Calgary

Calgary rancher donates millions to establish agricultural research centre

"We need to defend our own turf," says Calgary rancher John Simpson, who donated $5 million to create a centre at the University of Calgary that will facilitate the growth, success and sustainability of the agricultural sector.

Institute aims to advance industry that has been 'left behind,' John Simpson says

Calgary rancher and philanthropist John Simpson says the centre named after him is vital for the industry to streamline research and communication. (Colleen Underwood/CBC Calgary)

The creation of a research centre that will focus on agricultural development in Western Canada has been announced by the University of Calgary's school of public policy.

At the project's unveiling on Friday, speakers said the Simpson Centre for Agricultural and Food Innovation and Public Education will work to facilitate the growth, success and sustainability of the agricultural sector.

It aims to do this by contributing to public education and shaping policy surrounding Canadian agri-food and agri-business.

The institute takes its name from Calgary rancher and businessman John Simpson, who donated more than $5 million to the project.

'We need to defend our own turf'

Simpson, the self-described "champion" of the research centre, told CBC News at the centre's unveiling that it will be an important development for an industry that he says is under threat.

"Agriculture has been left behind [in] the way the world is changing, and we need to collaborate. We need to get everyone together and we need to defend our own turf, so to speak, so that we don't lose our industry," Simpson said.

The centre has highlighted the four focuses of its research on its website: trade policy, climate change, agriculture as a major resource sector, and food and agriculture technology.

Simpson says the sector is up against misconceptions about the environmental impact of agriculture, and businesses that are publicly distancing themselves from animal products are another concern.

He cited the recent announcement that coffee-giant Starbucks will move away from dairy in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint, as an example.

"The press picks it up, and we don't have a position to defend that. So we need to … have a spokesperson, with facts and honesty," Simpson said.

Another key goal of the institute, Simpson said, will be to streamline communication and research within the industry.

Agriculture insiders excited

Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, CEO of CL Ranches Ltd., says she is optimistic the centre will give farmers and ranchers a bigger voice to affect policy. (Colleen Underwood/CBC Calgary)

The centre's unveiling has prompted excitement within the sector.

Cherie Copithorne-Barnes, the CEO of CL Ranches Ltd., was in attendance and said she is optimistic the centre will bring farmers and ranchers to the table.

"We have a small voice but not necessarily a big enough voice to really impact policy. But this is going to be our foothold.… We're excited about this," Copithorne-Barnes said.

"A lot of it is helping us to mitigate concerns, public concerns, regarding climate change.… We have a tremendous amount of research going on, but it needs to be co-ordinated."

The next step for the research centre, Simpson said, is finding a director. He also told the CBC that the centre will be privately funded and hopefully run, at least in part, by volunteers.

Ultimately, what Simpson wants, he said, is for the centre to reclaim the faith of the public through research. 

"Agriculture does produce our breakfast, our lunch and our supper, and we need to care about how we produce that so that we get the people back onside, to believing that farmers and ranchers in agriculture are good for us," Simpson said.

With files from Colleen Underwood

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