Consultant Jerry Bouma warned regional leaders agriculture in the Edmonton region is close to a tipping point in his state of the industry report on agriculture at the Edmonton Metropolitan Regional Board meeting on Aug. 9, 2018.Elise Stolte / Postmedia, file

Jerry Bouma is frustrated.

The agricultural consultant, past Northlands president — when Northlands meant something — and now honourary consul for The Netherlands has long worked within Alberta’s $8.5-billion agriculture industry.

Always a pragmatist and a realist, Bouma is worried. He says opportunity is slipping away in this province … at a time when the entire economic effort of Alberta should be in well-directed strategies to boost and modernize business sectors besides oil and gas, for obvious reasons.

But he doesn’t see much happening.

It’s as if the province has forgotten agriculture. November, for instance, used to be rural/farm awareness month In Edmonton, centred around the week-long Canadian Finals Rodeo.

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With the rodeo gone to Red Deer, city media has lost interest in things agricultural. Farmfair International came and went with nary a ripple of interest.

Within agriculture, Bouma sees Alberta slipping rather than moving ahead to embrace what the sector is capable of. The world’s 7.7 billion people will soon plateau at nine billion, seeking more and better food.

The warning signs: Beef production in Alberta, since 2000,  is down by 25 per cent, pork down by 33 per cent. Bouma sees a sector that, despite success stories like The Little Potato Company (see below), is stuck in a commodities rut.

The times cry out for smarter marketing, premium brand development, sophisticated target audience identification and execution. But Alberta’s big players — in meats, grain and oilseeds — rely on volume over innovation and marketing. They are price “takers” rather than price “makers.”

The province does not lack economic development expertise — dozens of such agencies are funded by the province. But success in economic development appears to lie in the eyes of the beholder.

There is, however,  an obvious comparison. Certain jurisdictions — i.e. The Netherlands, Israel — are acknowledged as world leaders in agricultural innovation. They represent a gold standard against which provincial achievement can be compared. Those are the standards to which Alberta should aspire. But Bouma doesn’t see an appetite for such rigorous self-examination.

For a practical example of what Bouma says needs doing, look at the achievements and characteristics of Edmonton’s Little Potato Company: Characteristics, Bouma says, that must be applied across Alberta agriculture to truly grow the industry.

New product:  In 1996, local farmer Jacob van der Schaaf yearned for the small, distinctive “creamer” potatoes of his youth in The Netherlands. With his daughter Angela Santiago, they grew a test patch, and sold the first few bags at the Strathcona Farmers Market.

Today, The Little Potato Company is a $200 million a year operation, contracts potato growing to area farmers, and processes those potatoes in its regional plant.

Marketing: The Little Potato Company came up with a “look” and a “brand” recognized in grocery stores across North America. It was the first potato marketing company to market small bags of cute little potatoes to modern consumers, rather than bulky bags of big potatoes.

Image: The Little Potato Company portrays itself as a conscientious company caring for the land, for contractors, employees and consumers. As the company itself says, it has “changed the way we look at potatoes.”  Its slogans are “cream of the crop” and “feed the world better.”

Research: The Little Potato Company’s research department has developed new, proprietary, small potato varieties (without genetic modification). Hence more choice for consumers.

Ambition: The Little Potato Company is growing beyond Canada, taking on the challenges and upfront investment to be globally competitive. A second plant has opened in Wisconsin. A third is on its way.

These traits — new products, marketing expertise, image-awareness, strategic growth, market expansion — are what Bouma says is desperately needed across the spectrum of Alberta’s farm produce.  And not just in the trendy organic sector where sales are less than one per cent of Alberta’s farm-gate revenue.

“If we don’t change, we won’t grow,” says Bouma. “If we don’t change, we won’t take advantage of the huge global demand for more and better food products. Others will.  It’s that simple.”