Saskatchewan’s ‘Iron Triangle’ a hub for ag manufacturing innovation

By J. Robert Shanks. 

Gifted with a rich farming tradition and 40 per cent of Canada’s arable land, Saskatchewan is synonymous with agriculture in the minds of many.

But the reputation belongs with more than farmers alone. The province is also home to a burgeoning shortline and OEM agricultural manufacturing base, which — in 2017 — exported roughly $300 million in product to markets around the world.

The strength of the industry is, perhaps, not surprising — especially given that 85 per cent of Saskatchewan’s GDP is generated outside of its high-profile resource sectors.

Ag manufacturers have proven to be one of the brightest and most creative stars of Saskatchewan’s economy. Largely composed of small businesses, they have built a sterling international reputation for quality and innovation, and the ‘made in Saskatchewan’ brand is sought after at trade shows and equipment showcases from Red Deer to Germany to Kazahkstan, and everywhere in between.

Many of these businesses are located outside of the province’s two largest cities. The rural area east of Saskatoon in particular has strong history of being a furnace of ag manufacturing activity.

Centered around the town of Humboldt, the region has a humble population of about 6,800 people — more than 1,300 of whom are employed in manufacturing. Trailer manufacturer Doepker Industries, headquartered in the village of Annaheim, population 210, represents one corner of this ag manufacturing hub — affectionately known as the Iron Triangle. This ‘triangle’ is formed geographically by Doepker, world-leading air seeder manufacturer Bourgault Industries in St. Brieux, and Schulte Industries, a maker of shortline agricultural equipment in Englefeld that has been around for a century and now has sales on five continents.

These firms are not alone. Other manufacturers in the area include: Commercial Industrial Manufacturing (Humboldt), a builder of steel products such as truck boxes; Koenders Manufacturing (Englefeld), which specializes in plastic moulded products for the recreation and agricultural industry; specialty tarp maker Michel’s (St. Gregor); and Highline Manufacturing (Vonda), which produces rock pickers and balers.

The Iron Triangle’s origins are rooted in response to the needs of farmers. Saskatchewan, it turns out, is a superb place to develop and establish an agricultural equipment business: The large local market is an ideal arena for testing new products, and companies can find their feet before turning their attention to potential global growth.

This dynamic, paired with the availability of other supports, have enabled these entrepreneurial enterprises to continually punch above their weight class, in trade and in commercialization.

Humboldt is home to the Prairie Agricultural Manufacturing Institute (PAMI) — a research, development, and testing organization, with diverse engineering expertise. PAMI serves all three levels of government and manufacturers from coast to coast — and not just related to agriculture, either. PAMI has customers spanning transportation, defence, aeronautics, forestry, and mining as well.

“PAMI has benefited greatly from being located within the Iron Triangle. Sharing a common rural background and agrarian roots, we have enjoyed decades-long relationships with all of these companies,” says David Yee, vice president of PAMI’s Saskatchewan operations. “The body of work and the international reputation PAMI has developed over the years was built on the projects developed in collaboration with rural-based manufacturers. We continue to see this category of manufacturers as a core and critical engine for growth and innovation within the marketplace of agriculture and other sectors they have branched out to.”