Alberta lamb demand inches up but explosive growth elusive without more supply

Industry insiders say demand for Alberta lamb is inching up, in part due to changes in the province's ethnic makeup, but one major producer's optimistic plan to double production in just a few years will depend on more supply.

Majority of lamb is imported into the province but producers want to change that

Demand for Alberta lamb could see a big jump in coming years if a variety of conditions come together, industry insiders say. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/Radio-Canada)

Industry insiders say demand for Alberta lamb is inching up, in part due to changes in the province's ethnic makeup, but one major producer's optimistic plan to double production in just a few years will depend on more supply.

"It's most definitely growing," Miles Kliner told CBC News.

He's the general manager at SunGold Specialty Meats Ltd. in Innisfail, which has been around under various owners since 1974.

"In the last 10 years, lamb is the only red-meat protein that is growing in per-capita consumption," he said. 

Kliner says since the late 1990s demand has roughly doubled, numbers which still pale compared to other red meats. 

"In the grand scheme of things, it is still very small, but for the lamb industry it is very large," he said of the increase. 

The processing plant has expanded beyond simply selling carcasses​ to value-added services. In the mid-2000s an opportunity emerged: the halal market for Muslims.

Miles Kliner of SunGold Specialty Meats Ltd. in Innisfail says the Alberta lamb market could take off but it will require more producers. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/Radio-Canada)

"That was one significant change for our business which has made a tremendous improvement," Kliner explained.

About 60 per cent of the lamb consumed in Canada is imported, but Kliner looks forward to a day where that number drops. A lot. 

"We are trying to change that. Our company has grown substantially over the last five or six years yet we have a declining supply market," Kliner said.

"That is clearly the greatest challenge, finding supply."

SunGold Specialty Meats Ltd. says they need more producers to keep up with an ambitious growth plan. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/Radio-Canada)

Nathanael Polson is trying to answer that call. He ranches mostly sheep just east of Ponoka.

"I had sheep when I was a kid and I started looking at the industry and where it was going. At that time I had all my eggs in one basket, and I got frustrated with being not diverse and being at the mercy of the markets," Polson said.

"It has worked out really well actually. It had changed the whole direction of the farm and we are now primarily sheep."

Sheep farmer Nathanael Polson says sheep are a far more stable commodity than cattle. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/Radio-Canada)

Polson says there is greater autonomy with sheep versus cattle, which used to be his mainstay.

"We are not dictated by futures in Chicago. It doesn't matter what the other countries are doing. We are self sustained," he said.

"Coming from the cattle industry, it is quite a peace of mind for me in making long-term business plans."

Farmer Nathanael Polson moved from primarily cattle to primarily sheep and says it's working out well. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/Radio-Canada)

Kliner, however, needs more producers like Polson to move forward with an ambitious plan.

"Our plans are to more than double within the next three to five years," Kliner said.

Last summer, SunGold signed a significant deal with Sobeys. and while the processor currently exports to countries like the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and the United States, the lucrative Chinese market has so far been elusive.

Doubling production called realistic

Doubling production may not be out of reach for the company, says the dean of Dalhousie University's Rowe School of Business in Halifax.

"I think it's realistic to be honest," Sylvain Charlebois said.

"If you actually do have a good marketing plan in hand and you execute well and you actually have good relationships with wholesalers, brokers, distributors and retailers, you can actually move your product. If you do have capacity, you can build economies of scale."

Sylvain Charlebois of the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University says doubling production may not be out of reach with the right market factors. (CBC)

He says if Asian market access can be negotiated, that would be a game changer.

"There's lot of potential there. Let's face it, lamb is for the middle class. And the middle class in Asia is growing."

From a producer's perspective, lamb has advantages over some other meats.

"What's nice in lamb, the production cycle is not long, compared to, say, bison, so it's an attractive source of protein from an investment point of view," Charlebois said.

For Kliner at SunGold, it's also about changing consumer perceptions.

"They like lamb, but they don't know how to cook it or they're afraid to cook it so they seek it out in a restaurant," Kliner said.

"We want to change that, making it easier to understand how to prepare it."

With files from Tiphanie Roquette, Kate Adach and Jocelyn Boissonneault