Growing up I spent a lot of time in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, where my grandparents and uncles farmed for more than 50 years. And when I moved to Summerland I couldn’t help but think that this was like the Niagara of my childhood, made even more beautiful with mountains. The meandering views, the orchards, vineyards, fresh picked fruit and bountiful markets, affect all of us who visit and live here. But what about beyond what we see and taste? What is agriculture doing in our economy?
Canada has about 7% of its land that is suitable for farming and of that, 4% is located in BC. Overall in Canada, primary agriculture accounts for a much smaller share of output and jobs than in earlier years. For example, in Kelowna, the share of the population directly employed in agriculture is less than 2%. And there are those who believe that food production can be more cost effectively left to other countries, even after accounting for environmental impacts.
However, we also know that the processing of ag products, as well as retailing, food services, transportation, handling and the provision of input supplies to primary agriculture are major Canadian industries.
Wine is one great example of beverage processing. In BC the Okanagan region is the major wine producing area. The BC Wine Institute reports that, in 2011, the BC wine and grape industry alone contributed 1.43 billion to the provincial economy and counting jobs and taxes, had an overall economic impact of over 2 billion. Remember those beautiful vineyards I mentioned earlier? The wine industry also brought 800,000 wine tourists to the province, primarily benefiting the Okanagan region.
So while primary agriculture has its challenges, niche agriculture products and support have excellent growth potential, both in BC and closer to home. The Government of BC is also looking at this and, as part of its 2015 – 2018 strategic plan, has prioritized the growth of the agri-food and technology sectors.
To respond to these opportunities, and as part of the sector development work the Summerland Chamber of Commerce is involved in with the District of Summerland and the South Okanagan regional economic development group, we have been exploring the agricultural technology sector for a few years.
What started as casual conversations began to coalesce into more meaningful discussions with government and industry leaders around the possibilities to grow businesses in these sectors in Summerland. For example, precision science and technology services pertaining to agriculture, supply chain businesses in the wine industry, neutraceutical and biotechnology companies, businesses that work in telematics, RFID technology, soil sensors, RTK navigation systems, etc., are all potential business that could be a fit for our community.
There are a number of reasons why Summerland is a great choice for growth in this area. We are a community founded in the agricultural sector and, in particular, we are home to the cutting-edge Summerland Research and Development Centre. Over the years, world renowned food based bio-technology companies have begun as research projects at the Centre and then commercialized, grown and remained in Summerland and we know that cluster opportunities exist.
Entrepreneurs in these sectors are also seeing global threats as potential business opportunities.
Studies show that climate change in this region will require significant adaptation to ensure long term success for this sector. The BC Agriculture Climate Change Adaptation Risk + Opportunity Assessment Report of 2012 states that new ways to deal with water use, pest management and disease control are critical to the industry. However, the development of these responses as well as agriculture technology, innovation and information management systems can reduce operating costs, precisely control inputs and improve yields for producers in the Okanagan and globally.
We shouldn’t forget that Summerland is also ideally situated in the heart of the Okanagan with close proximity to major centres such as Kelowna and Penticton, fast access to two airports and easy connections to major highways that take our products east to the rest of Canada, west to the Lower Mainland and south to the US.
Agricultural technology businesses located in Summerland would provide increased economic and employment opportunities in our community and region and build on Summerland’s deep roots in agriculture.
Sector development is not a fast process but real strides can be made in 3-5 years. We hope the community will be interested in supporting this development.
Christine Petkau is Executive Director of the Summerland Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Summerland. The Chamber is also responsible for business retention, expansion and attraction (economic development services) on behalf of the District of Summerland.