Alberta farm groups look for budget clarity

Groups want the provincial government to outline research commitments as well as ensure risk programs are stabilized

Alberta farm groups are hoping the province provides funding clarity in the upcoming provincial budget, but they might have to brace for cuts due to tight finances.

While no final decisions have been made, the United Conservative Party government has said it needs to restrain spending, causing some agriculture groups to ponder what’s in store.

“We have no formal expectations on what’s going to happen, but we’ve heard that message of financial constraint very clearly,” said Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers.

“When you make requests for money for programs, and the government is saying it has few resources, it makes you wonder if there will be investments for those programs.”

During the Alberta election campaign, agriculture groups had asked for an increase in funding for research projects, given dollars had been reduced over the past few years.

In its platform, the UCP promised it would let farmers set research priorities, but it remains tight-lipped on whether there will be more funding, saying groups will have to wait until the budget is released in late October.

“We’re wondering what is going to happen,” said Lynn Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture. “There has been speculation but it’s hard to say. There hasn’t been a good indication of where the government is actually going and, if there are cuts, what they are going to look like.”

The province recently struck a panel, led by former Saskatchewan Finance Minister Janice MacKinnon, to review Alberta’s spending. It’s expected the panel will influence its decisions on where to reduce spending.

The funding uncertainty, however, has already caused some organizations to brace for cuts in anticipation of fewer resources. Public schools in Calgary, for example, could see 200 fewer teachers and 100 fewer assistants.

Still, the province remains committed to getting Alberta out of the red.

“As a province we must live within our means and curb expenses. We need to start doing this today to ensure a viable future of quality front-line services for all Albertans,” said Finance Minister Travis Toews, speaking with reporters on Aug. 27.

The UCP has been criticized for not reviewing revenue streams as part of the panel led by MacKinnon, though it’s expected in 2021-22 that it will form a panel to look at the province’s optimal tax structure.

As well, opponents say the province’s recent corporate tax cuts will negatively affect revenue.

Toews, however, said it remains committed to the tax cut plan and is confident it will lead to long-term investment.

With agriculture, even though there are no expectations, some groups hope the government provides certainty on research programming.

“Dollars for crop research has been very thin, so if there is any kind of improvement or certainty around that, that would be an improvement,” said Ward Toma, general manager of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission.

“We are really prepared to fund what we need to fund. It’s unfortunate that some things may go unfunded, but that’s the nature of the situation.”

As well, he said he would like market access issues to be resolved and that programs to mitigate impacts be modernized.

Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta barley and wheat commissions, said the organization is looking for stability and for the government to outline the future direction of business risk programs, like crop insurance.

The UCP promised to streamline Agriculture Financial Services Corp. (AFSC), but Steve said he doesn’t want to see anything that jeopardizes its programs.

“We support streamlining, but at the end of the day, there has to be some basic pillars of stabilization,” he said.

With research, he said he’s looking for clarity on funding commitments, as well as assurances research will focus on crop productivity rather than be driven by policy.

“I don’t want to speculate on what the dollars will be,” he said. “We’re hopeful we can get some clarity over long-term commitments to research.”

However, fewer dollars makes the industry less competitive, said Smith.

“When those investments aren’t made, it’s felt in the industry,” he said. “We increased the national checkoff so we would have more money for research and market development. For us, we think government has a legitimate role to invest in research that will make us more competitive.”

Smith added he would also like to see insurance programs for cattle and forage producers improved, as well as investment in rural infrastructure, like roads and broadband.

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