Manitoba could be a hub of agriculture innovation but not enough is being done to foster that potential.
That was the message the Keystone Agricultural Producers brought to the Finny and Murray building in Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District last week.
That structure has, over the years, been home to the Western Glove Works, Garry Press Limited, the Weekly News and the Jewish Post.
Today it is home to Futurpreneur Canada, one of several organizations located in the city’s colloquially named ‘Innovation Alley,’ aimed at encouraging young entrepreneurs to succeed and innovate in business.
KAP’s president Dan Mazier spoke to an event held at Futurpreneur’s nearly finished Winnipeg office last week, where the general farm lobby group stressed the need for government support and investment to make that type of agricultural innovation a reality.
“I challenge all political parties to make agriculture innovation a priority; let’s build on what existing companies have done and make Manitoba the Canadian centre of agriculture innovation,” said Mazier.
“The benefit of investing in agriculture research extends beyond national boundaries… when innovative agriculture technology companies get their start in Manitoba, they can move on to grow their customer base around the world, while keeping good jobs here in Manitoba.”
Expertise second to none
Mazier cited Farmers Edge and the company’s humble beginning in Pilot Mound as an example of the potential. Today Farmers Edge has 250 employees and operations in several countries.
“We are a true startup,” said company co-founder Wade Barnes. “And I think what we’ve learned from that is the agricultural expertise that we have in the province is second to none… many companies from other countries don’t just seek out a North American company, but a Canadian company, a Manitoba company.”
While he was once urged to move his company to the American tech hub known as Silicon Valley, Barnes said there was no doubt in his mind that Manitoba was the right place to grow a technology company serving agricultural interests.
Jennifer Lusby, Futurpreneur’s business development manager, said the not-for-profit does see innovative agriculture ideas at its doorstep — including an individual who produces a protein powder using dried crickets — but they’d always like to see more.
“We also have a company called Farm Track,” said Lusby. “What that does is actually help farmers digitize their logbooks and that was started right here in Winnipeg.”
The organization has also opened an office in Brandon to better serve rural entrepreneurs.
But Mazier points out that provincial support for agriculture innovation and research has dropped in recent years, making it more difficult for Manitoba to compete on the national and international stage.
Unlike provinces such as Saskatchewan, which has increased research funding over the last decade, KAP said the Manitoba government has dramatically reduced spending on strategic policy, research and innovation in agriculture over the last nine years.
In the 2007 provincial budget $24.6 million was allocated for such initiatives. Currently, Manitoba is only investing $10.1 million, Mazier said, adding that reduced agriculture research doesn’t just impact rural communities, it also shortchanges large urban centres like Winnipeg that thrive on agricultural businesses.
Winnipeg city councillor, Brian Mayes knows the financial boost agricultural businesses bring to the city and said that more should be done to help them thrive and grow.
“We have the opportunity to be a world leader in agribusiness,” he said. “You tend to think of it sometimes as being something from the past, barrel making, and when we still relied on buggy-whip manufacturing, and it’s not that way at all. It’s not just part of out city’s past, it’s certainly part of our city’s future.”