Farm officials relieved cuts not worse

Saskatchewan farm leaders accepted a 2.5 percent cut to the provincial agriculture budget last week, saying they understand the fiscal pressure of low oil prices.

The March 18 budget estimates agricultural spending of $362.4 million in 2015-16, down from $371.6 million last year.

“Glad to see there was no tax increases, and a 2.5 percent cut in ag is acceptable,” said Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan president Norm Hall.

“It was mostly in the non-(business risk management) portion of GF2, and it’s just the way things ramp up and come back down, so basically a flat budget.”

The Growing Forward 2 programs also include spending on areas such as farm stewardship and mentorship programs.

Agriculture minister Lyle Stewart said the cut shouldn’t affect farmers.

“There is minimal impact on our programs and more importantly on our clients,” he said.

“We will be offering the same programs and the same or better coverage.”

Growing Forward 2 spending is pegged at $71.2 million. The federal and provincial governments will spend $388 million over five years.

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The province has allocated $800,000 to support industry agriculture awareness campaigns, and Stewart said the improved perception of agriculture is one of his priorities.

“We believe that one of the biggest threats to our growth won’t be lack of investment or the loss of resources but not having the ability to use the tools and techniques we currently have available to us or losing social licence,” he said.

Stewart said Saskatchewan was founded on agriculture, and it continues to be a key economic driver, contributing 10 percent to the gross domestic product and employing 50,000 people.

The business risk management portion of Growing Forward 2, which includes AgriStability, AgriInvest and crop and livestock insurance, is fully funded at $240 million, based on federal estimates.

Among the budget cuts was a one-year suspension of the gopher control program rebate after little use last year. Only $17,771 of an available $175,000 was paid out.

Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities president Ray Orb said that’s because of the recent wetter climate.

“As the wetter years have come back, the gopher problem isn’t quite as bad, so it’s not as much an issue as it would have been five or six years ago,” he said.

As well, the program to help municipalities repair bridges over irrigation works has been cut in half. Stewart said the province budgeted $1 million for each of the last two years but never spent more than $500,000.

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Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association vice-chair Ryan Beierbach said he didn’t expect any new programs but was glad there weren’t major cuts.

“We know that revenues are tough on the oil side, so we’re happy that they kept the education property tax the same and it’s good to see that our programs are still supported,” he said. “We’re not looking for financial support, we just want the right kind of environment to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Both he and Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association president Doug Gillespie said the addition of livestock price insurance to the business risk management programs has been welcome.

Meanwhile, the budget did not contain money for a large-scale water supply project such as the long-anticipated Qu’Appelle South initiative, which would provide water to the Regina-Moose Jaw corridor and allow for 111,000 acres of irrigation.

“When it’s announced, it’ll be a big deal and this probably isn’t the year to be announcing very expensive new projects,” Stewart said.

An announcement is coming shortly about a replacement for the Saskatchewan SPCA’s rural animal protection service.

The budget includes $630,000 to pay for that service, up $80,000 from the amount the SPCA received last year.

Stewart said he believed the new company would hire the SPCA employees who worked in animal protection.

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