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Proposed Shuswap 'food hub' has small producers excited

Cilla Watkins at the Salmon Arm Farmers' Market.
Cilla Watkins at the Salmon Arm Farmers' Market.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK / The Canadian Barley Tea Company

Inspired after drinking barley tea made from Canadian ingredients while living in Japan, Janice Ishizaka headed back to Shuswap and together with her sister, Cilla Watkins, launched The Canadian Barley Tea Company in early 2019.

As a small agri-food start-up business, the hurdles are plentiful.

"Finding a commercial kitchen has its own challenges," Watkins says. "It's very hard to find."

Which is why news of a new food hub set to open next year in Salmon Arm is being very well received.

"I'm very excited about it because we are a small producer," she said. "Having a food hub is enormously helpful."

The provincial government recently announced $500,000 of funding through the Salmon Arm Economic Development Society to build a food hub in the city to help businesses with shared food and beverage processing space and equipment.

A food hub is much like a mini-factory, allowing small scale producers to rent commercial-grade space to prepare and package their products without having the steep capital costs involved in building their own facility.

"The whole concept of the food hub is really based on the sharing economy," Salmon Arm Economic Development Society economic development manager Lana Fitt said.

Fitt said the hub will look for three longterm full-time tenants, while then providing space for producers who can use it as needed.

"The lack of food and beverage processing equipment and space, as well as research facilities, was identified as a critical supply chain gap affecting new agri-food startups and the growth of existing agri-food (businesses)... already operating," she said.

And according to the Ministry of Agricultural, the food and beverage processing industry is seeing significant growth. The province currently has 2,900 food and beverage processing companies, employing 35,000 people, and producing $10.5 billion of goods per year. In Salmon Arm agriculture accounts for around 10 per cent of economic activity, with 1,500 farms being within a 45-minute drive of the city.

Fitt said several food hubs do exist around the province and are tailored to the types of food producers in the area. The Salmon Arm food hub, due to open next year, won't be any different.

Something as simple as having a locker to keep heavy equipment instead of lugging to and from a commercial kitchen would have a huge difference, Watkins said. And building your own commercial kitchen from scratch is simply unaffordable and not a smart first move.

"You're making a product, you take it to market and you're hoping it sells and you're hoping people like it and you're hoping you make money at it, to invest all that money in something off the bat... how do you know your product is even viable?" Watkins said.

Jedidiah Wiebe stands among his elderberry bushes.
Jedidiah Wiebe stands among his elderberry bushes.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Elderberry Grove

Shuswap resident Jedidiah Wiebe and his partner started Elderberry Grove almost four years and as a growing business, it's at the point where they've got too big for the current commercial kitchen they rent but are still too small to rent the amount of commercial freezer space they now need.

Wiebe, who makes elderberry syrup, sees the food hub as a great solution.

"We'll probably start using it as soon as it's ready," he said. "It's so perfect for us, we think it's really brilliant."

Wiebe said the lack of infrastructure was the biggest hurdle.

"We know lots of other community members that have a business idea or that have started a small food processing business and... the barriers, lack of availability, equipment that they need... is a tremendous barrier for anyone who's small and starting out," he said.

Removing those barriers should allow business ideas to come to fruition.

"This could be a feeding ground for lots of small businesses," Wiebe said.

Along with the costs associated with starting up Wiebe also said having space to network with other small agri-food businesses would also be beneficial.

It's something Fitt says the food hub will also cater to and will support business planning, have specific training for agro-food production, and provide access to mentors and experts.

"It's a great way to support those businesses to take it to the next level," she said.

Watkins has pitched The Canadian Barley Tea Company to investors on the CBC TV show Dragons' Den but hasn't yet found out whether she made the editors cut for the upcoming series. Either way, she needs somewhere to produce her product.

"Convenience, affordability, we produce in Salmon Arm so to have something so local is hugely beneficial," she said.

— This story was updated 9:15 a.m. Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, to correct the spelling of Cilla Watkins.

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