Although he may not have known it at the time, Tom Droog hit a home run when he set up Spitz Sunflower Seeds in Bow Island. He bought his first roaster in 1989 and the business grew rapidly during the 1990s, before eventually becoming a staple in the dugouts of Major League Baseball teams and being acquired by PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay brand.

Droog’s success in a small town along Highway 3 in southeast Alberta between Medicine Hat and Lethbridge has likely encouraged other food processors to set up operations in the province. Droog has even been known to encourage them, renting his land to young farmers to give them the same opportunity he was given when he was just starting out.

There is tremendous opportunity in Alberta’s food and beverage processing sector. The industry is the largest manufacturing employer in the province, generating $14.6 billion in sales and accounting for more than 22,400 jobs, according to government statistics.

PepsiCo Frito-Lay’s purchase of Spitz Sunflower Seeds is just one example of an international company taking advantage of the food processing opportunity in southern Alberta. McCain Foods built a French fry manufacturing plant in Coaldale – just 20 kilometres east of Lethbridge in southern Alberta – back in 2000 and recently invested in expanding the plant, which works with more than 25 potato growers in southern Alberta.

“Thanks to McCain Foods and Frito-Lay, we’ve processed our potatoes to the fullest extent. And in some cases processing has become so successful that we even import raw products, which is the case with Spitz,” says Peter Lovering, manager of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative, an economic development alliance of 24 southcentral Alberta communities.

canola seed
Richardson International’s Lethbridge plant helps the company produce 1.6 million tonnes of canola seed and over 700,000 tonnes of oil annually. Photo courtesy: Richardson Oilseeds

While the recent successes of the industry are noteworthy, some food processing companies have been in the region before Alberta was even a province. Richardson International, Canada’s largest agribusiness, was established 150 years ago. Its plant in Lethbridge is one of the largest fully-integrated crushing, refining, processing and packaging operations in the country.

Between the Lethbridge plant and the company’s plant in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, Richardson processes over 1.6 million metric tonnes of canola seed and over 700,000 metric tonnes of oil annually.

“Richardson has done a fantastic job exporting canola oil,” says Lovering.

“Thanks to McCain Foods and Frito-Lay, we’ve processed our potatoes to the fullest extent. And in some cases processing has become so successful that we even import raw products, which is the case with Spitz.”
– Peter Lovering, manager of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative

Even with a fully developed food-processing sector, new market opportunities for growth and investment continue to emerge. Moreover, food processors are enjoying strong support from entities such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Via the Growing Forward 2 program that provides up to $1.3 billion in grants to help upgrade equipment and improve efficiency, companies such as Champion Petfoods and GFR Ingredients are preparing to maximize their operations and increase market share.

hemp growers
GFR Ingredients is growing a successful business by producing hemp-based protein power. Photo courtesy: GFR Ingredients

GFR Ingredients is based in Barrhead, which is a little more than 120 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, received a Growing Forward 2 grant for operations improvement and is targeting growth opportunities in the health sector.

“We specialize in creating proprietary plant protein powders with superior nutritional properties, and in the last six months alone the volume of inquiries for our product has been overwhelming,” says Theresa Gough, GFR Ingredients plant manager. “The bulk of our products goes to Canadian and U.S. clients – but our goal is to go worldwide.”

GFR is another example of an Alberta processor that caught the eye of outside investors. “GFR is actually a Vancouver firm that purchased us in 2011 because we were successfully deriving protein from hemp,” says Gough. “Specifically, our HempSol-80 powder has the highest concentration of hemp protein available, plus it contains Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids.”

The continuously evolving food processing sector and the support from various levels of government leaves Lovering optimistic the industry will continue to grow in Alberta.

“The provincial government understands its importance at a regional level and as an export force, and it has always gotten behind companies wanting to explore new markets,” says the manager of SouthGrow. “So, I’m looking forward to seeing how we’ll evolve in the near future.”