Peat moss plant near Norquay a major operation

Cleo Ding/LJI Reporter/Canola Courier Scott Briscoe, the general manager at Sunterra Horticulture Canada, walks us through how the screening machine works.

Cleo Ding
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Canora Courier

Trucks are constantly coming in and going out of the gravel yard before making their long hauls with peat moss in bulky bags, four trucks at a time, 20 hours each day.

Sitting along Highway 49 at the entrance to Norquay, this is what the 80-acre peat plant site – the largest in western Canada – will look like in the height of the production season from April up until November.

The journey these truckloads of peat are taking is on highway to the docks, arriving in growers’ hands before turning into food and ornamental plants.

Scott Briscoe, the general manager of Sunterra Horticulture Canada, who oversees the facility at Norquay, said 150,000 cubic feet of peat – 30 truckloads – will be processed every day into 3,000 truckloads of outgoing finished peat per year, with 90 per cent of their products feeding the U.S. market.

“We don’t get those days back,” said Briscoe, who also oversees another facility in Millcreek in Manitoba. “A short window for us to open land in the winter, and an even shorter window to get everything in a bag and sold in the summer.”

Briscoe’s workers had just started harrowing on the day of the tour last month at the 600-acre bog in Usherville – an hour’s drive from the site. The proximity to the bogs helps explain the site location, but it can be a three-way balance game between civilization, the production and the finished goods, he added.

As much a weather-dependent industry as it is, Briscoe said, workers work year round where outside the harvest season, they take down trees, put in new ditches, creating more fields of peat to harvest.

“Every year can be different but last year we fell a few million cubic feet short because it rained too much… So you’re kind of selling futures, when you’re selling this stuff.”

At the plant’s full operation, the Norquay site has around 50 employees, from middle management level to the hourly and seasonal roles – all local – in peak season, then downsizing to 30 for the less-busier months, he said, adding that they struggle to find good skilled tradespeople in the area.

“We’re providing jobs,” Briscoe said of the first job fair they hosted in early April. “We interviewed and toured at the same time. There are at least 12 new candidates that we’ve never had before. So that was exciting.”

In his last two decades working with peat, Briscoe learned from the bottom from sweeping peat on the evening shift, to becoming the site director, plant manager to director of operations.

“It’s fun. The peat industry has an opportunity. Like for me, I started pretty young. And I didn’t have a lot of schooling, and you don’t go to school to take peat moss,” he said when walking us through the operations. “I always tell young people: ‘you can have a really good career in peat.’ Because nobody knows about it, and you get a unique experience.”

In the screening room – the dustiest and most flammable room in production where the company has recently invested a million dollars this year into cleaning – machines take the raw peat and filter out the unwanted parts before sending it to the reject conveyor belt – one worker oversees this all.

Briscoe said the company is looking to automate everything onto the belt, rather than having a loader working on-the-ground. In the packaging room, where most workers work, sits a huge pallet milling machine.

“We have two great young ladies that work here, and they put out about 600, 700 pallets a day in one shift,” he said, adding the operation relies on supplies from the local communities. “We’re buying all our fuels, all our materials, all our supplies, and everything local. So as we grow this thing (the plant) the community should grow around us.”

Back in 2016, Sunterra received approval from the provincial government to run the operations in a eight-page detailed document on its environmental impact assessment and consultations with all stakeholders involved in that area, including the local Indigenous communities and gas companies.

The length of time and amount of work in acquiring a bog in recent years have at least tripled, Briscoe said. Now acquired by Profile Product, owned by a U.S.-based private equity firm named New Mountain Capital, the practice has seen a drastic dynamic switch from its previous ownership of a father-son family business started decades ago in Manitoba.

“We’ve got lots of room to grow on our bogs, but lots of reserves,” he said of the current aggressive approach the company is leading. “We’ve got lots of room in the plant to add more equipment and people. And we intend to do so until we have the entire market shares that we want.”

For such a small niche industry, the company has involved itself with all conversations relevant, from following government policies to helping students with their thesis in various research institutes with their sites as test locations.

“We’ve been involved in environmental and social aspects of managing a natural resource since the beginning of the industry, so for 100 years, but really more actively and more consciously for the last 30 years,” said Marie-Claire LeBlanc, communications manager with the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association.

“…which is also already pioneering in a sense, because 30 years ago, no one was talking about the environment and bringing back biodiversity.”

The association has done work bringing peat-related discussions at the local, regional, provincial level, and linking it back to the national public politics to provide operational guidelines and regulate the industry. LeBlanc said opening a peat bog can take from anywhere from five to ten years in paperwork and in studies before permitting.

As an example, peatland restoration is now mandatory in every province – one has to restore their sites when the extraction phase is over, LeBlanc said, adding that the environmental questions and responsibilities are an ongoing discussion effort with their members like Sunterra.

“If you walk into a peat plant, you’ll think that it’s really big. It’s impressive, because it’s devoid of vegetation, just like an agricultural field,” she said. “But in fact, if you look at the real scale of the industry on the national level, we’re such a small living industry.”

She added later that the proportion of all Canadian peatland surfaces where the peat industry has ever had an impact totals 0.03 per cent. Of that, 30 per cent has been restored.

The 30 years of research has allowed the association to know the industry and land management that is linked to carbon emissions, LeBlanc said, in which the association also reports on carbon emissions and biodiversity to global discussions at the national level.

In May, when the harvest season starts, workers begin the bog operations and pick the peat moss out of the ground. Other than creating dust in the woods, Briscoe said people don’t realize their work contributes to the food sources – the industry surged during the pandemic because their business is providing food.

“I’ve been in this for 20 years and anytime you talk to anybody: ‘That’s not an industry. That’s dirt.’ They have no idea. No, it’s not actually dirt. It’s actually a decomposing plant,” Briscoe said. “The word ‘dirt’ is kind of a dirty word in our industry.”

Outside the rooms, Briscoe envisions a future growing more gravel, more fences, more lighting for the plant to run through the winter.

“There’s a great opportunity for young people to get into a unique industry and make careers out of it whether that’s skilled trades, management, or just general labour,” he said. “Whatever you’re into, we’ve got a job for you.”