For Canada, it’s been more than just a year of pandemic. It’s also been a year of new dreams and for forging ahead in new directions.
In ag and food, new business ideas are bubbling up, and the drive is on for ways to lift them beyond the conceptual stage.
Plus, our dinnertime routines and expectations continue to evolve. Old markets are fading. New ones have their chance, both here and overseas.
But where is the door into this bright new future?
Maybe it’s Canada’s network of food development centres, where farmers and food insiders go to transform their market dreams into commercial projects. Are the centres up to job? Here’s a look at their past year.
Exactly when the COVID-19 lockdown arrived, Winnipeg-based food entrepreneur James Battershill had his new consumer product all ready for in-store sampling and development. It’s called Bump Beef + Plant Blend, a mix of ground beef and textured pea protein, and Battershill was all set to hit “send” on his marketing plan. Then everything got put on hold.
If you’ll forgive the pun, though, this proved to be just a bump in the road. Despite the lockdown, “Bump” did get launched. And then the good news began to roll in.
Bump is a simple two-ingredient, 70/30 ground beef/plant protein blend. It’s aimed at consumers who want to eat a little less meat but not eliminate it entirely from their diet. And it turned out these consumers were eager to buy, pandemic or not.
And it also turned Battershill’s marketing plan was spot on, offering local deliveries throughout Winnipeg just in time for barbecue season.
Battershill is best known among farmers in Manitoba as the former executive director with Keystone Agriculture Producers. It was during his stint with KAP that his thoughts first turned to creating Bump. He’d been paying attention to the messages that farm audiences were hearing about shifting Canadian food choices, and about how consumers are turning to diets built around environmental issues, and how they want to cut back on meat, although not necessarily cut it out.
“I was going to an enormous number of conferences and events during my time at KAP where industry experts were highlighting the changes in consumer preferences and the emergence of new types of protein ingredients,” Battershill says, adding that he was also hearing about the implications of global dietary changes on agriculture, land and water use.
Battershill was convinced, though, that few consumers would actually switch and become strict vegetarians, even as companies launched products to cater to this market. Instead, they’d become “flexitarians,” buying less meat but not eliminating it.
In short, they’d be a new market category that, according to his market research, wasn’t being well served.
“We felt that there was a niche that we could effectively fill,” he says.
Battershill left his position with KAP in 2019 to pursue that opportunity. He initially sought the assistance of staff from the Prairie Research Kitchen, a 4,600-square-foot kitchen and food science lab housed within the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute at Red River College in downtown Winnipeg.
Their team helped him with all aspects of product formulation and development. Then, from the provincially operated Food Development Centre at nearby Portage la Prairie, he got additional help from food scientists and technicians on product shelf life analysis, nutritional labelling and packaging.
All that support proved invaluable to getting Bump from concept to commercialization, says Battershill.
“I had huge knowledge and skill gaps,” Battershill says. “We wouldn’t have been able to launch in anywhere near the time span without access to those services and supports.”
Bump had begun where most food innovations begin — in the home kitchen. It might have remained there, were it not for the work performed in these food centres, by food scientists and other technical people who help clients like Battershill navigate the gauntlet of technical hurdles, sensory evaluations, and process design in order to scale up production for a commercial product.
Across the country
Every year the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre also helps new clients create new food businesses from grains and pulse crops along with the berries, honey and animal products that so many Saskatchewan producers raise and grow.
A Willow Bunch, Sask. farm family became one of those clients a year ago. In 2020, owners of Dosch Organic Acres, a family farm since 1960, approached the centre with their idea and recipe to create a farm-grown snack food called Wheat Crunch Organic Snack.
The snack would add value to their farm’s production, and it would capture more of that value for the farm, says Darlene Dosch, the entrepreneurial third-generation daughter-in law of the family.
“We wanted to add value over what we grow, and build a business brand,” Dosch says.
They’ve had an excellent launch of the product, which is now carried in 50 stores throughout the province, not to mention many other store locations in Western Canada including Sobeys, Safeway, IGA, Canadian Tire, Co-op grocery and gas bars, and various independent and specialty stores, and pharmacies.
Unexpectedly, that’s the kind of year that unfolded for many food product innovators.
When the lockdown hit, no one could predict what the impact might be on food development centre operations. Certainly no one anticipated what actually did happen, says Dan Prefontaine, president of Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre Inc. (i.e. the food centre).
The centre has operated in Saskatoon since 1997 and today is a not-for-profit, fee-for-service operation partially funded by provincial, federal and industry programs. More than 400 food and beverage entrepreneurs, like the Dosch family, have brought ideas through its doors and into the 55,000-square-foot dedicated food-processing facility, built to CFIA standards.
“We had a tiny bit of a lull,” Prefontaine says about last spring. “It didn’t last long. Then our business jumped dramatically. We actually ended up having one of the busiest years we’ve ever had. Our clients used our services actually more, and we had a lot of clients, both domestic and international, reaching out.”
The incubator facilities on site, where companies manufacture food products they’ve already scaled up, also went into high gear. Prefontaine attributes the uptick to the acceleration of longer-term trends, and entrepreneurial people seeing and capturing new opportunities from them.
Major retailers have been seeking local suppliers for some time now as consumers want foods and food products grown, raised and processed closer to home, he says.
“There has been a big shift in the last three or four years, and it really came to light during COVID,” he says. “For our processors it’s opened up a lot of opportunities. COVID created shortages in certain areas and so they turned to more local production to fill the gap. I think, in the long term, we’ve sort of opened up a different trend here, and that trend will be to continue to grow the regional food manufacturing market.”
Theirs, like other food development centres elsewhere in the country, provides expertise and know-how to help new food products get started. They’re equipped with every imaginable tool and piece of equipment required to bake, cook, liquify, freeze-dry or perform any other food processing procedure for the creation of safe, shelf-life stable, well-packaged products.
The centres can also provide key support to new businesses to help with their start ups, while reducing their capital risk and taking the guesswork out of it.
They offer experienced and trained staff that can help with every step, and facilities to use on a fee-for-service basis, so there’s no equipment to buy and install, says Prefontaine, who quips that the motto behind it all essentially is: If it doesn’t fly, you’ll fail fast and cheap.
Food development centres across the country are staffed with a vast range of expertise, including people like Saskatchewan Food Centre’s Sara Lui, manager of product development. She works with clients ranging from individuals with new businesses to multinational companies in order to develop innovative food products, do technical trouble-shooting, and navigate the complexities of food regulations and labelling. One of Lui’s teammates is Shannon Hood-Niefer, vice-president of innovation and technology with over 18 years experience in the food industry conducting research and development with various commodities in the agricultural sector.
“When I first started in 1999 we were often looking at fallow deer, elk and the bison industry, with clients looking to take farmed game animals and convert to saleable products for consumers,” Prefontaine recalls. It was the trend, with a focus on speciality livestock.
As time passed, product development turned to a wide range of other areas, sauces, condiments and snack foods, with a continuing demand by small business startups looking to add value to Saskatchewan commodity and specialty crops and livestock. Their range of services offered is broad — from product formulation to packaging to incubator suites — and their list of Saskatchewan-grown ingredients includes honey, bison and beef, mustard, quinoa, lentils, Haskap, eggs, to name but a few.
The site works with nine of the top Fortune 500 companies as clients, plus multiple other food manufacturers globally with a primary focus on pulses for use in value-added food products.
Many SMEs and new business startups seek out the services of the food centre.
There’s something else that’s interesting too. Very high percentages of their clients have been female entrepreneurs, says Prefontaine, adding that this prompted them recently to develop programs specifically geared to the needs of female food food makers.
“Probably 55 to 60 per cent of the businesses we deal with, especially the startups, are driven by women,” he says.
“These are young entrepreneurial women looking to put more value into their farms.”
Busy in 2020
Next door in Alberta, Ken Gossen, executive director of the Food Processing Development Centre in Leduc, says their staff have seen the same uptick in interest in product development.
The centre has been in operation since the early 1980s and in an average year develops anywhere from 100 to 150 new products, says Gossen. Not every product will have a successful market launch, for various reasons, but 2020 saw a high number reach store shelves.
In fact, Gossen can put a number on it. This past year, they saw 41 different types of food products hit store shelves.
Again, that’s the kind of year it’s been.
“It’s been interesting,” says Gossen. “With the pandemic, we did initially see a drop-off, or cancelling of bookings. But since that initial quarter things shifted. It’s because some people and some companies have looked at this as an opportunity to take the time now to innovate.”
Theirs is a 65,000-square-foot pilot plant and product development laboratory equipped with over $20 million in equipment to support food product innovation, development and commercialization in that province.
Now, Gossen expects demand for their services to be even stronger as the economy begins to recover and foodservice kicks into high gear again.
Farm Credit Canada projects that increases in disposable income and savings from 2020 will spur growth in food and beverage consumption once foodservices can safely open. Its 2021 Food and Beverage Report released this spring says, despite the challenges the pandemic created, most economic indicators for the food and beverage processing sector remain strong compared to other sectors of the Canadian economy.
A FCC survey also shows that “Canadian” is a point of differentiation, and helps sell product. Plus, compared to pre-pandemic, 58 per cent of Canadians say they are more likely to buy Canadian-made or -grown food, 56 per cent are more likely to look for Canadian-made or -grown food when they buy groceries, and 50 per cent are more likely to think about how their food is grown.