Southern Alberta is indeed exposed to problems with agricultural global trade, said Peter Casurella, executive director of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative.
“About 90 per cent of what we grow here in Canada we dump into shipping containers and we ship it overseas for other people to take advantage of. So on one side, that's a big weakness for us. Geopolitical disruption hits our agriculture industry hard. On the plus side, our government has been historically pretty good at stepping in to sustain farmers when things like that happen,” Casurella pointed out.
“You don't want your industry to rely on those kind of cycles, but at least our people are going to pull through this. It's not like China starts to ban our products and boom, everybody's broke.”
Another positive aspect, Casurella added, is there is an overabundance of demand for products grown in Alberta. “It's no surprise, as long as the food can keep well, there's going to be an end market for it. Sometimes that means farmers have to sell it at a bit of a discount or brokers don't make the kind of money they were looking for, but I haven't heard anybody say they haven't been able to find markets for what they're selling.”
“There's somebody willing to buy and that's a good thing. The advantage we have here is having a trusted brand and there being a genuine global demand for the food products,” Casurella added.
What the southern Alberta area is working on south of Calgary, Casurella explained, is a growing value-added food cluster. “We have almost as many value-added food processing businesses, as the entire city of Calgary.”
When one looks at disruptions to trade, Casurella said, that's an extra impetus that could help motivate the business community to branch out, diversify and start doing value-added processing in southern Alberta. “Which is what we are trying to achieve.”
An interesting advancement to watch for in southern Alberta, with five of SouthGrow's participating communities along Highway 3, is Canada's Premiere Food Corridor. “A branded initiative to advertise the region as a genuine cluster for industry development,” said Casurella, who also sits on the advisory of the board.
“We just have to do a little bit of education work and bring on board the large industries located here. These are business people who understand the value of industry-led cluster development, as much as we do as economic developers. There's a genuine advantage to be had, when people working in the same industry, actually work together,” said Casurella.
Currently, SouthGrow is working on a state of the ecosystem report, Casurella said. “Basically, looking at the actual state of the agri-food economy in southern Alberta and giving it a grade across a number of factors. Identifying weak points and points we're very strong in. Just to advocate to our own people, advocate for the business community and to make sure all levels of government are aware of all the easy wins that can be had in the sector in southern Alberta.”
Casurella added SouthGrow will be at Ag Expo at Exhibition Park in Lethbridge Feb. 26-28.
“We are doing an innovation corner. We've got a big chunk of space in the middle of the expo. SouthGrow and our partners with the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta and we're going to have a bunch of speakers.”