On a global scale, the appetite for meat and dairy products is increasing and, at the same time, many consumers are paying more attention to how their food is produced. These two trends fuel a rising demand for providing livestock around the world with healthy, high-quality forage – they also create a solid platform for exports from Green Prairie International (GPI), a company that combines southern Alberta’s optimal growing conditions with innovative means of harvesting, baling and processing hay.
The Lethbridge-based company has built a considerable export capacity by offering alfalfa and timothy hay, products that either don’t grow in certain markets or cannot be grown in sufficient quantity, says GPI president John Van Hierden.
“We have the ideal climate for timothy and other types of hay,” he says, adding that GPI not only has its own farming operation but also works with a range of Alberta suppliers. The company ships about 100,000 tonnes of compressed bales of hay per year to Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates and Europe. With Japan, for example, GPI has a well-established connection that spans 25 years.
“We came into contact with Japanese companies through brokers we worked with at the time,” Van Hierden says. “In dealing with Japan, it has always been important to maintain good quality control with competitive pricing.”
Two characteristics set the Japanese market apart: the focus on the colour and other visible aspects of the hay, and that it mainly needs timothy, a long-fibre grass, Van Hierden explains. Other international trading partners buy more alfalfa – which has a high feeding value due to its high protein and calcium content and highly digestible fibre – or a mix of alfalfa and timothy.
Van Hierden has observed that the Japanese culture, in every aspect of the society, is very focused on quality, which affects the hay-buying process.
For GPI, consistently delivering high quality is a priority for every market, not just Japan, Van Hierden adds.
For Joey St-Pierre, senior account manager for Export Development Canada (EDC), Green Prairie is an example where a Canadian company has been able to gain a competitive advantage from utilizing the region’s unique resources.
“Canadian growers can benefit from the availability of arable land and fresh water,” he says. “In many parts of the world, due to land scarcity or lack of access to water, producing this type of crop commercially would not be a viable proposition since available land would be used for different and high-value crops.”
As part of EDC’s long-standing working relationship with Green Prairie, St-Pierre says he has witnessed the company’s expansion of export capabilities over the years, which he attributes to offering a solid and sought-after product with high quality control.
Van Hierden sees innovation as an important tool for ensuring high quality at competitive prices, especially since the company deals with a weather-dependent crop that has a limited timeframe during which it can be harvested.
“Through several innovations, we are able to harvest, bale and process the product faster, limiting weather risks,” he explains. “The fact that we double-compress our hay before shipping it out is also an innovation. By doing this, we maximize container volume and minimize shipping costs. This keeps us competitive in the world market.”
Through state-of-the-art compression technologies, GPI is able to load up to 26 tonnes per 40-foot container, compared to the roughly eight tonnes of uncompressed material that would fit the same space.
Green Prairie Branches out
Recently, the company has branched out into shipping smaller amounts. “We diversified into the pet food market, offering small hay bales for rabbits, guinea pigs and other small animals,” says Van Hierden. “Most of these products are exported to the U.S., but we are able to do custom packaging for customers all over the world.”
He explains that GPI recognized a new market opportunity and decided to pursue it. In addition to hay, the company also exports different grain products. “We have our own professional grain trading team here at our Lethbridge facility. They source mainly oats from the region and market it globally,” Van Hierden says.
“I think that constant innovation and looking for other opportunities and markets is very important for an exporting company,” he adds.
Export tips from GPI president John Van Hierden
- Monitor your quality. Ensuring consistent high quality of a product is very important for all markets. For GPI, that means monitoring the quality of the forage products through all stages of the process, as well as accurate and objective grading.
- Understand unique international needs. Understanding cultural and societal aspects of a market, for example Japan’s focus on high quality, can help to increase customers’ satisfaction and lead to long-lasting business ties.
- Recognize opportunities to branch out. Being successful in one area can lead to opportunities that build on existing infrastructure and business connections. Pay attention to a new opportunity and go for it by applying strong market research and market development.