Kirstin Kotelko is shaking up Alberta’s beef industry. She’s a fourth-generation farmer, and her company, Spring Creek, near Vegreville, AB, has been a trailblazer in the business of sustainably produced beef. Here, she talks about how you can be a good steward of the land and still reap the rewards.
Your family has run a successful cattle ranch for four generations now. Did you always intend on going into the family business?
Actually, I had no intention of coming back to the farm. I wasn’t keen on carrying on with business as usual. My passion was always healthy food and knowing what goes into the food we eat. But when I graduated, we felt the market was calling for a premium branded beef with information available to the consumer about where the beef came from and how the cattle were raised.
We literally started with no sales under the Spring Creek Ranch brand. I just picked up a truckload of samples and started handing them out to chefs in town, and it exploded from there. Over a six-year period, we grew from no sales to $8 million a year in sales.
Would you describe yourself as a “foodie” then?
I’ve always been into food; growing up on a farm instills that in you. We grew our own food and made our own food. My grandparents were also into cooking and that carried its way through to me. So when I went to university and didn’t have the ability to grow my own food, I realized how important food—and where it comes from—really was to me.
What goes into Spring Creek cattle—and what doesn’t?
They eat a diet of barley silage, barley grain and vitamin E, and then, when they are out on pasture, it’s prairie grasses. Basically, that’s it. They are never given growth hormones or antibiotics.
“Sustainability” is a well-used—and often abused—term in food production. What makes Spring Creek earn the label “sustainable”?
We’ve developed the technology to take something that’s normally considered a waste product and a nuisance—manure—and convert that into green energy. (See sidebar for how it’s done.)
Why is sustainability such an important part of your business model?
Agriculture is seen as hard on the environment, especially cattle production. By doing things to change that, we are putting ourselves in a much better position for the next 50 to 100 years, when the environment becomes more of a focus in how people consume.
Hormone-free beef was a real rarity when the Spring Creek label was founded in 2006. What made your family decide it was worth the risk?
The American grocery store chain Whole Foods was opening their first location in Toronto, and they came to us, and said, “We think you’ll be a good fit for building a program for us that would be hormone- and antibiotic-free.” Even before our green energy program, we’d already won a national environmental stewardship award just for the recycling of water we were doing at our ranch.
We’ve always been pretty progressive—even getting into cattle production in the first place. When my dad came back to the family farm after he graduated from the U of A, they were a mixed family farm, producing grains and crops. It’s what everyone in our area was doing. We were considered cavalier for getting into larger-scale cattle production in this area of Alberta.
Where can people try some Spring Creek beef?
Choices Markets in Vancouver and the Calgary Co-op have fresh Spring Creek meat and Safeway has our frozen burgers and meatballs. A lot of great local restaurants also carry us: Café de Ville in Edmonton, Charcut in Calgary and the Vancouver Club in Vancouver.
Was there anything in your education at the U of A that has been particularly valuable to you in your work?
The networks and the people you meet. Without knowing it at the time, I went to school with people I now do business with. We’ve gone back to the Faculty of ALES and done projects on consumer acceptance and marketing with the students and the professors—and these are the same profs that taught me.
What has been the secret to your success?
The timing was huge. There was a huge demand for this kind of product, and there was no one else out there doing it.
What’s next for you and for Spring Creek?
To keep expanding the brand and make it more available to consumers. We want it to be something that’s accessible, so they don’t have to go to a certain grocery store or only on a certain day. So last September, we partnered with Nilsson Brothers Inc. to expand the product nationally and internationally.
In the next 10 years, we can have a pretty big impact on the agriculture community, encouraging producers to raise antibiotic- and hormone-free cattle and converting a lot of the commodity production. It’s exciting because it will hopefully encourage more young and innovative people in the industry.