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Food Clusters and Rural Development: A Review of Anne H. Lee and Geoffrey Wall, Food Clusters, Rural Development and a Creative Economy (2014)

This is the fourth article in a series by guest blogger Brittany Bruce

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Brittany’s series is based on her Masters’ thesis research on collaboration and economic development in two regions.  Her articles can be found here. Today’s post focuses on Food Clusters, Rural Development and a Creative Economy.

Creativity and creative industries are not just for ‘urban’ areas. As part of a trend known as “counter-urbanization,” people are willing to move out of cities, and are actually doing so, to enjoy amenities that rural areas have to offer. However, these changes are only likely to accrue to places that are well connected to urban areas, either physically or virtually. Therefore, places without these advantages need to find other things to capitalize upon.

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What is a Food Cluster and How do they Form?

Even the smallest of differences, or the smallest of place-unique qualities may be enough to attracting a global audience. This is where the idea of a food cluster comes in. Lee and Wall (2014:3) argue that

“a food cluster has the potential to make a positive contribution to place-based creative economic development in a rural context by supporting local creative jobs (e.g. entrepreneurship) and incomes, both existing and new, and increasing place identity and pride in place by harnessing ‘territorial assets’, including assets that are predominantly available locally, such as cultural heritage and attractive environments.”

University of Waterloo researchers Anne Lee and Geoffrey Wall,have published a framework that they argue accurately captures the factors involved in developing a food cluster in a rural area. This framework can be used for rural places to turn their agricultural landscapes into tourist experiences. This framework could also be viewed as a tool to map the components of a cluster already burgeoning in your community, and could give you some insight into what is missing from your community. In this way, this framework could be considered an evaluative tool.

Lee and Wall identify four key factors that can influence the development of a food cluster:

  • an environmentally friendly strategy
  • leadership
  • stakeholder collaboration
  • communication and information flows

Environmentally friendly strategies are important for marketing purposes, as they are culturally trendy. Such a strategy is a great value-add to specific products, restaurants or tourism experiences.

Leadership is importance to ensuring the last two factors happen and stay on track.

Stakeholder collaboration in the context of a food cluster involves stakeholders from the agricultural and tourism industries. In order to make a food cluster successful, stakeholders in rural areas must coordinate their efforts.

As the point of a food cluster is to create a marketable experience for rural areas, communication and information flows are key to getting the message out to potential markets.

Food clusters have several stages of outputs

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Outputs 1 for a food cluster are new products (that can be sold/marketed). In this stage of food cluster development, informal structures are replaced by formal arrangements or organizations. These outputs can ultimately help to bridge the seasonal nature of many agricultural and tourism sectors.

Outputs 2 are longer-term outputs that result in an area becoming better known for their products.

Table : The Formation of a Food Cluster

Brittany Bruce Blog 4 Food Clusters Table 1Source: Lee and Wall (2014: 4)

The Example of SAVOUR Muskoka

Savour Muskoka Lee and Wall apply their framework, derived from the academic literature, to the case of the food cluster known as SAVOUR Muskoka.

Table : SAVOUR Muskoka Food Cluster

Brittany Bruce Blog 4 Savour Muskoka Food Clusters Table 2Adapted from: Lee and Wall (2014)

What makes SAVOUR Muskoka unique as a food cluster is that it was created and is run by local stakeholders, including farmers, chefs, artisans, and restaurant owners. This bottom-up approach has enhanced the success of SAVOUR Muskoka as there is buy-in from local agricultural stakeholders.

Where SAVOUR Muskoka may need to do more work is in the leadership facilitator. Lee and Wall suggest that there have been no clear leaders, as many organizations have been involved in the initiative. While this is positive from a buy-in perspective, it can muddy the waters in terms of getting things done on a day-to-day basis as responsibility is fragmented.

Applying this framework to a real place helped Lee and Wall to tweak the framework, which had been created primarily through a literature review. It seems striking to me that this framework could be easily used to analyze other clusters, not just those related to food. Using the top row of the two charts above (inputs, facilitators, outputs 1, outputs 2, and outcomes), makes this framework highly adaptable to other kinds of clusters; like a tourism cluster focused on nature based excursions, an innovation cluster focused on app development, or an advanced manufacturing cluster focused on advanced robotics.

This tool could be used to ‘take the temperature’ of probably any industry you can think of. In this way, Lee and Wall framework reminded me of a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. However, this framework comes across as decidedly more positive; which is important for building support for change in communities. Rather than overtly focusing on what a community is missing, this framework highlights what is already there, and shows where improvements may need to be made.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think you could use this framework in your community as an asset-mapping tool?
  2. Is there anything missing from this framework that would improve its utility?

Full citation:

Lee, A. H., & Wall, G. (2014). Food clusters, rural development and a creative economy. The Journal of Rural and Community Development, 9(4), 1-22.

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