Check-off protest erupts over fusarium

Some producers in Alberta’s northern rural municipalities are requesting refunds of wheat and barley check-off payments as a way to protest the removal of fusarium from the Alberta Pests Act.

The crop disease has been slowly spreading westward for decades and until a change in May to the Pest Nuisance Control Regulation, Alberta had a zero tolerance policy on planting infected seed.

Northern areas of the province have little or no fusarium and some representatives say the change to the pests act will open the floodgates to infection and eliminate any northern Alberta advantage for growing clean seed.

The change to the act was supported by the Alberta wheat and Alberta barley commissions, so requests for check-off refunds are a way to show disapproval.

“I’m angry that they took this out of the pest act and are exposing the better part of the province, more than half by far, that is so far fusarium free, to potential contamination because they’re taking the requirement to plant uninfected seed away from us,” said Janice Reyda, a councillor in the Municipal District of Peace River and a member of its agricultural services board.

“The arguments, from my discussions with the Alberta Wheat Commission, was that the people in the southern part of our province, which do have fusarium infection in their product and in their fields, are unable to locate uninfected seed,” said Reyda.

“How hard did they try? We’ve been planting bin run up here for an awful long time. It’s reliable, we’re getting it tested, it’s clean and to date we don’t have a problem with fusarium head blight in barley or wheat that I know of, so they could have sourced uninfected seed from up here.”

“Heaven forbid we should have gotten a little bit extra for our seed for the benefit of having clean. But I think that people are taking the easy way out, to the benefit of our chemical and seed companies.”

Reyda said she has applied for a check-off refund as a result of her objections, although she admits it is largely symbolic since the amount is relatively small.

The MD of Peace River posted a notice on its website recommending “all wheat and barley producers in uninfected municipalities request their checkoffs back and advise the commissions in the comments section of their requests that the request for refund is being made as a result of the lack of support provided by the commissions in maintaining our fusarium-free areas.”

Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission, said Aug. 28 that he was aware of some rural municipalities’ messages about wheat and barley check-off refunds.

“We’ve seen the postings on a few county websites, and I do find it a bit perplexing to see municipal governments actively promoting defunding of not-for-profit farm organizations that are also tax paying farmers in their jurisdictions. But that’s their prerogative.

“It’s fair ball for groups to have a different point of view but I think its unfortunate that rather than communicating with us directly, that they’ve taken this route.”

Steve said the AWC plans to reach out to the municipal districts and counties and the agricultural service boards to find some common ground on the issue.

When the change to the pest act was officially announced in June, it was praised by the wheat and barley commissions, Alberta seed processors, seed grower groups and the Canadian Seed Trade Association. Alberta’s agriculture minister, Devin Dreeshen, called it a “long overdue change” that would create new opportunities for producers through access and development of new cereal varieties.

AWC chair Todd Hames said in the news release that it had become clear that zero tolerance policies had not been effective in controlling FHB spread.

David Bishop, chair of Alberta Barley, said push back from northern Alberta is not a surprise and removal of fusarium from the act will have positive effects.

“Removing it from the pest act… allows a little better education program to be done. I think that’s the big issue with fusarium is education and how to manage it,” Bishop said Aug. 28.

“As far as getting any investment in the seed industry in Alberta regarding fusarium, you needed to have it removed from the pest act in order to allow the new varieties to come in to be bred and to be tested in Alberta as far as being fusarium resistant and that wasn’t being allowed with the way the act read before.”

After the change to the pest act, the barley and wheat commissions launched “Let’s Manage It,” a site similar to a former Alberta Agriculture site, with information on mitigating and managing fusarium. It says a move away from the regulatory approach will allow farmers to make decisions based on their individual circumstances and level of risk tolerance.

It also notes municipalities can enact their own bylaws regarding fusarium management if they choose.

Reyda said she is aware of the bylaw option but doesn’t think it’s the answer.

“I am on council and bylaws have limited usefulness because, plain and (simple), we don’t have the manpower to enforce it properly.”

Blake Gaugler, a farmer near Manning, Alta., and the agricultural fieldman for County of Northern Lights, said legislation before the change allowed municipalities to keep fusarium out of their regions. He said claims that it exists throughout the province are false.

“I think the big push came from the seed growers association. They obviously felt that fusarium was getting widespread through the province and they didn’t want to deal with the regulation,” said Gaugler.

He fears the change will affect markets and thus prices for Alberta wheat and barley.

“I’m more upset they’re not publishing any of the data on what the economic implications to producers, export producers in Alberta, what it could cost them,” he added. “I would just like the honest facts to be put out there. I’m personally OK with fusarium being off the list. I just want farmers to understand that it is a serious disease for many reasons.”

In an email to the Producer, in which he was critical of Dreeshen’s stated reasons for changing the pest act, Gaugler took issue with assertions that the change will “level the playing field” for Alberta farmers.

“The only thing removing fusarium from the act will accomplish is downgrading our Alberta wheat and barley and infesting our province head to toe like other more eastern provinces,” he said.

“It will also level the playing fields for large corporations … to increase sales for foliar and seed-applied fungicides and put the sole burden on producers to figure it out on their own.”

Gaugler also questioned the assertion that the change will prompt more research into the problem.

“Currently Albertans can access any foliar or seed applied fungicide, any best management practice whether chemical, cultural, biological or mechanical, and any resistant variety as long as they can produce a negative fusarium test,” said Gaugler.

“I have no idea how letting a manageable disease run rampant across Alberta would allow Alberta to stay competitive.”

Bishop said there have been years of discussion and consultation on how to handle fusarium in the province so changes to the act should not have come as a surprise.

“At the end of the day we all need to manage fusarium. It doesn’t matter where you are in the province, you have to have some sort of, on your own farm, a management program for fusarium.”

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