From the far northwest corner of the province to its southern boundary, Alberta is a place of remarkable agricultural productivity. In the northern Mackenzie region, long days of summer sunshine – about 19 hours at the equinox – allow farmers to grow grains with higher weight and protein levels and grow oil seeds with higher omega content than more southerly jurisdictions.
In the south, a region known as Canada’s Premier Food Corridor (CPFC) benefits from superior irrigation and growing conditions, which allow more than 65 specialty crops to be grown. Situated on the Canamex transportation corridor, which links Canada with Mexico via highways in the United States, the CPFC region boasts 4.2 million acres of land, more than 4,400 farms and over 11,000 businesses. It has a GDP of $8 billion CAD.
In between those two extremes are vast fields of canola, wheat, barley and more, and hundreds of livestock operations.
But even all of that is just the beginning. Building off the raw products, Alberta has a robust agrifoods sector with dozens of companies processing potatoes, sugar beets, oilseeds, beef, chicken and more. In the Lethbridge region alone there are more than 120 established agri-food processing businesses producing food and/or feed for local consumption and export.
The sector will be further supported by the opening of the 268,000-square-foot, $70.5-million CAD Agri-food Hub and Trade Centre in Lethbridge in 2023. It will have capacity to host 7,000 people at tradeshows and other major events.
Number of Albertans employed in the agriculture & agri-food sector
Value of Alberta’s exports of food and agriculture in 2021/p>
48% of Canada’s barley
32% of Canada’s wheat
29% of Canada’s canola
20% of Canada’s oats
Sources: Government of Alberta, Statistics Canada
Turning Farmland Brilliant Yellow
Since 2021, five companies have announced they will build or expand canola crushers in Western Canada, joining the 14 existing ones.
They’re the result of visionary work done in the region since the 1960s, when plant breeders developed new varieties of an ancient oil seed that produced a high quality, edible oil. An abbreviation of the words “Canada” and “oil,” canola quickly became a popular cooking oil and a mainstay of Western Canada farming. It is now at the centre of a thriving industry with international reach. Canola is grown by 43,000 Canadian farmers who produce about 20 million tonnes of canola annually. In Alberta, 25 per cent of seeded crops are canola fields. It is one of the most widely grown crops in Canada, with about 20 million acres of Canadian farmland turning brilliant yellow as canola comes into bloom each summer. It generates about one-quarter of all farm crop receipts in the country.
The canola value chain is made up of growers, seed developers, processors and exporters. Together, they generate $29.9 billion CAD in economic activity in Canada each year.
Northern Oat is the GOAT
The town of La Crete, population 3,900, sits near the 58th parallel of latitude, not far south of Alberta’s border with the Northwest Territories. That far north, you might think the growing season would be too short to grow much of anything, let alone top-notch agricultural products.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. La Crete may not see much sun in the winter, but when many crops are in the prime growing stage, in June and July, the area sees up to 19 hours of sunlight per day. It’s why the region is home to more than 600 farms covering some 220,000 hectares, growing crops including peas, wheat, flax, oats and barley.
The region is particularly well known as one of the most concentrated source regions for organic oats in North America. Those long summer days produce a superior, plump white milling oat that is second to none. Family-owned Mackenzie Oat Millers is one business taking advantage of this phenomenon, producing locally sourced, organic large flake oats and groats.
Alberta is an agri-food powerhouse with a history of innovation. The province’s agri-food sector has an estimated annual value of $56 billion CAD and employs 275,000 people in primary production, food processing, grocery retail and food and beverage services.
At the University of Alberta, researchers in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences (ALES) work across the spectrum of agriculture, food, nutrition and human health to support the sustainability of communities, economies and the globe. Their work leads to innovations that contribute to the profitability and competitiveness of the sector.
The Dean of ALES, Stan Blade, says researchers are using the latest tools in genomics to enhance the yield and quality of crops, increase feed efficiency in cattle and control greenhouse gases.