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A report released last week by The School of Public Policy refers to Alberta’s agri-food industry as a “gentle giant that’s about to awaken,” and could be a big player in the province’s post-COVID-19 rebound.

© Michael Interisano/Getty Images Field of flowering potato plants growing in Alberta.

The authors of the report, Karen Spencer and Kim McConnell, found the industry is in a great place, with the potential to “serve the changing appetite of Canadians and the Western world.”

Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Devin Dreeshen said he believes the industry is a key component to the province’s economic recovery.

“There’s tremendous growth potential in agriculture and we’re starting to see those types of investments land here already.

“I think with COVID(-19)… it just highlighted its importance even more — when you looked at the border staying open entirely for food products coming in and out of this province,” Dreeshen said.

While the main driver of Alberta’s economy for many years was oil and gas, agriculture is not taking the stage, experts say.

“We hope that this report brings (agriculture) back to the foreground and we can show people how important it is for all of us. It’s a need, it’s a necessity, and how much impact we have on the economy with our agriculture industry,” Spencer said.

The report points to data from Statistics Canada and the Canadian Energy Regulator, which show total sales in Alberta’s agri-food sector last year was 31 per cent higher than the province’s gross crude oil sales.

The multi-pronged report is part of the Alberta Futures Project, which Spencer said is focused on developing some specific policy recommendations on how to help kick-start the Alberta economy post pandemic.

In 2019, Alberta’s primary agriculture sector hired 49,000 people, making the agri-food industry the province’s largest employer, according to Statistics Canada.

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The report points out specific obstacles and challenges farmers face which could be preventing them from doing business in the best and most efficient way.

“One of the big ones that we see… that perhaps people within our cities aren’t really aware of… is the internet,” Spencer said.

“There are statistics that show that about 50 per cent — or under 50 per cent — of rural Albertans have what would be deemed an unacceptable level of internet connectivity.”

Spencer pointed out the irony of that statistic considering how advanced technology is within farming equipment, yet rural connectivity is years behind where it should be, compared to higher populated areas.

Read more: Research project helps Alberta grain farmers improve storage methods

When asked about how the province plans to address that issue, Dreeshen said the government has launched a new Canadian Agriculture Partnership (CAP) program with farmers to provide “internet boosters” and other technology advances.

The Farm Technology Program is focused on sensors that contribute to farm data systems, as well as technology-based security devices, while supporting producers protect their businesses through the adoption of best management practices in farm security.

“The Internet of Things is obviously very important to a lot of industries, but there’s so much potential for it in agriculture,” Dreeshen added.

Advanced technology has been a huge focus in the agriculture industry over the past couple of decades and Spencer believes the trend will continue to make the industry sustainable and, in turn, a leading economic driver.

“So right now, about 70 per cent of our crops in Alberta use precision agriculture and that’s a method that is sustainable, it retains more carbon in the soil, it means that farmers can use less added fertilizers and so on,” Spencer said.

However, she added “that sustainability has to be married with economic sustainability so that it can be, really, an answer to growing Alberta’s economy.”

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The School of Public Policy is hoping the new report will shine light on the success in Alberta’s agri-food industry, but also bring attention to struggles producers face and what’s causing roadblocks for future growth.

“One of the things… the school is really good at is we do not just produce papers that just sit on shelves and collect dust, we produce papers but we are very active at communicating them to both the public and to policymakers within government and, of course, elsewhere,” Spencer said.

She added this report is written in layman’s terms and hopes it’s easy enough to understand, so everyone can get something out of it. However, the biggest goal is to have the government implement policies that will help further the agriculture industry in our province, allowing it to strengthen — or at least stabilize — Alberta’s economy.

“We’d love to take the next step and work on some more specific policy discussions with stakeholders, and see what we can do,” Spencer said.

The minister of agriculture said the government appreciates these types of reports that have “a different lens than we typically would as a government.”

“These types of reports are helpful in us when we consult with industry stakeholders, when we consult with farmers and ranchers to figure out what we, as government, can do to… help, but also what we can do to not hurt that the industry so it’s helpful,” Dreeshen said.

“And like I said, there’s tremendous growth potential.”