You’ve probably never heard of Forestburg, Alberta. Home to 900 souls and three hours northeast of Calgary, the unassuming town is a hub for moving grain from Alberta farms to the world. Meet one hard-working small grain farmer, Matthew Enright, who grows wheat, canola, barley, rye, peas, and flax.
“I was born and raised on a small family farm that we bought from my parents nine years ago,” says Matthew. “Growing up, I would never have thought farming was a passion, but it turned into one.”
Matthew and his wife are raising their three young kids in Rosalind, a 36-minute drive from Forestburg. They both work outside jobs while farming their land.
Matthew’s childhood was wild and free.
“I remember chasing cows when I probably shouldn’t have been. I was much too small,” he laughs. “My best memories were free-ranging on the farm, going outside, and doing what I wanted.”
His parents had a small farm, and his dad was a high-clearance sprayer operator. Matthew studied economics at the University of Alberta and then Simon Fraser for his Master’s. Being far from home, Matthew realized just how much his upbringing on the farm meant to him. And so, he followed his heart back home and rented some farm land.
In 2009, he planted his first crop.
A Grainy History
Matthew has seen immense changes in farming in the area over his life.
“Farming has changed dramatically in twenty years here. Growing up, a thousand-acre grain farm was pretty big and big enough to raise a family on. Now it’s at least two and a half, three times bigger than that for the standard size of an owner-operator. Equipment has grown in size.”
Part of what caused this shift in the farming landscape was the privatization of CN Rail in 1995. Matthew explains:
“The railways were allowed to mould the western Canadian landscape how they wanted it, and they were very attuned to driving their costs down by getting rid of branch lines and driving all the traffic to main connector points. Farmers had to haul to elevator points, and the cost of transportation was downloaded to the farmers.”
Many people feel there aren’t a lot of choices.
“You can’t fight the trend that much because you still need to survive and thrive. If you want to just have a small farm, that’s fine, but you probably won’t be able to pay your bills or get ahead,” says Matthew.
Farming changes have impacted the broader communities.
“When my parents were growing up, there were enough people around that every small community had commerce.”
That isn’t the case today, says Matthew.
“There is also so little business happening. Everyone has to drive to centres to shop and work. I struggle with that,” he says. “You want to try to fight it. You feel powerless to do anything about it because it’s a relentless pattern. You’re already in a population declining spiral, and the school closes, and there’s not a sense of community.”
Hope for a Grain Fed Future
These changes inspired area residents and grain producers to form a cooperative in 2009 that soon purchased Alberta’s longest straight section of railway from CN. They called it the Battle River Railway, and it runs along six stations from Alliance, AB continuing 52 miles northwest to the Camrose area.
“The group formed wanting to see producer cars continue on our rail line,” says Matthew, currently the coop’s General Manager. “The coop was set up to maintain existing rural infrastructure.”
The railway serves agriculture and industrial customers and services the economic needs of the surrounding communities with train excursions, storage and commodity transportation.
Since the coop started, there are even fewer small producers, and farmers feel pushed to maximize their outputs to make ends meet.
“The people I deal with through our coop, usually owner-operators, I think they would all agree that it’s a shame that farms are getting larger,” says Matthew.
Matthew feels good about what the coop has achieved.
“I’m dealing with people all along our rail line all the time, and to me, it seems like the coop has brought the communities on the rail line somewhat together.”
The rail line is the key to the thriving of area small towns.
“I want to see continued growth in our grain business and in attracting new businesses to our area… hopefully, we can help and slow or maybe turn around the economic decline,” says Matthew. “If this rail line ever got pulled out and torn out, no one is rebuilding it. It would remove future options for businesses to return to these small towns.”
Matthew holds out hope that the town and area he loves will thrive.
“It would be great if there were a whole bunch of small-scale farmers so that there’s a bunch more people in the country, more vibrancy in our communities.”