'Great opportunity': Alberta's agri-food industry to kickstart economic recovery: report

While many of Alberta's major industries slowed down during the pandemic, there's one big outlier: Agri-food.

A new report from the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy says the province's agri-food producers will play a major part in Alberta's economic recovery. The province has the talent, land and climate to do so, the report says.

"There's great opportunity to use those resources and really kickstart back into a growing economy in 2021...and into the future," said Karen Spencer with the U of C's Simpson Centre for Agricultural and Food Innovation.

The report said Alberta's agri-food producers brought in $56 billion in 2020, higher than the $39 billion in crude oil sales last year.

Alberta's biggest agri-food products include cattle, canola, wheat, pork and dairy. More than 40 per cent of Canada's cattle inventory is in Alberta and about a third of the country's canola and wheat production is in this province.

"I have to admit that there's times when we in agriculture feel like that forgotten step child. We have been an integral part in building this province into what it is," said Cherie Copithorne-Barnes with CL Ranches.

She's a fourth-generation Alberta rancher and has seen the industry grow, especially during the pandemic.

"We are an integral part of every supermarket you go to buy your food," she said.

"Alberta is especially positioned to be able to provide as much food as needed for this province."

PROVINCE'S LARGEST EMPLOYER

The agri-food industry is Alberta's largest employer with about 49,000 people working in primary agriculture alone. Tens of thousands more people work in producing, processing, transporting and retail related to agri-food.

But access to labour and rural connectivity problems could be barriers that could slow the potential growth, the report says.

"The larger the farm, the more critical it is that they have access to a labour force," said Tom Steve with the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions.

Still, Steve said, the sector is showing promise and resiliency, even with a pandemic and global economic downturn.

"It's a big sector. It's often been not fully appreciated, I think, because of the size and scope of the oil industry. Now we're seeing this other industry has a lot of potential," he said.