Alberta ag societies face funding crisis

Community groups say funding cuts would be devastating to small town agricultural societies across the province

Alberta agricultural societies are in limbo as they await provincial government funding that is usually distributed in June.

The province’s 284 primary agricultural societies share $8.67 million in government funds, which they use to operate various facilities including rural community hockey rinks, curling rinks and ball diamonds, and to finance events.

The money was approved in the provincial budget during the March sitting of the provincial legislature so societies made their plans, said Tim Carson, chief executive officer of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies.

“Everything seemed to be status quo. Unfortunately, there were some administrative delays, nothing significant, but probably a month ago now we heard that all of the programs that still had money left in them, in programs across all ministries, were under review, so unfortunately our ag societies’ funding got caught up in that.”

Carson said the agriculture minister’s office confirmed in early September that funding for ag societies would be reduced but did not provide an amount.

Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier said Sept. 25 that funds are forthcoming.

“Funding for agricultural societies will be flowing in the coming weeks to support the work that they do,” he said in an email.

“No final decisions have been made yet whether the usual amount will be reduced but we will stay in close contact with the agricultural societies over the coming weeks.”

As they await funding, volunteers with some agriculture societies have contributed their own money to events with the expectation of reimbursement when government funding comes through.

“Many of our organizations, they run the curling rinks and hockey rinks and things of that nature in rural (Alberta),” Carson said.

“They’re in a spot where they’re spending significant dollars to put those facilities into operation for the upcoming season and it’s another financial burden for them.”

He said many societies went ahead with summer activities and events because they had no inkling funds would be delayed or reduced.

“Recognizing that these organizations are not running on a major profit margin or anything like that, they don’t have the background revenue to carry them through all of the things that go on.”

The situation got the attention of the United Conservative Party caucus, which issued a news release Sept. 20 urging the NDP government to provide the 2017 operational grants.

“Losing agricultural society funding would be devastating to the small town agricultural societies of Alberta, if not completely putting them out of business,” said UCP agriculture critic Dave Schneider in the news release.

Carson said the societies are now in a holding pattern. The AAAS informed them of the situation via letter earlier this month and has also provided information to the government about ag societies’ value.

Ag societies own and operate approximately 700 facilities in Alberta with a replacement value estimated at $1.4 billion.

Carson said a 2012 study showed Alberta ag societies use about 65,000 volunteers, who contribute 640,000 hours of labour. Valued at $20 per hour, that amounts to more than $12 million. The study also showed society events generate $53 million in local spending.

“This isn’t chump change,” said Carson. “These are vital organizations to rural communities and they go by unnoticed. Now they’re being unnoticed again.”

Ag societies help to maintain rural communities, he added.

“It’s truly the volunteers and organizations like ag societies that create the soul of the community, and the moment you start belittling that or ignoring the value … you start to hollow the community from the inside.”

In his email, Carlier acknowledged that role.

“I understand the good work that agricultural societies do. I’ve been to so many small and rural communities where these organizations improve the quality of life for rural Albertans.

“As government, we will address the budget deficit in a thoughtful and responsible manner. We have to make some decisions on how best to use limited resources.”

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