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Alberta is a land of agri-food opportunities awaiting new entrepreneurs … but do they have what it takes?

Hunger for Success

Jun 1, 2010

by Stephanie Sparks

Photography by Buffy Goodman and Bryce Meyer

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ALBERTA CALLING: Christina Laham Paganelli is moving her Manitoba-based business to the Food Processing Development Centre in Leduc

Sidebar 1: Financial Resources for Agri-preneurs
Sidebar 2: Cultivating Agri-food Skills

Shortly after learning she had multiple sclerosis and four months into her first pregnancy, Christina Laham Paganelli was diagnosed with thyroid cancer – and it was spreading to her lungs. Bucking all odds, she beat back both diseases, but the fight gave her a new objective: achieve a higher level of health through a stricter diet of fruits and vegetables.

Her battle began in the kitchen, like so many other agri-food entrepreneurs. As part of her new diet of organic raw foods, she created a frozen smoothie of fresh kale, oranges and bananas; it quickly became a hit with family and friends, who started placing orders. But just because family enjoyed it didn’t mean there would be a market for the drink, so Paganelli let the public decide through samples at farmers’ markets. People placed orders, and a fledgling business was born. Now, two years after starting Drinkme Beverage Co., founder and CEO Paganelli has outgrown her Manitoba startup space and is relocating her business to Alberta.

With countless resources, processing centres and an eagerness to help competitors alike, Alberta’s agri-food industry has not only lured Paganelli’s company, but has attracted companies from around the world and encouraged new entrepreneurs from within. According to Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, 22.3% of Alberta’s total manufactured goods were from the food and beverage sector in 2009, making it the largest manufacturing sector in the province. Opportunities abound for “agri-preneurs,” but each is drawn to the industry for various reasons.

That’s not to say entrepreneurs should expect a rolled-out red carpet to success. Agri-foods is a decidedly challenging industry for both newcomers and veterans.

“This is a tough business to get into,” warns Ted Johnston, president and CEO of the Alberta Food Processors Association (AFPA). Serving as a voice for its agri-food businesses, the non-profit association is a collection of resources and experts available to its members (many of which are new agri-food entrepreneurs). “When people phone and say, ‘I’ve got my great aunt’s recipe for this pancake syrup. How do I go about turning this into a commercial product?’ Well I say, ‘First thing you do is go down to the Shoppers Drug Mart and buy the biggest bottle of Pepto-Bismol they’ve got, because that’s what you’re going to go through.”

But he also says that Alberta is “pretty good” in assisting people with business ideas, starting with the Leduc Food Processing Development Centre (FPDC). “That’s a facility that other provinces would love to have. I’ve talked to people that develop product in B.C., for example, who would have died and gone to heaven if they could have been able to access a facility of that nature.”

Though still firmly grounded here on Earth, Siwin Foods Ltd.’s parent company was drawn to the quality of the facility, which is owned by the Alberta government. A point of pride for Alberta, the FPDC assists food processors in the development and testing of their products and manufacturing cycles using the centre’s technology, staff and facility space.

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