When asked what Niagara is known for beyond the famous Falls, many people say vineyards, fruit trees, wineries and greenhouses that grow flowers and vegetables year-round.
But that thriving agribusiness sector — which runs from basic operations to high-end commercial products — could be even stronger if there was closer co-operation with sectors such as manufacturing, tourism, government and institutions conducting research.
This is one of the findings of “Niagara’s Agribusiness Sector: Towards a More Resilient Innovation Cluster,” the latest policy brief from Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory (NCO) in collaboration with the Niagara Region’s Economic Development division.
“Niagara’s agribusiness sector should link more closely to the manufacturing and tourism sectors so that the region’s economy can better adapt to change,” says NCO Director and policy brief author Charles Conteh, who presented the brief on Tuesday, June 18 at the Meridian Community Centre in Pelham. “Research and innovation are among the tools that could increase Niagara’s resiliency in this way.”
Niagara agribusiness categories that generate the most jobs are farming as well as beverage and food manufacturing.
Valerie Kuhns, the Niagara Region’s Acting Director of Strategic Economic Initiatives, Economic Development, called agribusiness “a critical component to Niagara’s economy, contributing more than $1.4 billion to regional GDP.”
“We continue to see new investment and economic opportunity across many agribusiness industries,” she said, “however, there are challenges in the sector that we must better understand.”
One concerning trend is the “modest to weak showing” of jobs in areas such as agricultural machinery manufacturing and equipment merchant wholesalers.
The policy brief identifies three looming challenges in the sector’s pursuit of greater resilience and adaptability. One is “lock-in syndrome,” being stuck in a cultural rut with few fresh ideas and resistance to change. As a remedy, the authors suggest that agribusiness operators “build conduits of research and innovation” with manufacturing, tourism and other sectors, which would add value to all stages of agribusiness from farming and harvesting to the creation of products and processes.
Another challenge is “organizational thinness,” or the lack of platforms or networks to create broader development through innovation and adaptation.
The brief lists several institutions — including Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute, Niagara College’s Agriculture and Environment Innovation Centre and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, among others — that could form an “innovation infrastructure support system.”
“This means building an infrastructure of knowledge generation and mobilization that is well aligned with the needs of not only particular industries but also the sector as a whole across the value chain of activities,” says the brief.
A third challenge is “internal fragmentation,” or lack of a shared understanding of agribusiness among farmers, entrepreneurs, workers, industry associations and educational institutions.
The brief says such a common understanding is “a prerequisite for strategic information flows between research centres and industry groups and across the industries that make up a sector’s value chain.”
Niagara’s agribusiness sector covers more than 215,000 acres of farmland and around 22 million square feet of greenhouse area. There are more than 1,800 farms, about 200 greenhouses, nearly 100 wineries and more than 112 food processing companies, says the brief.