Alberta budget seeks investment in ag

The Alberta government hopes it can attract $1.4 billion in investment to the agriculture sector over the next for years as it aims to expand the provincial economy.

Revealing more details in its budget today, the government said the aggressive target would support 2,000 new jobs in canola processing, the pork industry, plant protein, greenhouses, food processing, the malt industry, agri-technology, and other emerging sectors.

The pledge is part of the government’s new value-added strategy, in which it hopes corporate tax cuts, as well as advocacy, will lure investors.

However, it comes at a time when the province continues to cut department expenses, arguing its fiscal house needs get in order as the economy continues to lag.

The Agriculture and Forestry department is seeing a massive cut of roughly $538 million, though the bulk of that was done by completely axing the wildfire pre-suppression and response program, which had cost roughly $485 million.

The primary agriculture division is slated to see a $20 million cut. It budgeted roughly $93 million in 2019-20 and it’s estimate for 2020-21 is $73 million.

The Agriculture and Forestry department expects 277 full-time-equivalent job losses. It isn’t clear which divisions will see the most job reductions.

As well, the Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) expects 48 full-time-equivalent job losses.

Dave Bishop, chair of the Alberta Barley Commission, said he hopes the department keeps extension employees, but the commission will have to wait and see what the fallout is before commenting further.

Overall, the province anticipates a $6.8 billion deficit, but plans to eventually post a surplus in 2022-23. Provincial debt is expected to grow to $95.6 billion this year.

The government, however, expects economic growth in the coming years, anticipating more pipelines will come on line, increased investment in the energy sector and housing, more employment and more tax revenue.

Finance Minister Travis Toews said the province is prepared to cut further if the rosy economic picture doesn’t pan out.

“When you take a look at our underlying assumptions, they aren’t overly optimistic,” he said. “They are cautious but credible.”

Bishop said he is supportive of the cuts, suggesting fiscal responsibility is needed.

As for farmer research, it plans on remaining the same before the government introduces a new model.

The province will commit $37 million to farmer research this coming fiscal year. Of that total, $7 million will come from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership program, $10 million will be for external organizations and $20 million will be spent within the department.

The province is expected to launch a new research funding model that takes farmers’ priorities into account.

Delivery of crop insurance won’t change and producers’ premiums won’t be impacted.

As for the value-added strategy, the province hopes there will be 280 value-added agriculture products developed by 2020-21, expecting that number to grow to 310 by 2022-23.

It expects $840 million in investment will be leveraged in rural businesses and agribusinesses, facilitated through AFSC. By 2022-23, it expects that figure to be $925 million.

Included in the budget is $2 million for protein fractionation equipment at the Food Processing Centre in Leduc, Alta. It’s part of the province’s $6.4 billion capital plan.

Bishop said more value-added agriculture would beneficial.

“It would be great if we could have that happen,” he said. “It could attract employment and make our farms more profitable.”

Toews continued his push for the federal government to rebate Alberta $2.4 billion through the Fiscal Stabilization Program. He argued the province has made significant contributions to the federal program, yet he said the federal government has introduced harmful policies.

“There is a lot of unrest,” he said. “The federal government has been enacting policies that aren’t in the best interest of the people of this province and this country. The frustration is high and I share that.”

The province will be introducing new tax streams to generate revenue.

It will be introducing a vaping tax of 20 percent. It aims to bring in $4 million in 2020-21 and $8 million in 2021-22.

This comes after the government hiked fees for cigarettes, charging $5 more for a carton of 200. Loose tobacco taxes grew by 3.75 cents.

The province will be introducing a levy on short-term rentals, as well as a recreation trail fee. There will be increases to provincial park fees.

The government plans on introducing a program that offer upgrades for rural health facilities across the province.

Contact jeremy.simes@producer.com

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