After the Axe: Laying out what comes next for agricultural research in Alberta

By Tim Kalinowski


Provincially agriculture research will take a $34 million hit over the next four years, and there is one or two ways it can go, says Ken Coles, general manager for Farming Smarter: Either the agriculture research community and producers will pull together to make something work, or it will all fly apart at the wheels as groups devolve into infighting for scarcer resources.

“Personally, I think the ag industry is quite fragmented, and one of the causes for that fragmentation is everybody is sort of trying to do what they can with what they have,” Coles says. “That doesn’t leave a lot of room for working together, but I think that is exactly what needs to happen. There needs to be a documented and formalized vision for (farmer-led) ag research. We have to put it down on paper on how we are going to work together. Who does what? What are we trying to achieve? And how are we going to pay for it?”

“In a sense we almost need to mimic what’s going on at the national stage (with the research clusters) on the provincial stage,” he adds. “And is something which takes into account the regional uniqueness and opportunities.”

Coles went to Edmonton to speak directly with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen a few days after the cuts to ag research were announced.

Coles says what he heard from the Minister was both disheartening and encouraging at the same time, at least from a farmer-led research perspective.

“There is going to be cuts to the provincial budget in agriculture, and I am always saddened there would be a reduction of investment in agriculture because I think it is an industry with a proven track record,” he states. “And I also know investments in research and extension have a huge return on investment. It always seems a little bit confusing to me as to why we would be cutting from such an important industry.

“That’s the bad news. The good news is the Minister’s looking for ways to build in efficiencies and increase partnerships as far as things that will encourage private investment and finding better ways to accomplish the same things.”

Coles got the message right, confirmed Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews, who also visited Lethbridge earlier this month. Toews was asked about the cuts to agriculture research in his budget during his visit.

“The goal is research will be moved out of government hands over time, and led by industry and producers to ensure the research that will really move the meter, the research that is the priority of producers and industry participants is in fact being conducted,” said Toews. “It’s that type of research that will truly improve our competitiveness.”

That’s all well and good, says Farming Smarter board director Rick Mercer of Mercer Seeds Ltd., but there is no way the farmer-led research groups like Farming Smarter can completely fill that research void as the government pulls back.

“I think it is really important we partner with the government, and the government doesn’t see this as an exit strategy but more of a partnering strategy,” says Mercer. “The way to use the funds that are currently being spent in various programs, or various grants, in the best, most practical, useable way possible.”

Toews said it is not the government’s intent to abandon agricultural research entirely, but merely to rebalance the funding equation between private, public and producer-led research.

“Minister Dreeshen will be working with the agriculture sector to make sure that can accomplished well and effectively,” stated Toews, “and to make sure it doesn’t reduce or undermine our capacity in this province to conduct good, sound agriculture research.”

Nevertheless, the government will be cutting its ag research funding by a third when it is all said and done, and those kinds of cuts tend to have gruesome consequences, says University of Lethbridge Ag Studies co-ordinator Danny LeRoy.

“It’s a big blow to the people who are undertaking these projects which use that funding for their research activities,” he states. “In the minds of the government, this is low-hanging fruit. One can only presume those in charge feel the private sector has capacity to take on some of this research privately that was perhaps taxpayer financed previously. I think it would be fair to presume that the research which will be eliminated first is probably the least important. At least that is what one would hope.”

But how does one decide that? asks LeRoy. He doesn’t envy the hatchet job administrators at the provincial government-funded research stations will have to undertake.

“It puts a lot of pressure on the administrators of those research stations because these are cuts they are going to have to deal with, and it has a direct bearing on people’s lives and their work activities.”

As a university faculty co-ordinator, LeRoy says he is mindful of the severe effects these cuts are going to have on practical research in Alberta agriculture. But as an economist sympathetic with the government’s cost-cutting aims, LeRoy says researchers also must acknowledge the new reality they find themselves in and adjust accordingly.

“Part of the consequence I think there will be is there has to be demonstrable upside to a research undertaking,” he says. “I think the days of chasing intellectual curiosity is probably in the past. And the focus ought to be on solving real problems owned by real people in the real world.”

“At the same time, basic research is not the exclusive purview of government financing,” he adds. “I agree entirely there is value in doing things just because we are curious, but at whose expense? And to what expense? These are issues we are grappling with. The answers to those questions over time is a bit of moving target.”

Farming Smarter’s Coles agrees that adjustments will have to be made, and farmer-led research organizations like his are going to have to up their ground game even more, but they also need, he says, greater assurances from the Alberta government they will be supported in doing so.

“We can be quite efficient in the work we do, but we also need capacity,” states Coles bluntly. “That means human resources, a stable core operating budget, and it means access to capital and things like land even. The Minister has promised that his next priority is to develop that research vision. He has asked us for what our vision might be.”

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry will be holding roundtables throughout the month of December to discuss a way forward for agricultural research in the province in an era of greater austerity.


Photo copyright Ian Martens, Lethbridge Herald