COVID puts ag societies in perilous position

Alta. government recently announced an additional operating grant to help societies weather the downturn in business

Agricultural societies in Alberta have been thrown a financial lifeline by provincial government changes to the funding formula, but they are not out of danger.

Provincial funding only makes up about a third of the revenue the societies have lost due to the cancellation of events ranging from fairs to weddings, said Tim Carson, chief executive officer of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies. “It’s that other two-thirds that helps them get through all of that.”

The loss of such societies would be a serious blow to farmers and rural communities that have relied on them for decades to help weather everything from two world wars to the Great Depression, he said.

The current pandemic “is another one of those global instances where communities will never be the same again, but it’s going to be organizations like our agricultural societies who are going to start the process of rebuilding.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on social gatherings, the provincial government recently announced it plans to expedite the grant process for agricultural societies by changing the funding formula for the 2021-22 fiscal year.

The Alberta association represents 292 societies that provide facilities across Alberta ranging from community centres to hockey and curling rinks. These are often used by other rural organizations such as the Elks, 4-H clubs, Cub Scouts and minor sports.

Although most events have been cancelled, the provincial government will still provide an additional operating grant by calculating the previous five-year average funding per society, said a statement by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen.

“Grants will be processed this spring, starting in May, to get these much-needed funds out to dedicated volunteers across the province,” he said. Such funding typically arrives in June or July, said Carson.

Seven regional agricultural societies will each receive a base grant of $298,853, plus the new five-year variable operating grant to a maximum of $100,000. Such societies range from Lloydminster, Camrose and Grande Prairie to Red Deer, Olds, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, who will share a total of $2.79 million in provincial funding, said Carson.

“It’s absolutely a welcome and required funding piece, but their ongoing costs are quite large and the opportunity for other help would be great.”

Base grants of $17,500 plus operating grants will be provided to 283 primary agricultural societies, which serve smaller rural communities across Alberta, he said. Before the pandemic, they hosted a total of about 3,400 events per year involving about 52,000 volunteers.

“Understanding that they’re going to receive their annual grant, it will be a terrific sigh of relief for a lot of these organizations,” he said. However, they must maintain more than 700 facilities across Alberta, even if they’re not hosting events.

“The situation is if you’re a small community group with a small community hall, you have your challenges, but you can button things up and kind of wait. But if you have a hockey rink, a curling rink, a swimming pool, your expenses are astronomical and ongoing.”

Primary agricultural societies will share $8.67 million, “which sounds like a lot of money until you divide by 283 and then 700 facilities,” said Carson.

After conducting an extensive study of the situation, the association asked the provincial government in April 2020 for emergency stabilization funding of $10 million for primary societies and $8 million for regional societies.

“Unfortunately, they were not able to approve that level of support … we continue to advocate as the situation continues to get more dire.”

Despite facing tough times themselves, it hasn’t been unusual for agricultural societies to provide support during the pandemic to services such as food banks, he said.

“We’ve had many societies who have stepped up and said, ‘well, let’s do this, because we can see that need’.”

It doesn’t take much adversity to tip smaller rural communities into an irreversible decline, said Carson, pointing to how the events hosted by agricultural societies help attract customers to local businesses such as stores, restaurants and gas stations.

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