More than 400 food processing companies operate in Alberta and many struggle to find staff.
A possible solution right in their backyards is to form partnerships with Hutterite colonies.
“The Hutterite option is not for everybody,” said Andrew Raphael of Meyers Norris Penny, which handles the accounting work for about 90 percent of prairie colonies and studied potential partnerships between Hutterite colonies and the Alberta Food Processors Association.
The company interviewed 90 colonies and found nearly half were interested in pursuing business opportunities. More than 60 percent of Alberta processors contacted were interested in a collaboration.
Partnerships with colonies could be a good fit because Alberta’s 166 colonies have a ready source of labour, plenty of raw material and cash to invest, Raphael said at a human resources conference in Calgary April 7.
Unemployment in Alberta is 5.5 percent, but it’s not known how many of the jobless are willing to work in food processing.
“Are those the people whose expectations are so high that they don’t want to work at a meat packing plant?” he said.
The partnerships would likely be in the form of co-packers, where a processor markets the product but hires another company to manufacture it. This saves the processor money when hiring staff and keeping inventory.
Colonies generate $7 to $10 billion worth of annual economic activity in Western Canada, and they tend to invest back in their communities because they need to buy supplies.
Colonies produce about one-third of Canada’s hogs and eggs and 10 percent of the Canadian milk supply. They are interested in diversification and will adopt new technology. They are familiar with food safety plans.
“They realize they have to get into value added and they are looking for a way to do it,” Raphael said.
They want interesting jobs for their children that will keep them on the farm.
Processors and colonies said the most important issue is trust. Processors want assurances that Hutterites can meet food safety regulations and quality guidelines, while Hutterites want to work with someone who has a good, honest track record.
Many of the colonies interviewed admitted they are not familiar with marketing, labelling requirements and global demographic trends and would rely on a partner to take care of that part of the business. However, some already had processing experience and about half said they were interested in moving ahead with the concept.
Colonies have labour available but do not want to divert people from their regular farm duties unless the processing job generates more income.
More than a third said they were willing to build a plant on the colony and nearly half said they could enhance existing facilities. They are not interested in sending people out to work, preferring to stay on the site. They would be interested in processing food such as chicken, pasta and sauces that are in line with their traditional production.
“We are actively involved in matching groups now,” Raphael said.
In Alberta, 66 provincially licensed white meat plants and one red meat plant operate on colonies.