It’s official – Rich and Jeremy Vesta, the father-son team that has formed the public face of Harmony Beef, has set a date for when the Balzac plant will be back in business.
“We’ll be killing on April 4,” said Rich. “We have a deadline now.”
The plant seemed to beset by delay after delay – mostly out of the Vestas’ hands – and overcoming the last hurdle took the better part of a year.
“We needed a development permit to be able to put up our building for water recycling, and we got that Tuesday (Sept. 15),” Rich explained.
Though the plant itself was permitted, a new permit was required for the expansion building required to house the plant’s new state-of-the-art water recycling technology, which also makes Harmony Beef the greenest cattle processing plant in North America.
“It’s been a long process, but we had the patience and the professionalism to work through it with the county on everything. We answered all their questions, and we did a lot of study on odour and everything else that was concerning to some of the neighbours here,” said Rich.
Although Rocky View County took a lot of heat from within the beef community for being unsupportive of the reopening, Rich says it was a little more complicated than that.
“I appreciate all the support we have had from everybody and I have to tell you, the county is not the bad cop in this deal. It was just that they had to respond to issues from the neighbouring city and a development that was in Calgary, Rich said.
After investing in the studies that used science to show the plant wouldn’t be a problem to its neighbours, the county approved the long-awaited for permit.
“The vote at the county council was 7-1 in our favour. For us it was an overwhelming success. When we got the 7-1 vote, we knew that we had convinced them that we’d done the right thing,” Rich said.
Construction of the new building should begin in October, and the hiring process is well underway.
“We have about 40 people on staff now. We’re doing a lot of the construction and rehabilitation of the plant ourselves. We’ll eventually have 325 people on staff,” said Rich, while Jeremy added that the 40 workers are Canadian. “We’ve been very encouraged by the quantity and the quality of the candidates we’ve had to look at. We have a portfolio of literally well over 100 qualified people to man the plant when we start.”
Many of the plant’s current employees have a background in the packing industry, but also have other valuable skills such as carpentry, which are currently being put to use.
The Harmony Beef business plan calls for only 125 head to be processed per day during the first 1-3 months of operation. On one shift, the plant has a daily max capacity of 750-800 head.
“We really don’t get up to full capacity until after year two. Now, that’s a very conservative approach because that’s just the way we do business. Do we think we’ll probably ramp up faster than that? Yes, in all likelihood, because I’ve seen the quality of the people now, and I couldn’t be happier,” Rich said.
Despite the hurdles and challenges, both Rich and Jeremy say their enthusiasm remained steadfast, and they never considered giving up on the dream.
“Honestly, everything that was placed before us has prepared us to have a very strong position, and is what will allow us to remain open and strong in the future,” Jeremy said.
“It’s been one of the most gratifying relationship-building experiences I’ve ever had. I can’t tell you that I have ever had better relations with the ag community, the beef chain, certainly people like ALMA and the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ (Association)… they’ve just been so supportive and that’s meant an awful lot to us,” said Rich.
The Vestas are very aware that before it went under, the plant was the result of the hopes, dreams and the cash of many BSE-battered local producers, and that makes its reopening extra special.
“As you know, it’s a very unique plant and honestly, the character and structure of this plant and the way it was built really brought us to the conclusion that it would absolutely be a shame if this plant never opened again,” Rich said.