Investing in Community: The Sangudo Opportunity Development Co-op

Tucked into a bend in the Pembina River lies Sangudo, Alberta — an unassuming town of roughly 300 residents.  With a small population and Edmonton nearby, building economic strength — or even maintaining it — is tough. Not ones to sit idly by, people in this tightly knit community took matters into their own hands and are busy revitalizing the town.

Leading the charge is Carol and Dan Ohler, two long-time Sangudoites. Full of vitality, warmth and optimism, the Ohlers are a positive influence in this quiet, prairie town. We toured Sangudo with Dan, and it was not hard to see why these two community leaders have been so busy. The town is beautiful. Trees and shrubs line quiet streets, while the slow-moving Pembina runs alongside, and gentle hills add texture to the surrounding prairie environment. Small, local businesses line main street and a peaceful, steady pace carries the people working, living and playing there.

The Ohlers welcomed us into their home for coffee and some amazing rhubarb muffins Located on a beautiful acreage, a short drive from Sangudo, the place doubles as a couples retreat and the Ohlers host counselling sessions there as well. While there, we learned more about an innovative initiative the couple helped found: an investment co-op.

As founding members of Sangudo Opportunity Co-op, Carol and Dan told us more about this unique local investment opportunity they helped create. 

The SODC formed in 2009 to stimulate business and investment opportunities in the community. Local people wanted to invest their money in local businesses and the co-op was the way to do it, by accepting money from investors and distributing it to businesses that apply for it. A few years after it was created, the co-operative has helped build two businesses, and a home. 

Dan is a compassionate leader who cares a great deal about his town. He was kind enough to lead us on a tour of SODC’s accomplishments. As he led us around, he talked about the importance, not just of developing businesses in the community, but what those businesses bring along with them — a sense of pride and vibrancy, and a reason for people, young and old, to stay in Sangudo .

“We’re not just building businesses,” he said, “we’re building community.”

Our first stop was Sangudo Custom Meat Packers, the first business to get started with the help of the SODC. This meat processing shop’s owner was looking to retire and the community was interested in keeping it around. Two young guys were interested in running the business, but raising the capital to purchase the building was going to be a problem.

So in came SODC, which raised $250,000 in just 9 minutes from local cattle producers and other community members who recognized the value in having a butcher close by. During the tour I noticed they employ almost entirely young people — a deliberate step with revitalization in mind , and one that inspires trust and loyalty in young residents who want to build lives in Sangudo. The business is probably doing so well today in part because of that.

Of course, I had to try some of the local products for sale. I decided on some bacon & cheddar smokies and a package of beef jerky — the  jerky came in this large slab of teriyaki goodness and the smokies came packed full of cheese and bacon that turned out to be a great combo to eat on their own or in a bun. I took the smokies with me on a camping trip the next weekend and I recommend roasting them over a campfire. 

Before we checked out the second SODC-backed business we stopped by the new home the co-op invested in. Situated on a hill, the house is in a great location with a large yard and is very well finished. The investment in new housing is designed to spruce up the hamlet with new developments and inspire residents to take pride in their homes. It’s also a symbol of optimism for the community and putting a young family in the home will cement that sentiment.

The SODC-house is built on a hill with a spacious plot.

For lunch we went to one of two restaurants on Sangudo’s Main Street — the Cookhouse on Main. The restaurant was first taken over by a local entrepreneur after the SODC bought the Legion Hall. In recent years, Sangudo had seen a number of Main Street buildings close their doors, and  the SODC decided the hall would not share this fate. Leasing the building out (which later transitions to a mortgage — brilliant!), to a young entrepreneur helps keep doors open and business going in this gorgeous rural community.

The end result is a spacious restaurant that’s been put to good use as a meeting space for businesses, sports wind-ups, and of course the local coffee row. Jill Dewdney, who runs the Cookhouse, also told me this space has brought in new events to Sangudo , like concerts, fitness classes, and more. Events like this help attract new faces and outside investment.

The Cookhouse on Main serves many functions in the community, including being used as one of the only event spaces in Sangudo.

It’s easy to see that Dan is always thinking ahead and planning the next development for the town he so obviously loves. He explained his vision for Main Street and the role  he thinks the co-operative should play in achieving it:

While the SODC is helping these businesses by leasing and mortgaging properties, that’s not all they’re doing. They are, as Dan said, building community.

For Sangudo Custom Meat Packers this means an emphasis on hiring young people. The Cookhouse builds community by providing a meeting place. It all makes for a shining example of what small town life can be: a place where everyone has a chance to thrive and to connect with each other.

As we said our goodbyes Tanner and I reflected on our short but jam-packed time in the community. At the top of the list was the hospitality we encountered. The people in this town are amazing. (Great food is also a theme you might have picked up on!) A few of the interviews we did were a little last-minute and yet people welcomed us (and fed us) all the same. 

If I were to sum up the experience, I would say Sangudo is full of people that care deeply for one another and their beautiful town. Thank you to everyone we spoke to and a special thank you to the ever-energetic Ohlers for showing us the community you call home.

“When I hear that train whistle it sounds like progress to me”: The Battle River Railway

The landscape of the Battle River region is a combination of trees, marsh and long stretches of rolling hills. A unique intersection of the south-eastern grasslands and the Rockies in central Alberta, the region has fostered a variety of industries — with energy, manufacturing, and agriculture at the top. 

With just 2% of the Alberta population the region is a picture of prairie resilience, having exceeded expectations for such a small population. We believe this excellence stems from a rugged attitude and strong work ethic. The Battle River Railway Co-operative is a perfect illustration of these traits.

The community that bought a railroad

When CN threatened to close the short line railway between Camrose and Alliance Alberta, farmers worried. They didn’t want to have to drive their grain further to get it to a rail car to ship it to market.

Luckily, CN had to put the line up for sale before closing it — and locals saw an opportunity. Ken Eshpeter, a local farmer, gathered producers together to discuss options. They decided to raise money by selling shares to attempt to save the railroad. $5 million later the group purchased the line and created a New Generation co-op called The Battle River Railway.

The purpose of the BRR is to run cars of locally produced crops to market using the rail line. Thanks to this co-op, locals created a spin-off organization that promotes tourism. Friends of the Battle River Railway takes people on train excursions up and down the line to see the local sights and learn some history.

We caught a ride on one of these themed excursions and were treated to not only an entertaining ride, but also a delicious supper in the town of Heisler! These excursions rely on volunteers (other than the conductor) and run monthly. You can learn more about the Friends of the Battle River Railway in my previous blog post

Golfing in Forestburg

Following our day of riding the rails, Tanner and I spent the day learning more about the business that makes the rails possible and what drove people to save it. The Battle River Railway head office is a short drive from where we were staying in Camrose in the small town of Forestburg – population of 875 or so. 

First stop was the golf course. To raise money, the co-op was hosting a golf tournament and we were scheduled to meet up with Bob Ponto, a BRR member and local farmer. We had wanted to meet a farmer member of the co-op to ask about the impact it has — it just so happened that the “BRR Farmers Golf Tournament” was going on when we arrived, which brought out people from around the community.

As we pulled in, it was immediately clear that BRR is an important part of Forestburg and the surrounding area. The place was hopping.

As we walked up to the clubhouse, which – with decidedly authentic rural efficiency —doubles as a curling rink. Bustling with farmers, a few of the volunteers we’d met on the excursion the day before, and BRR staff, the clubhouse was filling up as more and more people finished up their round of golf.

We then caught up with Bob, who spoke to how the railway makes for shorter trucking routes. By shortening how far he transports grain, he told us the BRR helps his business in several ways. He said this not only saves him time, but also a lot of money on things like fuel and repairs.

I got the impression that Bob believes in what the railway can do for the area, and the potential it has. He also likes seeing and hearing his investment in action.

“When I hear that train whistle it sounds like progress to me,” Bob remarked.

After wrapping up the interview we got a taste of truly heartwarming rural hospitality. The woman working behind the counterat the course had saved us each a piece of Skor cake from lunch. The cake was delicious and we left smiling — remarking about how much kindness we had run into during our travels.

Before meeting up with Matt Enright, General Manager of the BRR, we had some time to cruise around Forestburg. Among our stops were the LRT Cafe, the town’s highway-side diner. The coffee was great and it had all the trappings of a small-town diner — including some great smells coming out of the kitchen.

During our time in Forestburg we stopped by their town sign, which also has some informative plaques on the area’s history.
Having some fun near the Forestburg sign.
Forestburg is also home to the BRR’s station, where some of their excursions begin.

Behind the scenes of the BRR

Next we met up withMatt Enright,theGeneral Manager of the BRR, who gave us more insight into the business side of the rails. He talked not only about how the co-op gives locals a chance to invest locally — but also why preserving rural infrastructure is important:

Our last stop in Forestburg was a memorable one for me. We were driving back to Edmonton to prepare for hitting Sangudo the next day and were looking for a bite to eat. That’s when I stumbled upon the Social Butterfly. 

Part diner part thrift/antique store, the Social Butterfly was an interesting spot with a wide range of unique and unusual things for sale – but what grabbed me most was the corn chowder on the menu. I love corn chowder as it’s what my mom used to make me for my birthday each year. I perused the shelves — which had finds like golf balls sold in egg cartons to a variety of dated decorations — as we waited for our bowls of corn chowder to arrive. 

As we finished our bowls of soup there was only one thing left to do — hit the road. Next stop: Sangudo, AB!

Making new friends on the Battle River Railway

When Tanner and I hopped in the car to head to Alberta, we didn’t know we were also heading back in time. 

Our trip took us to Forestburg to check out The Battle River Railway co-operative, which is owned by farmers to move their grain to market. First, though, we got to check out the railway co-op’s very fun spin-off tourism business: Friends of the Battle River Railway. This organization uses the rails to take tourists on excursions to explore nearby towns, events and history. 

As we drove from Saskatchewan to Alberta, passing fields of wheat and canola, we played a game I loved as a kid: basically, being the one to spot the most horses. As we neared our destination, I got more excited about the train trip that was in store.

(We lost track of who won the horses game – but it was probably me).  

I had never been on a themed train ride, and I was looking forward to getting a new perspective on the countryside — especially from the open-air car I had heard about. The excursion we’d signed up for was the “Heisler Historic Run”, which promised a vintage hotel, some historic sights and “small town hospitality at its finest”.

As we approached the train, we were greeted by lovely BRR volunteers wearing full period attire. They welcomed us to the trip, served us drinks onboard and really set the atmosphere of the journey. We felt like we’d stepped back into the era where people relied on trains to cross the prairies. 

The volunteer crew for our excursion poses with Jack in front of the passenger car.

The crew was kind enough to allow us to explore all areas of the train. The conductor even let us into the cab. I felt like I was on a school trip to the Western Development Museum. Unlike the museum trains, getting to see one that was fully functional was a unique experience.

The view from the cab of the train.

As expected, the open-air car was a highlight for me. The only thing standing between you and the countryside is some chest high walls — allowing you to breathe in the fresh rural Alberta air.

And what a beautiful countryside it was. Having grown up in a small town I’m used to watching fields whiz by on the highway. At the slower pace of a train however, I found you take in a bit more. From early canola fields to watching a deer hop a fence there was a lot I would have missed otherwise. 

Once the train pulled into the town of Heisler we were treated to a tour that lead to St. Martin Roman Catholic Church. Muriel, one of the tour guides, told us that before the church was built around 1920, worshipers held services in the local restaurant. She said that when the church was built, people had to rent their space in the pews for their families to attend services – and where you sat in the church became a status symbol.

She then joked about how churches almost have to pay people to attend today. 

Muriel’s stories were a great illustration of small-town life in the past. She talked about the old convenience store, and the old ways of life — like how she used to deliver groceries to residents using a wagon during the warm months and a sled in the winter.

Whenever Muriel would mention someone’s name in one of her stories, she’d ask the group: “Is anyone a relative?” Every single time, someone raised their hand. 

I always enjoy these opportunities to listen and discover more about a place.

Next up was a delicious perogy and sausage supper in the Heisler Hotel. The food was amazing — even though my travel partner Tanner doesn’t like sour cream on his perogies. (A heresy of the highest order in my opinion!)

All jokes aside, the food was straight out of someone’s grandma’s kitchen. After supper we had some spare time, so we went to visit Heisler’s baseball glove statue.

Tanner and Jack in front of Heisler’s baseball glove statue.

Small towns and their affinity for making big statues of small things is a great way to find what they’re proud of. For Heisler, their pride rests in their baseball teams. They’ve adopted “A Community of Champions” as their slogan and back this claim up by hanging billboards covered in baseball championships — all facing the highway for a passerby to see.

Then it was time for us to leave Heisler and we took another scenic ride back to where we’d started. We spotted some wildlife along the way — a few more horses. 

After the trip we had the chance to speak with Ken Eshpeter, who played an important role in creating both the Battle River Railway as well as the “Friends.” Dressed in his conductor’s uniform, Ken told us about the most important part of the BRR’s formation: the purchasing of the railway.

Ken was both friendly and knowledgeable — two characteristics he makes great use of as a host for the excursions. Thank you, Ken for the great chats about prairie life, and thanks to everyone involved with the excursions for being so hospitable!


Westlock Terminals (Video)

It’s hard to over emphasize the importance of quality infrastructure for robust economic activity. In rural communities, it can be especially hard to keep and maintain the things needed to attract large businesses. Westlock Terminals is the amazing story of how this community rose to the occasion.


Brought to you by Co-operatives First.

Battle River Power Co-op (Video)

A few years back, a snow storm took out 26 miles of powerlines in the Camrose area. Battle River Co-op battled together with community members to bring power back to every farm and community along the way. Here’s their story.

The Power of Alberta: a farmer-owned terminal and DIY utilities

In July, we hopped in the car and drove to Alberta to visit two co-operatives helping rural areas grow and thrive.

We first arrived in Westlock, Alberta, a town north of Edmonton built on agriculture, with the railway at its heart. Westlock Terminals – a well-known New Generation co-op built through the innovation, grit and vision of local farmers – is a prominent fixture of the community.

Westlock Terminals

Westlock Terminals in Westlock, Alberta.

Westlock Terminals is an independently operated grain terminal located on a CN Rail line. The profitable co-operative business is owned by hundreds of shareholders from the surrounding area.

Their website says the terminal is owned by “a blend of farmers and business people” who benefit from “regular returns to shareholders through the dividend yields of the Class “C” shares as well as the incentive yields of the Class “D” shares.” 

Westlock Terminals Chief Executive Officer, Clifford Bell.

The CEO, Clifford Bell, was kind enough to tell us all about the co-operative and the ways the business benefits local farmers. When we asked if there were any local farmers we could speak to, he took a quick look around.

But he didn’t need to look far.

Just outside Clifford’s office, Hank was waiting for his truck to be unloaded. Hank was happy to tell us about how much he appreciates having Westlock Terminals as an option for his grain. 

Hank farms in the area with his two sons, and is an investor in Westlock Terminals. While we’re chatting, he also mentions he used to sit on the board of his local retail co-op in Neerlandia and urges us to check it out too.

“Co-ops are good, I think they’re great,” he said. “…Co-ops take support, eh? You’ve got to support them and do business with them…I’m a very strong co-op supporter, and all my family is.”

The more we spoke to Hank, the more he wanted to tell us about the Neerlandia co-op: “It’s been a really, really good place to do business. It’s paid good dividends…we’d have spent that money anyway on crop inputs, [but] we wouldn’t have got to share in the profits [if we shopped elsewhere].”

Instrastructure and community

Later, we visited Ralph Legriger — Mayor of Westlock — who not only answered our questions about his community but gave us an amazing tour of some of his favourite parts of town.

Westlock Mayor, Ralph Legriger.

The Westlock Rotary Spirit Centre is an impressive facility for a small community, and contains a rink, fieldhouse, track, and gym. Inside is a mural that Ralph wanted to show us, made up of tiles painted by members of the community. This is a truly spirited community rooted in agriculture and working together.

Next, he introduced us to the Canadian Tractor Museum – which is hard to miss, given that it’s marked by an old tractor on a tall pedestal. (Talk about going the extra mile! As we stood chatting among the impressive collection of vintage farm machinery, a train began to rumble by.

Besides providing investors a positive return on their investment, Westlock Terminals helps ensure the viability of local infrastructure, rail being one example.

People complain about having to wait for the train, the mayor noted as we watched the traffic stop to make way for railcars to pass through town — but he said he asks them: “What’s on that train? Everything that makes the town run.”

Neerlandia Co-op

After hearing Hank speak so highly of Neerlandia co-op, we decided to take a quick side trip to check it out. We were not disappointed. Pulling into the parking lot, Sisan remarked: “Forget Neerlandia – this is Co-oplandia.”

The retail co-op is massive: it includes groceries, a home store, liquor store, restaurant, sporting goods, agriculture products, automotive parts and repair, and a cardlock. More impressive? Neerlandia is a town of only about 100 people.

General Manager Albert Mast graciously cut his coffee break short to tell us about the co-op where he started working as a clerk in 1976. He said the co-op started in 1922, and has grown considerably due to the loyalty and support of members that come from miles around.  

Battle River Power Co-op

The next day we headed south of Edmonton to a facility just outside of Camrose with an unassuming building that packs a lot of punch. Because of this place and the dedication of the people inside it, rural residents in the area have power in their homes and have for about 70 years.

Co-operatives First has been a follower and admirer of Battle River Power Co-operative for some time now. When brainstorming places in Alberta that would suit The Backroad Diaries, they were a natural choice to include on the tour.

The utility provider has been in business for about 7 decades and was founded (and continues to be run) by independent and entrepreneurial rural Albertans. Their mission is “to provide the best and most cost effective electric power service to [their] 8,500 member-owners.” And they do this with both class and grit.

Their social media is chock full of useful and timely information related to service and benefits, which include a really smart way of supporting local businesses and the regional economy. (Check it out for yourself: It’s awesome!) And they’re line team goes above and beyond to ensure everyone has power.

Rural hospitality

When we contacted Battle River Power’s Communications Manager, Betty, she, in a way that is truly unique to rural areas, also went above and beyond to make sure we felt welcome and were well taken care of. (Thanks, Betty!)

Betty arranged for us to speak to the Chair of the Board and the General Manager of the co-op, as well as a long-time lineman, and the vegetation manager (that ever-important person who ensures trees don’t interfere with power lines). She brought in some loyal members for us to talk to over lunch (which she also provided, bless her).

Bob and Margaret Prestage have been members of Battle River Power Co-op in Alberta since 1975

Not everything went according to plan though. Betty had arranged for us to get some footage of linemen doing some repairs out in the field, but apologized profusely when we had to cancel that part of the schedule due to bad weather. (Weather-wise, rural Alberta can be an unpredictable place.)

The area had experienced some pretty serious thunderstorms over the last few nights, and the linemen were out all night getting people’s power back up and running. (Because it’s more than a 9 to 5 gig – especially when its your friends, family and neighbours who are impacted.) The result of the long night was that the linemen wouldn’t be doing any scheduled jobs that day.

Sisan and Aasa with Glenn, Map Analyst for Battle River Power Co-op

Still, she arranged for us to have a tour of the area with Glenn, Map Analyst and long-time line-man, who drove us around to see some of the houses they provide service to. Glenn also offered up an amazing amount of detail about volts, power lines, and transformers. (You’re in good hands, folks. That guy really knows his stuff!)

The local advantage

Battle River Power Co-op General Manager, Colleen Musselman.

Colleen Musselman, Battle River Power’s GM, said being a co-op is about quality of service – especially when outages hit. Unlike other utility providers that no longer provide service between 11:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., Batter River Power linemen go out immediately and work until everyone’s power is up and running.

In a city, Colleen said, linemen might turn on power for thousands of people with one repair: because the co-op serves rural areas exclusively, they may be working to make sure just one house gets its power back. This reality is what kept large corporate utility companies out the area back in the 40s when REAs were starting up in Alberta. Today, it’s what makes Battle River Power Co-op different from its competitors.

The rural advantage

When an ice storm took down 40 miles of power lines in 2007, linemen worked for five days straight, at times in water up to their waists. Some members were without power for five days or more, but could see how hard linemen were working to restore the line; they pitched in where they could, providing food to the workers, or helping plow access roads.

In that process, Colleen said, they learned “the benefit of what people can do together to really care about people and make a difference.”

A central part of a way of life

At Co-operatives First, we’ve sometimes been told co-ops and Alberta aren’t compatible. We (very politely) disagree. What Westlock Terminals and Battle River Power Co-op show is that the model is very much in line with the entrepreneurial and independent spirit of Albertans.

Like the folks at Westlock and Battle River Co-ops, many Albertans see the co-op model for what it is, which is what helps them use it so effectively. The business model is a great tool for DIY projects, and DIY is very much Albertan. In fact, the model is an excellent option for entrepreneurial and independent people looking to take matters into their own hands, rather than wait for suits out east or government to do it for them.

What a view! Aasa and Sisan taking in the view from the top of Westlock terminals.

Alberta’s REAs, like Battle River Power, can also create an ecosystem in which people get a service they need, good paying jobs are created, and the local economy benefits — especially with a “buy local” policy, such as Battle River Power’s Member Benefits program. Plus, successful co-operative businesses tend to re-invest heavily in the local community, in some cases providing scholarships, sponsoring sports teams or paying for playground equipment.

For many rural Albertans, co-ops are a central part of their way of life. We think co-ops and Albertans are a highly compatible pairing.

A special “thank you” to Cliff, Hank, Ralph, Colleen, Bob, Margaret, Glenn, Betty and everyone else we met along the way for the amazing Alberta hospitality!