Building a Food Cluster: Canada’s Premier Food Corridor seeking to deal Southwest Alberta into the global agri-food game
In a competitive global marketplace anything you can do as a region to increase your profile can help attract investment, and bring in new marketing opportunities, says Trevor Lewington, CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge.
“Let’s face it,” he says. “On the global stage, Alberta is almost invisible, nevermind Southern Alberta. So Lethbridge, in that sense, is basically non-existent when I travel internationally. When I tell them I’m from Lethbridge they say, ‘Where’s that?’ I tell them it’s in Alberta. ‘Where’s that?’ It’s in Western Canada.’”
That’s part of the reason why a few years ago the City of Lethbridge proposed a new alliance of sorts. An alliance between the City, Lethbridge County, the Town of Coaldale, the Town of Taber, and the MD of Taber to create a new food cluster in Southwest Alberta called Canada’s Premier Food Corridor (CPFC).
The CPFC bands the five municipal districts together to showcase what this region of Alberta offers in terms of the vast opportunities for agriculture and agri-food processing investment.
“There are a lot of places that may say they are a food cluster,” says Lethbridge County economic development officer Martin Ebel, “and may be looking at that possibility. But we have the good fortune of having the University of Lethbridge and Lethbridge College, the ag research stations, you have an incredible amount of brain power right there.
“It’s exciting because you can check all the boxes,” he adds: “Fertile soil, great climate, irrigation, a deep and long history of ag experience… The educational institutions, the research institutions, transportation— the list goes on and on. We are not missing any single component of what it would take to build a good cluster.”
Ebel adds about 70 per cent of Canada’s beef production occurs just north the five municipal districts, and 90 per cent of Canada’s total irrigated acres also exist within Canada’s Premier Food Corridor.
It’s just a matter of bringing it altogether, he says, and it’s a brand and an idea that seems to be gaining traction in the past year.
“Now comes the harder work, and it’s what we are currently engaged it,” Ebel says. “It’s kind of trying to put together how then do we actually market ourselves? And how do we prepare for what we anticipate will come? So in some cases that will vary by municipality or by area, but what Lethbridge County has to do to be ready for this along Hwy. 3 is probably quite different from what the Town of Taber or the Town of Coaldale will have to do. On the County’s side, part of my work is looking and saying if we anticipate this growth in the region, and we’re pretty sure it’s going to come, are we ready to handle that? Are we taking the steps now so in two or five years we are ready for the opportunities that are going to come to us?”
Collaboration is key to ensure communication stays open and all five districts are served equally when those opportunities begin to fully shake out, says Town of Taber economic development officer Ben Young.
“Collaboration is really something we do here in the south a lot better than other regions,” says Young. “So if someone comes to my town asking about investor opportunity in pulses, or in hemp, or whatever it is, if it doesn’t work for Taber I will gladly pass it off to Lethbridge or to Coaldale for whatever it is because that is what we do in the south. We want to provide the best opportunity for that business. So if the investment ends of happening in Lethbridge, it’s good for the region.”
Young gives the example of the recent Cavendish Farms expansion in Lethbridge to illustrate his point.
“The positive side for Taber in that is we go a lot of our trucking companies have gotten trucking contracts with Cavendish; so what’s good for one is good for all. We are all working together in the (CPFC) for the same goal.”
The MD of Taber certainly couldn’t attract international investment interest on its own without being able to count on regional partners and communities to provide the services needed to attract and retain workers, says Kirk Hughes, director of community development for the MD.
“We can no longer stand alone in these silos when you are talking about global economies,” he says. But beyond that, Hughes says one tangible benefit CPFC provides to his district is a platform to help speed up the MD’s transition from oil and gas.
“We’re certainly seeing the next step for the CPFC,” states Hughes. “For us most of the work we’re doing is agricultural-based in the MD, but we’re also transitioning. We’re transitioning from oil and gas to an alternative economic model. Some of it is alternative energy, but a big chunk of it is going to be alternative proteins. And we have that going very handily in the MD of Taber.
“We are seeing those foundations being built from local farms and within the actual industry itself,” he adds. “For example, a few months ago the MD of Taber managed to land FCL, which is a fertilizing facility co-op. That’s a major win for us because fertilizer is a major part of how we are going to be building our agricultural base of the future. That company took a $50 or $60 million risk to put a facility in the MD in order to facilitate the transfer of fertilizer onto our farms.”
Ebel also has successes to report in Lethbridge County in a similar vein.
“What Lethbridge County has been seeing is a lot of business expansion,” he says. “For example the Corteva Canola facility just to the west of Lethbridge. It has completed a two-phase expansion. They will have their grand opening in July of this year. The Whole Leaf Food facility east of Coaldale; it has doubled its footprint in the last year. So they have expanded. I think with the agri-food corridor what we can see is they realize there is going to be investment here and investment coming in. They are already situated here, but I think it gives them confidence. It’s like a bellwether that they can invest as well, and they know they are not going to see that investment get frittered away.
“So (CPFC) is an identity they can kind of be part of,” Ebel adds, “and as they consider their future plans for their current facilities they can say, ‘Yes, it’s justified putting money here because we are going to see more growth. We are going to have our competitors and perhaps our customers coming here, and it’s worth having more going on.’”
The importance of attracting such regional investments to the City of Lethbridge can also not be understated, says Lewington.
“All the elements for a food cluster are here,” he repeats. “We have world class post-secondary institutions. We have the vast majority of Canada’s irrigated land. We have the resources and the infrastructure. We have access to markets. We have all the right ingredients, but what we are doing with the food cluster is putting them into a coherent strategy.”
The pace of innovation is actually quite exciting when you think about, says Young.
“One of the investments we (in the Town of Taber) landed recently was the Grasslands Taber Collaborative, and one of the big pieces for them, and what attracted them to our region, was being part of the Food Corridor— being close to all the food production— because they want to get into the infused (cannabis) products. So where is the best place to locate it? Right where those products are being made. This is definitely not just a paper exercise. We are seeing those tangible results already from just promoting and being aware of the opportunities in the region.”
But there are still a few pieces missing, all four men agree. The region lacks the sophisticated product development infrastructure many companies are looking for like the Food Processing Development Centre one finds in Leduc.
Lewington doubts such a facility would ever be funded in Southwest Alberta, but elements of it do exist within Lethbridge’s post-secondary institutions, its local government research stations and its Tecconnect Incubator. Taken as a whole the region can boast something like a “mini Leduc” capability, he states.
Secondly, all four men agree, there needs to be more local buy-in from companies and multinationals already operating in the region.
“Now that you have a Food Corridor mapped, part of the exercise is to link businesses that don’t already do business with each other,” explains Lewington. “And if you could buy a storage vessel, or a piece of equipment, or services we currently buy from outside of the region or country.
“If you can swap that import and replace it with something that’s locally produced, that’s the synergy and the real power of a cluster. We have the food processors, but we also have the electrical companies, the food safety consultants— we have all of those vendors here. But it’s all about how do you link them together and actually combine to create greater economic activity together, and hopefully pull some of the dollars from other jurisdictions to spend them here.”
And finally, all agree, the corridor needs to attract more major investment capital to push it to the next level.
“What’s the missing ingredient? A chunk of it is around capital,” states Lewington. “There is a number of different sources of funding that can support new ideas and innovative businesses, but true venture capital, angel funds— there is sometimes a misperception there is not enough money in the pie. That’s hogwash. There is all kinds of money out there and there is more than there has ever been, but our entrepreneurs in this region sometimes have difficulty accessing that capital.
“To me that is the missing ingredient that would supercharge the cluster.”
Be that as it may, all five districts in Canada’s Premier Food Corridor are already seeing some success in attracting such capital investment in agri-food processing and agro-business, and feel confident by working together they will see even more.
“Each of us is good at certain things, and not good at certain things,” says Lewington. “But together, we are almost unstoppable. You don’t have to stretch it out to 200 km away … The vast majority of all the elements you need in food cluster are already here. I can’t think of a single global (agricultural) player or major food processor that doesn’t have a presence here. All those multinationals have some kind of presence in this region; so it is a cluster because it is actually real.”
“We can really offer a full menu, pardon the pun, when it comes to food and when it comes to foreign-direct investment,” agrees Ebel.
“Alone, I couldn’t do it,” states Hughes. “The five of us together can.”
“The Town doesn’t succeed without the farms and the agriculture within the MD, Lethbridge County and all the surrounding fields,” agrees Young. “Our big industries here would be Roger’s (Lantic) Sugar, Frito-Lay, Hostess — those don’t exist without the farming and primary production. So I think we go very well hand-in-hand together. What’s good for the towns is good for the counties, and what they are growing in the counties provides opportunity for processing and value-added agriculture in smaller communities.”