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Farmers burn mortgage on grain elevator

Once facing demolition, number one elevator remains an economic anchor for North Peace farmers, averaging them between $40 million to $50 million a year
Officials with the North Pine Farmers Institute and Northern Development Initiative Trust burn the mortgage of the number one elevator. (Supplied)

Local farmers celebrated a historic milestone last week as the North Pine Farmers Institute burned the mortgage on Fort St. John’s last working grain elevator.

“The future is set up for whatever comes next,” said Martin Moore, chairman of the institute’s elevator committee, following a dinner celebration and ceremony held Nov. 22 at the Lido.

“A lot of people are appreciative that the elevator stayed here and didn't get reduced into a big pile of rubble,” he said. “It's greatly satisfying to know that the North Pine institute is part of the future success in farming by keeping an elevator open and in the hands of the farmers.”

At one time, five grain elevators stood along Elevator Row in Fort St. John to serve local farmers, with two others at Taylor, and one at Buick Creek.

Most of the old wooden structures built in the 1950s and 60s have long been torn down, and so too was Cargill’s old concrete elevator, built in 1985, scheduled for the wrecking ball in 2009.

That’s when the Farmers Institute, started in 1930 to support farm communities and rural development, jumped into action to save it from demolition, ensuring local farmers still had a place to bring their crops.

The institute struck a committee that worked to negotiate the purchase of the elevator from Cargill, as well as rail siding from BC Rail, with the help of local governments, elected officials, the province, and other agencies.

“When you see the infrastructure disappearing, we had to do something about it,” said former Farmers Institute president Larry Houley, who was brought on to lead the original elevator committee.

As the last of its kind still serving the North Peace district, the importance of the number one elevator can’t be understated.

It turns over about 70,000 metric tons of crop a year, saving farmers the long haul to Dawson Creek or beyond. And it averages farmers between $40 million to $50 million in economic activity each year, their crop sent by rail from here to terminals in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, and from there to markets overseas.

With business planning support from the North Peace Economic Development Commission and the Business Development Bank of Canada, the elevator committee was able to secure a loan from the Northern Development Initiative Trust (NDIT) for the mortgage funding.

With support and funding also coming from the Peace River Regional District, about $1.6 million was spent on the elevator's acquisition and repair. The refurbished elevator was opened in 2012 and today it remains owned by the Farmers Institute and operated on their behalf by Viterra.

Elevator #1 in Fort St. John, owned by the North Pine Farmers Institute and operated by Viterra. (Alaska Highway News)

Houley said the purchase and the elevator’s continued success has been a community effort.

“The Farmers Institute taking the initiative, all levels of government, and the community. I can’t emphasize that enough,” he said. “There were people helping us on this project that had no interest per se in agriculture. They were just good people in the community who came and donated time and equipment to get it as an ongoing concern.”

Last Tuesday’s well-attended celebration included speeches by member farmers and local dignitaries, who touched on the history of the institute and the scope of its work, and were treated to a roast beef dinner before the mortgage burning.

The NDIT loaned just over $900,000 to the project, which was the last of the debt officially burned during the ceremony. Trust CEO Joel McKay eagerly counted down the days as the institute paid down the loan, never missing a payment, he said.

“Our job is to use our funds to support economic development. What could be more squarely in the bullseye than a grain elevator that helps to maintain jobs here, supports producers, and generates millions in revenue for a local area each year? It’s a no-brainer,” McKay said.

“It is a momentous occasion for us, but I think more importantly than that, the Farmers Institute and the agriculture community in the Northeast.”

Wade Cusack, current president of the institute, called the milestone a great success for the community, and the next generation of farmers.

“It's just brilliant. The amount of hours and effort that have been donated by people to make this all happen is just incomprehensible,” said Cusack, who farms in Pineview with his son, Ty. “It's very positive. The vision is continuing; the vision’s forever, like the institute.”

Freed of mortgage debt, the institute will continue its work to expand and upgrade the elevator, Cusack said.

“The institute is looking at other projects that will serve the community at large and for the agriculture community. There's lots of need here,” said Cusack, first introduced to the institute in the late 1990s and who became more deeply involved when the elevator project began.

“We have an open door to whoever wants to be involved," he said.

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