Agri-business boom keeping economic downturn at bay in parts of southern Alberta

It doesn't usually get as much attention as the province's oil and gas sector, but the agriculture industry is protecting much of southern Alberta from the economic downturn right now.

LETHBRIDGE — It doesn’t usually get as much attention as the province’s oil and gas sector, but the agriculture industry is protecting much of southern Alberta from the economic downturn right now.

The city of Lethbridge and surrounding area are enjoying a bit of a boom largely fuelled by high beef prices and a burgeoning agri-food manufacturing industry.

“It’s a very, very different picture here from the rest of the province,” said Trevor Lewington, CEO of Economic Development Lethbridge.

“We’ve never had the oil and gas, so we’ve never had the boom from that, but the flip side is we don’t see the significant downside when things go the other way.

“That’s not to say there aren’t storm shadows on the horizon. Clearly there’s risk and we’re not an impenetrable fortress over here.”

Alberta’s agriculture industry has always been at the mercy of Mother Nature and commodity prices.

But beef prices have been high, the crops have been good in southern Alberta and no matter what the economy is like people still need to eat, said Lewington.

The area is home to Maple Leaf Pork, Richardson’s canola-crushing facility, Frito Lay’s snacks plant and Cavendish Farms, producer of frozen potato products — all major employers in southern Alberta.

Nearby Taber, Alta., produces sought-after table corn in the fall, sugar beets are a big crop and cattle ranches dot the countryside.

Lewington said there is also an emerging information and technology sector that, although small, offers opportunity for future employment growth.

But agriculture, which brings about $1 billion to the area each year, that’s the economic power behind Lethbridge’s boom, Lewington said.

“Sixty per cent of Canada’s beef industry is in this region … We’ve got a pretty big cluster of agri-food and agricultural-related industries.”

The employment rate for southern Alberta is 5.8 per cent, which is well below the province’s January jobless rate of 7.4 per cent.

Lethbridge’s mayor said the unemployment rate in his city is more like four per cent and, although there have been some job losses due to low oil prices, things are pretty good.

“People are being laid off in Lethbridge who work in the oil sector,” said Chris Spearman. “We’ve had people who live in Lethbridge who got flown to Fort McMurray on a regular basis to do shifts up there, so those people would be effected.

“We’re not immune.”

Because there’s never been the benefit of oil and gas development, the goal is to attract even more agri-related businesses to a region, Spearman said.

“In the long term, agriculture is going to be the industry to be in, because the number of people growing food for the world population is diminishing. If your expertise is agri-business, you’re going to have a very bright future.”