“This region is and continues to be an area with more patents per capita than the rest of the province.”
PROJECT CO-ORDINATOR, PERMA
It’s not unusual for Peace region agricultural producers to operate a side business for some off-farm income.
Usually, it involves the oilpatch and more than a few are manufacturing or fabricating operations. Because these are small operations across a wide geographic area, pooling their collective ideas and resources isn’t easy.
When a survey of 20 fabricators from rural and urban areas across northwest Alberta last summer illustrated a lack of cohesiveness, it fell to the Peace Region Economic Development Alliance (PREDA) to initiate change.
“There were no instances where companies with similar technical assets combined forces to bid on a contract that was too big for either one to handle individually,” the survey reported. That was just a piece of the problem, reports Lloyd Sherk, now project co-ordinator for this rural industry networking group christened the Peace Region Manufacturers Association (PeRMA).
The group held an organizational meeting April 8 in Fairview. A steering committee with representatives from nine companies as well as PREDA will determine the group’s direction and priorities.
Sherk has been at work for months contacting manufacturers from as far south as Grande Cache to as far north as Manning to get a feel for what this niche sector needs to grow.
“That has been endorsed both by the people I’m meeting in the field as well as PeRMA’s steering committee,” said Sherk. “It’s important this be a group that can provide leadership and resources to rural manufacturers and community leaders, allowing them to collaborate on larger-scale projects, supply chains, value chains and shared technologies.”
Also on Sherk’s to-do list is research into federal and provincial government regulations regarding manufacturing and developing a communications strategy that will include a website.
“Helping these companies become more economically viable through an effective, dynamic and grassroots network is key,” he said. That may take the form of helping individual companies bring a product to market or facilitate connections between two or more companies that could then take on larger projects. Sometimes, it could be as simple as just getting the word out regarding upcoming conferences or industry news.
“Our mandate is to nurture initiatives that will benefit the rural region while developing industry in our local communities,” Sherk says.
Addressing key concerns
Addressing key concerns such as keeping and attracting skilled tradespeople is key to PeRMA’s objectives. Sherk said this may involve presentations in high schools to raise awareness of the well-paying opportunities in the trades fields. When it comes to new hires, the typical farm hand is a sought-after employee, adds Sherk. “He usually has his fingers in a lot of things, from heavy equipment operation, mechanics and welding, to name a few.”
In the coming months, Sherk will continue his work on the ground, continuing to make contact with manufacturers and fabricators across northwestern Alberta. Being 400 kilometres from Edmonton creates an obstacle, but also an opportunity, says Sherk.
It’s that geographic isolation, he says, that has spurred the ingenuity and enterprise evident here since the Peace was first settled a century ago. “If they couldn’t buy it, they made it,” Sherk said. “Fixing equipment, tweaking existing machines or designing entirely new ones was the norm.”
Whether it was a root rake or breaking plow, companies were built on some of these kinds of great ideas, he adds. “This region is and continues to be an area with more patents per capita than the rest of the province,” says Sherk. “I’ve heard it bandied about that 40 per cent of Alberta’s patents in 2006 came from this region, with only five per cent of the population.”
For now, PeRMA plans to target metal fabricators and manufacturers. By early next year, its scope will spread to wood manufacturers, food and agricultural producers, plastics and windows manufacturers. Reception for the initiative has been good, says Sherk. “I’m being told it’s about time.” PeRMA is supported by the Peace Region Economic Development Alliance and Alberta Agriculture.