6 cool ideas for rural EDOs

Original published on economicdevelopment.org on October 27, 2012

Here is a selection of some of the cool ideas presented at a recent agriculture economic development forum organized by the Ontario ag ministry. Some of them are no-brainers, but worth rethinking. Others are fairly radical for conservative thinkers. Let’s start with the least expensive ideas, then work to the high-priced ones.

Internal networking now helps crisis management later. In municipal circles, we are all busy. It’s hard to take the time to network with colleagues in other departments. But it could be crucial down the road if you need their help. Engage them, listen to them and explain to them the goals and aspirations of an economic development office. Health inspectors, planners, building inspectors, engineers, licensing coordinators … all of them have a role to play and deserve your respect. So when a business is challenging the status quo and you need to bend your colleague’s ear, they will be more willing to take your call.

Get your foot in the door without them knowing it. Building trust and respect between government and business is key to economic development, but it is always a challenge. Figure out innovative ways to get your face in front of your client base. Enterprise Toronto’s Next Great Food Contest garnered 35 entries from small businesses, many of who needed the help of the contest organizer (i.e. the economic development office) but didn’t know it existed. The winner gets a spot at the Toronto restaurant food show, paid by the City, while all the runners-up are now on the EDO’s Rolodex.

Focus on the newborn, not the incubator. It’s the latest buzzword. Everyone thinks your community just isn’t complete without one: The Business Incubator. Mike Wolfson of Toronto Economic Development reminded us that in the rush to set up incubators, municipalities might lose sight of the goal… helping businesses grow. Understand the types of businesses you are helping before leasing a building to put them in. The incubator is not a magic wand. What will bear fruit is a solid strategy based on understanding business needs, coupled with a proactive, responsive economic development team.

Encourage cold-weather crop production. David Beck of the Centre for Innovative Food Technology of Toledo, Ohio, reminded us about high tunnels that allow crops to be grown under plastic through cooler months. Two sheets of plastic separated by air flow from a fan, stretched over a simple metal frame and warmed by the sun, can allow farmers to grow fruit and vegetables in the depths of winter without building an expensive greenhouse. At night, a third sheet of plastic is drawn over the crop at a lower level to retain the warmth of the soil. Many farmers already do this in Norfolk County, so the expertise is out there.

Encourage innovations such as high-pressure processing technology. David Beck also spoke of Sandridge Food Corp. of Medina, Ohio, which is a leader in ultra high-pressure processing of food. Salads are packed into bundles and exposed to cold water under high pressure to kill bacteria in food. Salads with a longer shelf life are more attractive to retailers and consumers. The technology isn’t cheap but it may be another tool rural food processors can use to compete alongside urban food plants.

Jobs will go to municipalities that invest in water/sewer infrastructure for food processors. Phil Dyck of OMAFRA offered sobering thoughts on the state of municipal infrastructure and food processing. It’s a sad game: municipal engineers avoid expensive investments in water/sewer and promote conservation. Meanwhile, food processors need consistent access to infrastructure and are willing to conserve, but only if it is driven by improved efficiencies. Time-of-use strategies may work, as well as water-recycling services, to relieve the strain on utility supplies. Ultimately, major investment may be needed to truly address the needs of industry. In fact, research shows that for every job created in building needed infrastructure, there are as many as five food-processing jobs created as a result. Compare that to 1 to 1.4 for manufacturing or 1 to 0.9 for transportation. Collaboration is key to understanding everyone’s perspective and realizing common goals.

These ideas are not new, but they do underscore specific challenges and opportunities that exist in many rural communities. The last idea – about upgrading infrastructure to retain and expand food-processing capacity – is probably the most controversial. Only communities led by visionaries that truly understand modern agri-business will see the opportunity for new jobs that can be created.

The Municipal Agriculture Economic Development Forum was organized by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs with support from the City of Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Advisory Committee. Thanks to the organizers for a great program and excellent networking opportunity.