(May 27, EDITOR'S COLUMN)

CALGARY, Alberta — The sun was out, the days were warm and maybe that added some extra excitement to the Canadian Produce Marketing Association annual convention, May 14-16.

It also may have had something to do with the abbreviated show schedule, which meant two days of exhibits instead of three. The tighter schedule also made for less free time, which always has been a central component of the relaxed atmosphere of the event.

You take the good with the bad, and in this case, CPMA had a lot of good at the show. Here are some observations …

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The environment at a CPMA show is always family-oriented. No exception this time.

By featuring wholesome entertainment like The Calgary Fiddlers and the familiar voice of longtime singing emcee Sylvain Demers, the association does a class job.

Even the motivational speaker du jour was excellent. People couldn’t quit talking about the speech by Les Brown — noted for coining the phrase “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

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In Canada, three of every four dollars spent on produce goes toward imports.

The nation has just over 33 million people, which is less than the population of California.

Of the Canadian population, more than 80% lives in the urban centers.

These facts were gleaned during the May 16 session, “Doing business in Canada — What’s different?”

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If you ever find yourself wanting some groceries in Fort Good Hope (pop. 557) in Canada’s Northwest territories, stop by the retail store run by the Northwest Co.

It’s probably your only hope for food, including fresh produce, for miles around.

At many Northwest stores, customers arrive by boat, seaplane, helicopter or snowmobile, depending on the season.

Such is life for North America’s oldest business, which just happens to be a tiny retailer that dominates the Canadian north. Its average store serves less than 1,500 people.

The Northwest Co. was founded in 1668 as part of the Hudson Bay Co. It has more than 200 locations under banners such as Northern, Northmart, Giant Tiger and Cost U Less.

This was revealed by Mark Zachanowich, a recruitment specialist for Northwest, during the aforementioned business session.

Despite long distances between locations and some of the harshest winter weather imaginable, fresh produce is a key part of the retail experience.

“Produce is no longer a luxury in the north. Consumers expect it,” Zachanowich said.

Not so 20 years ago, when most remote retailers would receive stock only once or twice a year.

In some locations, that’s still the norm for bulk and frozen goods, but thanks to Canada’s Food Mail program, retailers like Northwest are able to subsidize the cost of delivering perishables. Otherwise, to some locations freight would run $4-5 per pound, he said, and that would put a serious dent in produce consumption.

Zachanowich reports seeing good growth in some produce segments, such as specialty fruits (up 66% since 2004), melons (up 46%) and stone fruit (up 24%).

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While Alberta is thriving because of revenues from oil and other natural resources, restaurants in Calgary are having a hard time finding qualified and motivated help.

This is because one can reputedly earn $45 an hour just driving trucks in support of the oil boom.

Along Stephen’s Avenue downtown, I noticed no shortage of fashionably dressed 20- and 30-somethings, buying $8 beers and $15 appletinis.

This newfound affluence represents a great opportunity for the area’s foodservice industry, which should be gobbling up fresh-cut and exotic produce.

Canadian industry faces unique challenges
Lance Jungmeyer
Editor