Alta. gives agriculture research a makeover

Government provides funding as its moves work and staff to colleges and universities that have agriculture departments

A flurry of funding announcements last week and early this week left no doubt about the direction of agricultural research in Alberta.

The provincial government is getting out of the research business, shifting its work and some of its staff to colleges and universities that have agricultural programs.

The department’s Field Crop Development Centre operating out of Lacombe, Alta., will be now be housed at Olds College in Olds, Alta., the government announced Oct. 16. An initial $10.5 million grant over three years will fund the program, with the college taking ownership.

The University of Alberta will receive a $3.7 million grant for transfer of four programs and researchers to that institution.

As announced Oct. 19, they include John Basarab in beef genomics and feed efficiency, Marcos Colazo in beef and dairy reproduction, Valerie Carney in poultry innovation and Sheri Strydhorst in cereal agronomy.

In southern Alberta, Lethbridge College will take over and manage the department’s 200-acre Alberta Irrigation Technology Centre located just outside the city, and will also own and run a large research greenhouse at the Crop Diversification Centre South in Brooks, Alta.

That transfer involved a $2 million grant to the college, which minister Devin Dreeshen announced Oct. 15.

The funding will primarily be used to hire five staff members to manage the facilities, said Kenny Corscadden, associate vice-president of research at Lethbridge College.

As well, the provincial agriculture department transferred three of its research programs to the University of Lethbridge. Researchers associated with those programs and others have joined the university. Apiculture and pollination, specialty crops and irrigation research, vegetable irrigation and potato production have all been transferred to the U of L.

Formerly with Alberta Agriculture, Shelley Hoover in apiculture, Michele Konschuh in irrigation and Kim Stanford in livestock pathogens will now work at the university.

That arrangement involved $1.8 million in provincial funds provided to the U of L for the transfer and recruitment of the researchers.

Funds are part of the $37 million annually that the government earmarked earlier this year for Results Driven Agricultural Research, which is a non-profit, producer-led company that operates at arm’s length from government. Last week it announced its list of research priorities and expects to issue its first call for projects later this month, according to RDAR chair Dr. David Chalack.

“Under this new model, agricultural research in Alberta will lead to tangible benefits for farmers, including higher profits, a more abundant food supply at lower cost for Albertans and ultimately a higher quality of life in rural communities,” the provincial department stated.

The departmental shift away from agricultural research has already led to more than 50 job losses, with more than 250 losses still pending.

Asked Oct. 15 about the timeline for the additional job cuts, Dreeshen was non-committal.

“We have found efficiencies,” he said. “It behooves any department to be able to find that.”

Given the province’s current dire financial picture and the effects of the pandemic, the government must run “lean and mean,” he added.

Olds College president Stuart Cullum welcomed the transfer of the field crop development centre to the college, given that it already has an applied research portfolio.

“Olds College is focused on delivering research programming that is centred on the needs of producers and industry partners and we are committed to collaborating with key stakeholders throughout the sector in order to sustainably position and grow barley/triticale research here in Alberta,” Cullum said in a news release.

The centre’s barley and triticale research and breeding program has had numerous successes since its start in 1973. Among them are AB Advantage, AB Wrangler and AB Tofield, barley varieties popular for livestock feed, as well as AB Lowe and AB Brewnel, used in the craft brewing market.

At the U of A, president Bill Flanagan said the funding related to transfer of programs and researchers will allow it to “retain and support the talented researchers at the forefront of this work.”

At Lethbridge College, the additions of the irrigation centre and the Brooks greenhouse to the fold will allow its Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship to expand its work, said college president Paula Burns.

The irrigation centre comprises 200 acres and three pivots and has been involved in research on water conservation, irrigation efficiency and adoption of new technology.

The Brooks greenhouse is expected to attract Canadian and international scientists seeking a test site for crops, new technology and commercial-scale production.

At the U of L, vice-president of research Robert Wood welcomed the new researchers.

“The addition of doctors Konschuh, Hoover and Stanford will expand the breadth of agriculture research on our campus, while their programs and experience will inform and enhance the greater work of the university’s talented faculty members,” he said.

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