By Stan Ashbee
Sunny South News
Agriculture is one of southern Alberta’s greatest assets and resources. Farming and ag-related business is an important aspect to country/rural living throughout the southern portions of the province. Many municipalities and counties rely on local traditional and diversified agricultural-related business for a vibrant economy bustling with opportunities into the future.
“Agriculture is the main sector in Lethbridge County. Agriculture has always been important — we all have to eat. It’s going to continue to be important, in fact, even more important,” said Martin Ebel, Lethbridge County’s Economic Development Officer (EDO).
According to the EDO, in countries such as China, India and Brazil there is a tremendous amount of emerging middle-class growth in the hundreds of millions and one of the first things people tend do with more money is bump up their diet. “Before, you could only have meat once a month, maybe now you’re having it once a week or if you could only have the cheapest of grains, now you’re having more expensive and more nutritious grain. The demand for agricultural products is not going to diminish, it’s only going to increase. That puts Lethbridge County and rural agricultural communities in a good position,” he noted.
Certain industries are tailing off in Alberta and throughout the country but Ebel added that will never happen with agriculture. “Unless there’s some magical pill that’s developed like in science fiction, where you take a pill and that gives you a full meal,” he hypothesized.
Ebel said agriculture has a very firm foundation but the industry continues to change very rapidly. “The family farm isn’t what it used to be. You’ve got a lot more corporate or large-scale farms, you’ve got more and more automation and use of computer and GPS technology — eventually maybe unmanned farming machines that will be robot-controlled and hooked up to GPS and they’ll harvest or seed. We’re not there yet but 20 or 30 years from now, that might be the norm here in North America,” he speculated, adding farming though has not been a go away.
One of the questions for local municipalities and counties moving forward is — how to be sustainable and how to build on that, while building other parts of local economies to ensure diversification.
Sustainability, especially for the Lethbridge County area, has two components, according to Ebel. “Right now, the county is dealing with a huge infrastructure deficit — 1,800 kilometres plus of roads we’re responsible for and 100 plus bridges. These things were built at a different time to different standards, and even so, they’ve served us well but after 50 or 60 years things wear out. You see it with railway locomotives, you see it with airplanes and you see if with bridges. At a certain point, the metal is fatigued or the wood planks have succumbed to dry rot or whatever the problems are and it’s just time to replace them,” Ebel noted, adding right now that is one of the biggest challenges for the county and other municipalities in southern Alberta. “To make sure agriculture can continue to be sustainable. We need to address this infrastructure deficit. Farmers need to be able to continue to haul the inputs into their operations and take their products out — whether that’s beef cattle or sugar beets or potatoes or whatever. That infrastructure needs to be there for them,” he said.
Ebel said the other part of sustainability is building on agriculture — what can counties or municipalities do to ensure farmers or producers continue to have lots of choices and the local area isn’t just maintaining the status quo but actually moving forward.
One answer, Ebel explained, is non-traditional crops. “We see that already with the growing popularity of hemp, as a crop in southern Alberta.”
In the county, Ebel said, the new DuPont/Pioneer corn research facility has invested tens of millions of dollars into the area with an eye to the future.
“Seeing corn becoming more of a popular crop on the Canadian prairies.”
Another possible crop in the southern Alberta area could be poppies. “Let’s hope API Labs is successful. We may see poppies being grown. This isn’t your traditional wheat, barley, canola, hay and everything like that. These are higher value crops, specialized crops, and it’s not just that they would displace the other crops but it gives farmers more options,” he said. “If we can take these crops and process them here and value here it helps with that long-term sustainability and diversification.”
For an example, Ebel said, local operations don’t want to send raw product such as chick peas by the truck to some place in the United States to be processed into protein or whey powder. “Let’s do that in southern Alberta. Whether it’s Lethbridge County or the M.D. of Taber, it doesn’t matter. I’d rather much see it in Taber than in Iowa,” he said.
Southern Alberta is also starting to realize the potential for the bio-industrial sector. “We’re starting to get some traction there, which I’m really excited about.”
There are sectors in North America such as the computer, Internet and hi-tech industry in Silicon Valley in the United States or a cluster of petro-chemical and petroleum-based industries in Alberta’s heartland around Edmonton. “Maybe we could have kind of a cluster of bio-industrials in and around Lethbridge and area. Taking advantage of our agriculture of non-traditional crops and new technology synthesizing whether it’s compounds for medicine like API Labs would like to do with their poppies, maybe it’s using hemp fibre in auto parts, maybe it’s using straw in construction products. We’re just scratching the surface — bio-industrials is a kind of a new field,” he said.