Alta. ag layoffs called ‘a pretty significant change’

There was plenty of warning but that didn’t ease the shock for about 135 Alberta Agriculture employees who got notice last week of pending job loss.

The recent cuts were phase one of a two-phase “workforce transformation” that will see the provincial government eliminate 247 union positions in agriculture and forestry, with the second phase planned in the next fiscal quarter.

Related story: Union decries agriculture cuts

The government signalled its plans to downsize the agriculture and forestry department in late 2019 and the cuts announced last week were originally planned for April and then delayed twice in part due to the pandemic.

Employees who got the word last week now have until Nov. 28 to consider their options, whether that is bumping into another position, taking a package or retiring, said one person directly affected who asked to remain anonymous in case it affected the available options. Some were given working notice until February, at which time their jobs will end.

Agricultural researchers and technicians were among those cut, further signalling the department’s intentions to exit the research field.

“The loss of this research and the practical non-biased business information that we were able to give out is going to affect… food safety, for instance the researchers that were working on… beef, and the other one is the water quality. We’ve lost several of the people who checked and made sure that the E. coli levels in the irrigation ditches was kept to a minimum,” said a person whose job will be lost.

“I think that the long-term effect of losing this kind of staff is probably not going to be noticed for two or three years.”

Former Alberta Agriculture employees also greeted the news with dismay.

Ross McKenzie, who retired from the department seven years ago, said the cuts were short-sighted and he thinks research capacity will be lost despite the funds provided to Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR), which is designed to continue ag research support.

“A lot of people who were doing very good work have been terminated. That research capacity is lost. I don’t know who will pick it up and carry on doing it,” said McKenzie.

“People always forget that Alberta Agriculture had offices across the province and there was a lot of co-operative work that was done. That capacity will be lost. You’ll see (applied research) groups… kind of pick up and carry on but you won’t have that co-ordinated effort across the province that we had… with one agency doing that work across the province.”

Earlier this month, agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen announced funding to several post-secondary institutions so they could add former provincial researchers to their faculties. Funding for three years per institution was provided at the University of Alberta, Olds College, University of Lethbridge and Lethbridge College.

However, in most or perhaps all cases, the researchers’ technical and support staff did not accompany them and it appears many of them will be terminated.

“What does a research scientist do without their lab facilities and without their competent technical staff?” asked McKenzie.

RDAR has been allocated $37 million annually to fund agricultural research projects. The $10.5 million provided to Olds College to take over the field crop development centre in Lacombe and the $2 million provided to Lethbridge College to take over the irrigation technology centre and Brooks greenhouse is part of RDAR’s allocation, the provincial department confirmed last week.

That arithmetic indicates RDAR has $24.5 million to work with for each of the next three years.

Funds provided by government to the U of A and U of L came from Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) funds. The province confirmed last week that CAP grants for science and innovation will be moved to RDAR to administer.

Ken Coles, executive director of the Farming Smarter applied research group, said the staff cuts will affect activities in his area.

“We were pretty integrated with all of Alberta Agriculture as well as other ag-related institutions, so yes, we’re losing a lot of colleagues, a lot of resources and people that we might have tapped on the shoulder to help with extension or people that we partnered with in research. So it’s definitely a big hit,” Coles said.

Although the planned reductions in personnel were signalled last year, he said they have gone beyond what was expected.

“Originally it was touted that just research was being cut but it’s gone well beyond that. It’s gone to extension and support staff and labs and surveillance and all this other stuff. It’s a pretty significant change.”

Government documents provided to the Alberta Union of Public Employees indicate the job cuts will save an estimated $22 million.

Alberta’s dismal financial situation, largely created by declines in the energy industry and then exacerbated by COVID-19 effects, require belt-tightening across all sectors, as finance minister Travis Toews has warned.

However, Coles said Dreeshen’s praise of RDAR as the way forward, and the money allocated to it, isn’t sufficient for the need.

“I do see this as an overall reduction in support for agriculture. Regardless of the fact that they’re making cuts within the department and the creation of the $37 million towards RDAR, that’s not new money. That’s money that always was invested.

“That $37 million does not offset the cuts that are happening and the impact to the industry. If anything I’d like to see that at $75 million. It should be double that.”

As those who remain employed by Alberta Agriculture learn which colleagues will be leaving, they face emotional turmoil, said one person in that position who asked to remain anonymous to protect the job.

“It’s hard to watch people that you know and are friends with get put in a position of being let go. It’s been a tough week.”

That said, remaining employees understand the overall reasoning.

“I’m not oblivious to why this is being done, but it doesn’t make it any easier to be sort of on the inside watching…. It’s hard.”

However, the worry remains that agricultural research won’t reach the same levels it once did, as McKenzie and others suggest.

“Farmers need to have a sense of what’s going on and how it will impact them,” said McKenzie. “To be honest, it won’t have a bit of impact on them over the next few months, but over the next few years, with the reduced capacity and there’s no extension… that will have impacts.”

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