The Town of Lincoln and Niagara College hosted an agricultural symposium last week, inviting 90 people in the agricultural sector from across the Golden Horseshoe to talk about growing the food and farming cluster in the region. In the photo, answering questions from the audience are presenters, from left: VRIC CEO Jim Brandle, GHFFA executive director Janet Horner, Food and Beverage Ontario innovation program director Al Brezina, and OMAFRA regional economic development advisor Kim Reep.
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — A hub is only as useful as the wheel it supports.
In the case of agriculture in the Golden Horseshoe, the Town of Lincoln has positioned itself as the hub, and on Friday it reached out to strengthen the bonds that will make its official designation as a Centre of Excellence for Agriculture a success. Teaming up with Niagara College, town officials held a symposium entitled “The Road to Defining a Centre of Excellence for Agriculture and Food Serving Niagara and Beyond.” The symposium brought politicians, town planners and agricultural advocates from around the Niagara region and beyond together to discuss Lincoln’s designation and how it can be beneficial in the broader Niagara context.
Considering Lincoln’s designation as a Centre of Excellence for Agriculture is a first of its kind in the region it’s perhaps not surprising that innovation was a major theme at Friday’s symposium. Representatives from the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, Grape Growers of Ontario, Niagara College and Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance spoke of the various technological and other innovations being undertaken throughout the region.
“Agricultural innovation sustains our species,” said Jim Brandle, CEO of VRIC. “It’s not a better cell phone or a better car, this is how we stay alive.”
With the global population soaring Brandle said the world’s farmers will have to do more with less in the coming decades. At VRIC, researchers have developed products like the Crazee Mite, a new pest-control method for greenhouses.
“It’s a brand new agent for controlling aphids and mealybugs,” he said, adding the mite also happens to be a native of St. Catharines.
With Lincoln having such a strong horticultural base, Brandle said it’s also time to bring automation to that sector. While grain farmers and dairy operators can maintain huge operations with low labour costs, horticulture farmers continue to rely on temporary and migrant farm workers and the overhead that goes with it.
Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of the Grape Growers of Ontario, also pointed to the innovation of vineyards in her sector. She pointed to Brock University’s Vine Alert program, which alerts grape growers when temperatures drop to dangerous levels. It’s specific to location and grape variety, providing growers with precise information on when to turn on their wind machines.
“Since having Vine Alert these crop losses have been reduced dramatically,” she said.
For others, innovation wasn’t just about new technology, but new ways to tell their stories. Al Brezina, innovation program director at Food and Beverage Ontario, talked about the importance of promoting the industry.
“In any day you can pick up the paper and see a story on the auto sector, but you probably won’t see a story on food and beverage,” he said. However, given the sector brings in $40 billion in revenues annually, Brezina said it is a huge economic driver.
And the symposium is about more than just agriculture, said Lincoln’s CAO Mike Kirkopoulos.
“It is as much about agriculture as it is about job creation, research, creating complete communities as well as supporting agriculture through research and development,” he said.
“We need to look at the community through a rural lens,” said Lincoln Mayor Sandra Easton. “Normal farming practices must be considered in all our decisions.”
What the other speakers had to say
Janet Horner, executive director for Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance: Much of the work of GHFFA is breaking down the barriers between municipalities, levels of government and organizations. Horner pointed to the agricultural mapping tools the organization has developed and is now shared between staff at the provincial and municipal levels.
Horner said the Golden Horseshoe’s food and farming cluster is the third largest of its kind in North America.
Kim Reep, regional economic development advisor with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs: “Hello, I’m from the government and we’re here to help,” she said, to much applause from those in attendance. Reep went over some of the programs the provincial government has undertaken to help those in the food and farming sector innovate and develop. Those programs include the Rural Economic Development program, wine and grape strategy, local food fund and a business retention and expansion program in Northumberland County.
Evan Acs, economic development officer with the City of Port Colborne: innovations can present both opportunities and challenges. Acs outlined the city’s transition from Carbohydrate Valley to its new role within the food processing sector. As health concerns about high fructose corn syrup led to lowering consumer demand Port Colborne had to reposition itself when former major employer Ingredion (previously Casco) pulled out of the city.
“We now focus on other food processing opportunities,” he said.
Those other opportunities include Jungbunzlauer, a global company that manufactures citric acid, special salts and sweeteners and other products from renewable raw materials, poultry processors Pinty’s and the city’s various grain elevators and terminals.
Gregor MacLean, research project manager for Niagara College’s Agriculture and Environment Innovation Centre: researchers at the college are eager to collaborate with local farmers. His department has been hard at work developing useful precision agriculture tools that need real world test sites.
“The Centre for Excellence in Agriculture helps us connect with people,” he said.
Don Cyr, professor of finance and former dean of the Goodman School of Business at Brock University: Issues the university has researched include social licence, the need to present straightforward answers to questions such as genetically modified organisms and climate change, and promotion of Canadian food and beverages globally. Cyr said there are great opportunities for Canadian food producers to help feed the burgeoning Chinese middle class, and Niagara’s already strong relationship with China can make the region a leader when it comes to those opportunities.