Food processing is an important economic engine for Alberta – employing more than 25,000 people. It is Alberta’s second largest manufacturing sector. As such, it is commendable that the Standing Committee on Alberta’s Economic Future, a body comprised of 15 provincial legislators, is working to prepare an agri-food and agri-business strategy by April 20, 2017. However, the Standing Committee must be careful to ensure that this strategy does not pick out ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the industry, favouring one commodity or product over another. Rather, the Government of Alberta is better placed to bring together relevant stakeholders to form a coherent start-up ecosystem for the food processing industry.
Recent major investments, such as the $350 million expansion by Cavendish Farms in Lethbridge, show that Alberta is already able to attract and retain large food processors. But micro-processors looking to scale up and commercialize their food products, at least beyond the local farmers’ market, have limited options. The services offered by the Leduc Food Processing Development Centre go some way toward addressing this, leasing production facilities and office space to start-ups who are looking to scale up or to test new products. Located less than five kilometres away from Edmonton International Airport, it is also easy to see how the Food Processing Development Centre can help bring a start-up to export-readiness. Furthermore, the Government of Alberta has wisely invested $10 million in doubling the size of the facility’s space by the end of 2019.
Beyond Leduc, however, there is relatively little incubator/accelerator support. Academic institutions, like Olds College and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), have openly discussed their potential as food processing incubators. Meanwhile, efforts to establish the Cochrane CookHouse – an incubator, community kitchen, and farmers’ market under one roof – fell through in 2014 due to lack of funding. This relative lack of support for food processing start-ups stifles innovation in Alberta and leaves entrepreneurs with few options other than to take their ideas (and the job creation potential) with them to other provinces or to the United States.
Speaking to the Standing Committee on Alberta’s Economic Future in February 2017, Paul Pryce, the Alberta Council of Technologies’ (ABCtech) Director for Agriculture & Asian Relations outlined what a coherent food processing ecosystem might look like in Alberta. This would entail several incubators or incubator hubs across the province, each focused on a specific region and potentially on certain kinds of products. This would reduce the pressure on the Leduc Food Processing Development Centre and ensure that entrepreneurs located elsewhere in the province do not ‘fall through the cracks’. Start-ups that graduate from these incubators could later then further scale up production for export-readiness through the services of a fee-for-service accelerator similar in nature to POS Bio-Sciences in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
It is also worth noting that a province-wide food processing ecosystem could help to realize previously untapped agri-tourism opportunities. Public opinion polling in Canada and the US shows increased interest among ‘millennials’ in rural tourism and the image of “simple country living”, while the restaurant industry has recognized the growing appetite among consumers for the “field to fork” or “gate to plate” culinary experience. If anything, the success of brewery or vineyard tours shows us that the average consumer doesn’t just want to eat their food but experience it, getting to know where the product is made, how, by whom, and why. Elsewhere in the world, food processing incubators like Union Kitchen in Washington, DC have become tourist attractions and social hubs. Tapping this agri-tourism potential would allow incubators to have an even greater economic impact for the Albertan communities and regions they serve.
That the issue of agri-food is on the agenda at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta is commendable. The federal and provincial governments are also working on the development of funding priorities for the ‘Next Agricultural Policy Framework’, which be launched in April 2018, and issues of food processing and agri-tourism have largely been missing from the discussion. As such, Alberta is ahead of the game. The challenge in the coming months will be to avoid adopting vague targets – the Standing Committee on Alberta’s Economic Future has been encouraged by some stakeholders to seek a doubling of the province’s agricultural production by 2025 – and instead focus on concrete actions.
Seeking Agriculture and/or Food Processing Association
… interested in exhibiting their innovators and innovations at our Festival of Big Ideas in Edmonton in June. Contact pkinkaide@ABCtech.ca or phone 1-866-241-7535 or local (780) 990-5874
Source: ABC Tech