No-surprise budget pleases Sask. farm groups

Budget increases agriculture ministry spending by three percent and assumes crop production will be similar to last year

Saskatchewan Finance Minister Donna Harpauer says crop failure is one of her biggest concerns in revealing a provincial budget with a slim surplus.

The minister released the 2019-20 budget March 20. It contains a $34.4 million surplus on revenues of $15.03 billion and expenses of $14.99 billion.

“If we had a province wide or even a very large crop failure, it’s a huge impact on our budget,” she said when asked what worries her most.

The budget assumes crop production in 2019 similar to last year when the third largest crop on record, 35.4 million tonnes, was harvested even in dry conditions.

The 10-year average for crop production from 2008-17 is 31.2 million tonnes, compared to 23.8 million tonnes in the previous 10 years.

Agricultural exports totalled $13.4 billion in 2018.

The agriculture ministry’s budget didn’t change much from last year. It’s up three percent to $391.3 million, largely because of increased crop insurance premium costs.

Still, farm organizations approved of the budget, noting they hadn’t really asked for additions.

Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, said budget surprises can be good or bad, so he was happy there weren’t any.

“It wasn’t anything unexpected,” he said after listening to Harpauer’s speech.

“We’ve had continuation of funding for our business risk management plans.”

BRM spending accounts for most of the ministry’s budget at $271.9 million.

The province has already announced its crop insurance program, more money for conservation and development organizations and research money for the year.

“I think overall we’re happy. Certainly the increased cell towers, up to 100 in rural Saskatchewan over the next few years, are going to be welcome as well,” Lewis added.

The budget noted SaskTel’s plans to add 41 new cellular sites this year and 100 by March 2020 in smaller rural communities across the province.

Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities president Ray Orb said RMs would be happy that funding for rat control under the Pest Biosecurity Program is increasing by $350,000 to $1.25 million.

He said he wasn’t hearing of any particular problems with rat populations, but maintaining control is important.

Agriculture Minister David Marit said funding for rat control had dropped and he didn’t want it to decline any more.

From a municipality perspective, Orb said the continuation of $14 million in the Municipal Roads for the Economy program is key. RMs previously heard they would get about $71 million in municipal revenue sharing.

The budget contained no new taxes or tax increases.

Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association president Bill Huber said the government promised and delivered a balanced budget.

“I think it’s a reasonable budget,” he said.

“No major changes to anything, a few increases in expenditures, nothing real concrete to support livestock, but certainly no takeaways either.”

Ryan Beierbach, past president of the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association, echoed those comments, noting producers had already heard about improvements to hay and forage insurance and a corn rainfall program that they wanted.

He said the balanced budget is important.

“It gives us something to work from when the economy improves and we can look for some things like infrastructure money for irrigation and those kinds of things,” he said.

Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association director Daryl Fransoo said the government helps farmers with more than money.

“As the Western Canadian Wheat Growers, we don’t need more funding. We need a government that will fight for us like they are doing on the canola aspect, like they are doing with the carbon tax,” he said.

“We just need rules and regulations and a government that will go to bat for us.”

NDP agriculture critic Yens Pedersen described the agriculture budget as “steady as you go.”

However, he said the razor-thin surplus is a concern overall.

“Any miss on any program is enough to throw this budget offside,” he said.

Pedersen said he would be digging into the extra spending on crop insurance to find out if costs are going up because of climate change and weather events.

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