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Great Pacific BioProducts turns bits of fish that we aren’t interested in eating into organic agricultural fertilizer.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A series introducing the next generation of innovators. We asked prominent British Columbians to nominate people they're watching

Nominator: Glen Clark, former premier of British Columbia. Mr. Clark is president of the Jim Pattison Group, a B.C.-made business empire with 39,000 employees and more than $8-billion in annual sales. The company's interests range from car dealerships to grocery-store chains, but the manager of a tiny division, with just three employees, has caught Mr. Clark's eye.

Innovator: Jason Connors, manager, Great Pacific BioProducts in Delta.

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"Jason is doing something we need more of in B.C, namely, extracting more value from our natural resources, reducing our ecological footprint and growing a brand-new business in B.C."

Glen Clark, President of the Jim Pattison Group

The business is taking the bits of fish that we aren't interested in eating and turning them into an organic agricultural fertilizer that is being used in vineyards of the Okanagan and produce farms in California. More recently, Great Pacific BioProducts is opening up markets in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Jason Connors, who grew up in a small mining town in Newfoundland, knew almost nothing about agriculture when he came out to Vancouver in 2003 for a break from his studies.

He had just completed a bachelor of science in kinesiology at Dalhousie University and planned to head back to school to become a physiotherapist. On the West Coast, he was offered a job making fertilizer out of the parts of the spiny dogfish – a member of the shark family – that were too tough to be handled in a normal fish rendering plant.

It wasn't the career path he expected to be on – and it can be a smelly business – but he discovered he loved it.

"This opportunity was completely out of left field for me," he said. "It blew my mind, learning about agriculture and how this product works. It fascinated me, learning about the food chain."

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When the market for B.C. dogfish withered five years ago, the operation was in trouble. This is where Mr. Connors had to be nimble. He tracked down new sources for fresh fish parts and then experimented to concoct the right mix that would yield a rich soil amendment. The next challenge was to persuade skeptical farmers to disregard traditional measures of fertilizer – the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or NPK – and to look instead at microbial life in their soil.

"Since World War Two, farmers have looked at those three NPK numbers. They've been spreading these chemical fertilizers over millions of acres, and over time farmers would need more and more of those chemicals to get the same yields because the soils were being neglected," Mr. Connors said.

He is persuading farmers to look at crop production differently. It often takes a year for a trial to produce results, so it is a matter of persuading producers to give his fertilizer a try for a season – and then measure the results. "The toughest part of what we are doing is finding our niche in the market, to get it into farmers' hands."

The niche isn't quite where Mr. Connors thought it would be.

"When we started we figured we were going to sell it to the organic market like gangbusters, but we ended up making way more headway with conventional farmers, the guy who was using all the chemicals." Organic farmers make up only about 30 per cent of his sales; the rest are using his product to supplement conventional fertilizers.

In particular, vineyards have proven to be loyal customers after seeing brix levels – the amount of sugar in their grapes – increase when the soil is enriched with his fish fertilizer. "Our largest crop is the vineyard sector. … Those farmers are finding their plants are increasing in nutrient density."

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With sales of around $1-million expected this year, Great Pacific BioProducts is not a major link in the Pattison chain. But Mr. Clark believes innovation is critical to the company's survival and growth, and Mr. Connors has proved to be adaptive.

"I really like him and he has great potential in the company," said the former premier.

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