The frozen tundra of northern Alberta is the setting for a hot new idea that’s poised to foster innovation, create jobs, support livestock production and give young people an entrée to the business.
Do you want to help foster positive change for the animal agriculture and meat processing industries? And support your local economy? And create jobs? And provide opportunities for a younger generation to enter the business?
Of course you do. There’s no downside to that agenda.
This week’s conversation is with a man who’s developing a project is aimed at doing all of the above. Best of all, despite his academic credentials, what he’s developing doesn’t involve rocket science. Or brain surgery — just an innovative partnership between farmers, producers and processors and the resources of a local community college that’s thinking big and acting boldly about the future of its local economy and the job prospects of its students.
The man’s name is Paul Pelletier. He’s the Dean of Food Sciences at Portage College in St Paul, Alberta, Canada, which for anyone who’s visited the upper reaches of that prairie province, is located so far north even Canadians admit it’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Pelletier’s project is developing what’s being called the Food Sciences Training Centre and Business Incubator at Portage College, and he took some time out from enjoying the area’s below-zero temperatures last month to discuss the potential of his project with Contributing Editor Dan Murphy.
Q. Let’s start with a little background on northern Alberta. What’s it like there and what are the region’s economic drivers?
Pelletier: Well, we’re one of the few areas in Canada with virtually no unemployment. There are so few people here, relative to the size of the energy industries, that anyone who wants to work can get a job. But the regional economy is also based very strongly on agriculture, mainly cash crops, such as grain and soybeans, and cattle production.
Q. And farming and ranching was the basis of this “incubator” idea?
Pelletier: Yes. We have a lot of small farmers’ markets here in our area. They’re successful, but they’re very small, very local. We started to think, why not turn this kind of activity into an actual industry? That’s when the idea of creating a “regional brand” was first developed, a brand unique to northeast Alberta. At that time, an older school building in the area was about to be demolished, and so we floated the idea of turning the property into a food sciences and business development center.
Q. Obviously, that took place, as you mentioned. So what are the facilities at this center?
Pelletier: Right now, we’re just getting underway as the interior renovation is about complete. We have test kitchens and a production center for scaling up, not high-volume; more of a “micro-processing center.” We call it benchtop production, but it’s a vital step in going from developing formulations to actual commercial production.
Q. If this center succeeds, and you do attract a fair number of small farmers, ranchers or processors who begin to develop marketable products, are you concerned about push-back from commercial food companies? Aren’t you creating competitors for them?
Pelletier: Our vision is that we can be an incubator for this region, that entrepreneurs will come here with good ideas, whether that’s a new product concept or a family recipe. They’ll be able to use our facilities to determine whether the product is possible to commercialize.
Q. What types of products do you envision?
Pelletier: Most likely first-to-market products, convenience items, ones that we hope are unique to this areas of Alberta. In fact, we have a project planned to develop aboriginal products, from the First Nations tribes here in the area, including an energy bar made with traditional ingredients and some specialized meat products.
Q. You have the equipment to conduct meat processing?
Pelletier: We have a small-scale meat lab with sausage-making and other capabilities; ovens; a bakery; a kettle line for jams, jellies and such; and a packaging line so that entrepreneurs can also explore viable packaging options and material costs. We can even provide the lab services to help them develop nutritional labeling, and all along the way, the students at the college will be learning the knowledge and practical skills they need to earn foodservice and food processing certificates.
Q. I understand that the goal is for the center to become self-sufficient in terms of its operating revenue, but do you envision benefits that would extend beyond the college itself?
Pelletier: Yes, that’s a critical piece of our project. We have a large First Nations representation around here, so that is one group that can benefit from using our center to add value to some of their traditional foods and ingredients. But another goal is to support what we call “acreage farming,” the 10- to 20-acre operations that are under competitive pressure from larger, more efficient farmers and producers. If those folks have a way to create something unique from their crops or livestock, if they can process and market products directly to a segment of consumers, then they have a way to stay viable.
Mixed farming, with various specialty crops and animals on limited acreage, used to be the model. We want to provide a means for those farmers and ranchers to stay on their land and still earn a profit. We see that as one of our roles as a college serving this province.
› For more information on Portage College’s new incubator, log onto www.portagecollege.ca/News_Front/News_Archive/New_Food_Processing_Facility.htm
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.