"In the future, we need good farmers who know how to market their crops and who know how to work the futures market. They need to know about all the things that a businessman in town needs to know, plus they have to know about how to put the seeds in the ground. I think there is a real need, not just for farmers but for people who work on the business side. There is a shortage of people who have a real passion for agriculture and who want to go that route. We need to raise more kids thinking agriculture is something good."
Cor Van Raay of Lethbridge is one of southern Alberta’s most prominent entrepreneurs who has strengthened the agriculture industry and ensured the future of agribusiness through 50 years of innovation. A compassionate philanthropist and community builder, his generosity has improved the lives of countless Albertans.
Cornelius Van Raay was born May 30, 1936, in Nijmegen, Holland. Although he was born into the business of horticulture, he knew the walls of a greenhouse and the Dutch geography were not to scale with his vision for his future. After completing two years of agricultural college, he moved to Canada in 1959, where the land was as large as his dreams.
He worked briefly in Vancouver as a landscaper, but soon was guided to southern Alberta by a co-worker who knew of work in Picture Butte, Alberta. Cor landed in the place where his dreams could become reality. It was there in a local coffee shop that he met his future wife Christine Witdouck. They married in 1963 and raised six children together, founding Cor Van Raay Farms along the way.
In 1964, the couple bought 320 acres of land near Iron Springs where they grew grain and rented out land to grow sugar beets. Initially, the farm struggled financially, but Cor sought work in sawmills and oilfields to get through the hard times. He was not going to be beaten.
As the farming situation improved, so did the family’s financial situation and in 1972, Cor built corrals for cattle, starting with a herd of 50 head. Through the ’70s and ’80s, the family’s cattle feeding operations expanded, while Cor and Christine continued to grow beets, later adding barley, potatoes and wheat to their crops. Cor Van Raay Farms soon became a leading Alberta cattle producer.
Part of Cor’s DNA includes the need to improve constantly. In the winter, he would take courses at Lethbridge College ranging from welding to public speaking. He appreciated reading biographies on successful businessmen to understand what it took to accomplish big visions.
He always looks for what’s next, what’s new, what can be improved and how he can achieve those improvements. As an innovator, he led the industry. Each successive feedlot was an improvement on the last as he implemented best practices and developed unprecedented efficiencies in his operations. At the same time, he focused on sound environmental stewardship and improved cattle feeding and animal handling techniques. Eventually, Cor was managing five feedlots that were seen to be some of the best in the world. Even in later years, he applied the same template to support the expansion of the lamb feeding industry in Western Canada.
This lifelong love of learning and innovation, combined with his large-scale vision for the future, are the foundations of Cor’s success. He could see beyond the farm itself to opportunities within the larger agri-food industry as a whole. So he diversified his operations to include several phases of the beef production cycle, from farm implement dealerships and trucking operations, to beef processing and exporting. His strategic marketing skills were instrumental in developing one-on-one relationships with American meat packers, subsequently starting the trend of large-scale exports of cattle to the United States.
Cor’s diversification did more than benefit his family’s bottom line. He expanded these industries in a significant way, benefitting producers, employees and consumers alike, all while raising Alberta’s profile as a world-class agri-food player.
Christine was a loving wife and smart business partner who contributed greatly to the success of Cor Van Raay Farms. When she passed away in 2005, Cor started the process of succession, eventually passing on Cor Van Raay Farms to his children. He set his sights on expanding yet again and acquired 35,000 acres of dryland near Outlook, Saskatchewan.
His lifetime passion for agriculture is matched only by his lifetime passion for fitness. He always felt a desire to maintain his health and balanced work life with activities and exercise. With more time on his hands, he ran his first of several marathons when he was 61. At 70, he cycled 7,100 km across Canada in 73 days. He also went on to cycle across large swaths of Germany, Poland, Holland, Cuba and New Zealand.
Being involved in so many aspects of the agri-food industry, Cor recognized the value of the industry in Alberta. Yet he could see that specialized agribusiness training was underdeveloped and undersubscribed locally. He knew there were gaps in the partnerships among industry and post-secondary institutions. So in 2015, he donated a substantial gift to Lethbridge College and the University of Lethbridge (matched by the Alberta government) to jointly establish the Cor Van Raay Southern Alberta Agribusiness Program.
Designed to provide leading-edge training in agribusiness practices, the program focuses on agricultural economics, entrepreneurship and innovation to produce the graduates greatly needed by the agriculture industry right across the country. Through the program, Cor is helping develop agricultural entrepreneurs who will create opportunities for themselves, as well as the employees who will fill the emerging jobs.
Cor recognizes that Canada and, more specifically, southern Alberta have provided the opportunities that contribute to his success. So with gratitude and generosity, he gives back by supporting causes he believes in, especially organizations and institutions that people of all ages and backgrounds can enjoy. His gifts to the YMCA, Lethbridge College and the University of Lethbridge are a few that speak to the things he values most.
A long-time supporter of the YMCA of Lethbridge and a champion for community health, Cor donated one of the largest gifts ever to a Canadian YMCA. With his gift, the Y was able to purchase the fitness and recreation equipment for its new facility in West Lethbridge, the third largest YMCA in North America, now named the Cor Van Raay YMCA.
Other community-based organizations in Lethbridge that have benefitted from his gifts include the Chinook Regional Hospital Foundation, École Agnes Davidson School, Helen Schuler Nature Centre and St. Michael’s Health Centre/Covenant Health Foundation. His latest endeavour is supporting the creation of the Cor Van Raay LINK Pathway, a 14-km paved trail connecting Lethbridge and Coaldale, giving cyclists, walkers and runners a safe long distance trail to use and appreciate the beautiful countryside.
Cor has also supported the town of Picture Butte with donations to Picture Butte High School, St. Catherine’s School, St. Catherine’s parish, parks and the brand new swimming pool, which was subsequently renamed the Cor Van Raay & Community Aquatic Centre. In Saskatchewan near his newer farming operation, he contributed to the swimming pool in Outlook and the fire hall in Conquest.
In 2020, Cor worked with the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta to establish the Cor Van Raay Endowment Fund. Through the fund, his generosity will continue to change lives for generations to come.
For all the publicity surrounding his large gifts, there have been legions of smaller gifts made without fanfare. More than once while reading the local news, he was moved to reach out to agencies like the Interfaith Food Bank Society of Lethbridge to offer immediate financial assistance. Similarly, because he understood Canada’s role in the liberation of his native country, Cor quietly supported the Community Foundation’s poppy campaign.
Cor’s achievements have earned him many accolades. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alberta Cattle Feeders in 2011 and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. In 2015, the University of Lethbridge presented him with an honorary doctorate. In 2016, he was inducted into the Alberta Agriculture Hall of Fame, and he was recognized in 2017 with an Inspiring Philanthropy Award on National Philanthropy Day. Picture Butte made him Citizen of the Year in 2020.
Cor learned that he was to receive the Alberta Order of Excellence in the summer of 2021, but passed away on July 29, 2021, before the investiture ceremony. He is survived by his sons Kenneth and Darren, daughters Brenda, Sandra, Colleen, and Michelle; 11 grandchildren; and companion Julie.