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Tourism Lethbridge wants to make southern Alberta a food tasting destination

CBC News

Mar 31, 2023

Region can showcase unique crops like sugar beets, haskap berries

A speaker addresses the crowd at the Southern Alberta Economic Development Forum held in Lethbridge, Alta. on March 30. The event saw 150 registrants and brought together stakeholders in the region to network and learn about economic opportunities. One of those opportunities was agri-food tourism. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Breakfast made from locally grown vegetables at a farm cafe, then a dairy factory tour and cheese tasting. For lunch, steaks served a stones-throw from where the cattle was raised, washed down with wine made from locally grown haskap berries.

These are some of the options on a food tour of southern Alberta mapped out by Tourism Lethbridge.

Initiatives like this were top of mind during an agri-food tourism panel at the Southern Alberta Economic Development Forum in Lethbridge on Thursday.

"It is opening up the doors for all of our agri-food tourism producers and processors to welcome the world and show people exactly where their food comes from," says Tourism Lethbridge CEO Erin Crane, who moderated the panel.

Alberta was responsible for 70 per cent of cattle, 50 per cent of barley and 31 per cent of wheat produced in Canada in 2020, according to Invest Alberta.

However, many like Crane think the industry is leaving money on the table once crops leave the ground. She sees agri-food tourism as one way for growers and producers to make money further down the supply chain and get their products in front of new customers.

Tourism Lethbridge showcases some of the locally grown food on offer in this southern Alberta map. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Stories behind food important, says Tourism Lethbridge

Crane believes urban populations are increasingly removed from their food sources and tourism can fill the gap by telling the stories behind what ends up on their plate.

She says southern Alberta has a unique "taste of place" with crops that don't grow elsewhere in Canada.

For example, the region is one of the only places in Canada that grows sugar beets. Those beets are processed into refined sugar at a factory in Taber, Alta., 50 kilometers east of Lethbridge, but Crane points out most people don't even know what a sugar beet looks like.

One person working to change that is Melody Garner-Skiba, Executive Director of Alberta Sugar Beet Growers. Her organization helps farmers host open farm days and farm to table tours where guests eat locally sourced food.

"It's about tourism, but for me it's more about education," says Garner-Skiba. 

"Showing people where their food comes from and connecting [it to] that sugar that they're using in their cakes, their cookies or their cup of coffee is really important for us," she added.

SouthGrow Regional Initiative Executive Director Peter Casurella calls southern Alberta the "Silicon Valley of agriculture." He says the region has untapped agri-food potential. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Opportunities for growth in Agri-food

The forum was organized by SouthGrow Regional Initiative, an economic development group made-up of 30 southern Alberta communities. Executive Director Peter Casurella says agri-food is a sector that has room to grow.

He calls southern Alberta the "Sillicon Valley of agriculture." The region is already home to food production companies like McCain Foods and FritoLay. Having two post-secondary institutions— Lethbridge College and the University of Lethbridge — also gives the industry a strong research backing.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine showing vulnerabilities in the global supply chain, both Crane and Casurella say there is now a strong focus on locally grown and raised food.

"The supply chain on them is secure because they're just coming down the road ... this is all grown locally here in our own region by our friends and neighbours," says Crane.

They also believe agri-food tourism has the added benefit of marketing the region and its produce to the world.

Executive Director of Alberta Sugar Beet Growers Melody Garner-Skiba says the farm tours her organization facilitates are as much education as they are tourism. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Tourism starts with locals

For Crane though, charity begins at home.

She says people living in the area need to know and become champions for locally-sourced food. Especially because visiting family and friends are some of the biggest markets for tourism in Lethbridge. 

Tourism Lethbridge is currently working on an app to help tell food stories and encourage people to explore.

Garner-Skiba believes there needs to be more marketing and awareness for people to know their food is coming from here in Alberta.

Casurella says southern Alberta has the potential to sustainably grow its agri-food industry in a rapidly changing world but it has to adapt.

"If you dig in your heels, you get left behind."

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