Diversification - A Journey, not a Destination

Low oil and gas prices have many communities focusing on diversification as a way of stabilizing their local economy. Some Economic Development Officers see diversification as a radical change, maybe a complete retooling or re-build of what they have.

I recently stumbled across a document outlining the progress of agriculture and food production in the High River – Okotoks area, where I now live. It is evident our forefathers looked for diversification opportunities much like us, as illustrated by the following:

Before 1879 families depended upon grazing animals but that year John Glenn broke about 4 acres to grow oats and barley that he harvested by hand. By 1882 Mr. Glenn moved to Fish Creek and used irrigation to grow cabbage and other vegetables (new products to the area); he sold over $2000 worth of cabbage alone – a small fortune when land price was $2 per acre.
By 1885, land was fenced and livestock was raised differently - their diets supplemented with grain and produce. Farm products were sold in Calgary (a new market) and businesses expanded with the introduction of equipment and more sophisticated irrigation.
Neighbours expanded their holdings - added more livestock – pigs, sheep and improved breeds of cattle. Risky growing conditions convinced some farmers to process raw products, turning milk into butter and cheese to be sold both locally and outside the region (increasing the production sectors and adding more customers). 
By 1900, a number of farmers had facilities in more than one location (spreading the risk of flood or frost) and crops were being shipped by rail to eastern Canada and Europe (marketing in more markets and jurisdictions).
The experiences of the early settlers demonstrate what the Business Development Bank of Canada has been saying. BDC documented 5 types of business diversification in their study of Alberta SME success: 
  1. more than one product/service line
  2. clients in more than one city/town
  3. not reliant significantly on a single major client 
  4. operate in more than one sector (oil & gas, construction, manufacturing) more markets served (reduces dependence on a single market)
  5. more than one production location (not in the same city/town)
It may mean adding new sectors to your business community, but it doesn’t mean abandoning what you have. As an Economic Developer, you can facilitate growth through diversification by enabling innovation, supporting new market development, recruiting or developing new skilled workers, having land available to support expansion into new products or processes, and having infrastructure – including broadband to serve new markets.
Just like our forefathers, we want a stable, prosperous economy and like them we’ll find it’s not a new destination; it’s a journey with businesses in your community that can diversify and prosper. 

Art Lawson B.Sc, M.Sc, Ec.D is a McSweeney Economic Development Associate Consultant. Based in Alberta, Art began his career in business management and applied those foundational skills in community economic development – initially in business diversification.  Art moved from diversification to pioneering the development and implementation of a number of economic development tools for communities, including BR+E, Downtown Revitalization and Economic Analysis & Planning.  Art has also served as the General Manager of the South Central Ontario Economic Development (SCOR) Corporation (former tobacco region) focused on economic recovery and business diversification.  Communities and sectors were assisted with capacity building, foreign investment attraction and the process of establishing the Region as a Foreign Trade Zone.

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