"Anybody that doesn’t like bacon, well, I don’t know if they’ve actually tried it,” says Ray Price with a whimsical smile. Ray is president of Sunterra Group, and quite the bacon enthusiast.
We’re standing outside on his farm near Acme, talking about pork month near the old red barn. It hasn’t been used since about 1968, but is a nostalgic reminder of the Sunterra story: two farmers, seven children and a small pig herd. “I remember dipping water out of the pond as a child and taking it down to the barn because there was no running water,” says Ray.
Nowadays, they would never even contemplate not having water constantly available to the pigs. But back then, things were a little more rugged, he says. That all changed when a company came over from England in the early ‘60s to talk about a new style of pig production with a focus on better health controls, nutrition and genetics. The conversation continued for several years and in 1970 Ray’s father Stan, mother Flo, eldest brother Dave, a local veterinarian, a geneticist from Lacombe and the Woolley family from England started Pig Improvement Canada, which would later become Sunterra Farms.
“We’ve worked hard at getting better meat quality,” Ray says. The pigs are fed a wheat and barley mixture, which results in a different quality than most other North American pigs who are fed corn. By understanding the herd genetics and feed, Sunterra has also been able to produce leaner yet flavourful pork for customers. And to keep the pigs healthy, they restrict people going into the barns.
“I know a lot of people think it’s kind of funny that you have to shower to enter the barn and not when you leave,” says Ray. “But that keeps the pigs healthy and by keeping them healthy they grow better, we don’t have to treat them with medicines and it’s just a much better environment.”
So how did a farming family end up with nine retail markets in Calgary and Edmonton? In their quest to keep improving pork quality, the Price family decided to buy a meat plant in the late 1980s. The Trochu plant, just a short drive from Acme, gave them more quality control and flexibility with the pork products. But they also wanted to talk to consumers directly, says Ray, and so they opened a market in Bankers Hall in 1990.
“Coming from the farm we had very little knowledge of retail,” he admits. “My brother Glen had spent 18 months in Hong Kong understanding the retail market there, but the rest of us were just farmers. We were trying to figure out the right way of doing it.”
Ray credits a lot of the Sunterra difference to hiring in-store chefs to work with the pork and share their expertise directly to customers.
“As people become more urban it’s a challenge to be able to have that touch and feel to a farm. So our connection through our chefs and our meat cutters and other talented staff is important. There are lots of people who know food, but we know it from the time it started to be grown to the time it’s delivered to the markets.”