For two years now, Alberta’s economy has been mired in a slump that’s surprised even veterans of the booms and busts of oil economies. But while Albertans wait for a recovery in global oil prices, another industry is experiencing massive growth: food manufacturing.
Food currently makes up about 21 per cent of the province’s manufacturing sector, surpassing refined petroleum. Provincial data also also shows the food industry in Alberta now brought in $13.6 billion in 2015, up from about $9 billion a decade earlier.
Carleton Gruger is a prime example of Albertans seeing success in food manufacturing. He gave up a career as a computer scientist to start farming and is seeing results.
“This is absolutely my passion,” Gruger says. “I have been dreaming about it every day for the past two years now.”
Gruger specializes in mushrooms and grows about 45 kilograms of the fungus every week. In fact, he’s doing so well, he’s having difficulty keeping up with customer demand.
“They know they taste great,” he says of the restaurants who order from him. “The chef absolutely loves them. We even have farmers’ markets asking about us but we just don’t have enough to keep up now.”
Todd Hirsch, chief economist at ATB Financial, says the food sector trend is promising.
“That’s where more jobs are created,” he says. “That’s where more value is brought back to Alberta. So more diversity within those base industries (is) absolutely essential right now.”
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“It’s not just wheat and canola and beef anymore,” Hirsch says. “It’s organic foods. It’s specialty foods. It’s niche markets and niche products.”
In June, the Notley government announced $10 million in funding to expand a facility in Leduc that’s serving as an incubator for food startups.
Gruger says he hopes his success will allow him to expand and that he’s now looking for investors to help him grow.
“Hopefully we can actually produce upwards of 1,000 pounds a week so then we can fill the restaurant orders.”
-With files from Fletcher Kent, Global News.