweries of various sizes with malt cooked to different specifications. They are now working on moving into B.C. as well as the United States. 

“That’s by design, as well,” says Sterling. “It’s a value-added opportunity, that structure and the production, to fulfil it at this time and our ability to source it back to where it came from.”

Dane, 42, is part of the next generation and a licensed heavy-duty mechanic tasked with all logistical matters at the farm. He is excited about the future of all their ventures and knows that there is always room for something new, which motivates him to be one of the catalysts for continued improvement at the farm.

“Growing up, you can see what grandpa and the prior generation did, opportunities for me or others to come back,” he says. “Besides just the farm, we always analyze each opportunity on its own merits. There are lots of opportunities.”

He explains how the experience has been like no other so far, surpassing even his own expectations of what would be possible through a diversified operation. 

“We enjoyed the connection to end users, then to customer; that has been a real eye-opener,” he says. “We are not having traditional opportunities in the way of people buying food or beer. It’s too far arm’s length away. We saw this opportunity with Origin, bringing this field-to-glass right to our hometown, but also to be able to connect with a bigger audience that would be coming from the urban populations. We talk to them about farming, new farming practices, sequestering carbon … we are actually part of the solution.”

His younger brother Reid, 36, is a licensed pilot for Canadian North Airlines, who can always be found at the farm anytime he is grounded. The never-ending to-do list lets him come back and help virtually anytime, although it’s primarily seeding and harvest when he is most hands on.

For Reid, he wanted to make sure Origin wouldn’t just be another place to swig a pint, but to be part of a larger story of agriculture and how vital it is, even for something as simple as a beer.

“We did have such a great experience with Lagunitas and the ability to connect with the next step in the process,” he says, adding that the malthouse was a natural part of the equation because it’s the first step in value-added processing. “It’s a way to make it a unique experience, not just another brewery. Always having the idea that nothing is off the table, there’s a real open-mindedness, almost a feeling of anticipation. What’s around the corner next? It’s made it very interesting to be a part of.”