Alberta producer groups are hoping whichever party comes into power this April will better collaborate with farmers on research, making the issue one of their top priorities this election campaign.
Leaders say they are concerned research could be headed in the wrong direction, pointing to recent changes in government policy, decreased funding and the disbanding of popular working groups.
“We feel we’ve lost the provincial government as a partner on research,” said Gary Stanford, chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission.
“It doesn’t matter who gets into power. We need to make sure we’re supporting personnel and provincial employees doing this research.”
Concerns over agriculture research stem from the disbanding of the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency and the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, which pooled large amounts of provincial and commission dollars for crop and livestock research.
The province’s agriculture department essentially absorbed the groups, but reduced its research budget.
“For livestock research, we had about $20 million in funding, but we’re now down to $9 million, which is spread across all commodities,” said Charlie Christie, chair of the Alberta Beef Producers.
“That reduction has spread dollars very thin.”
On top of that, leaders are perplexed by some of the wording in the province’s updated research framework.
They said the framework states research should be policy driven, focusing on climate change, efficiencies and value-added products, which they say suggests the government is setting its priorities over the needs of farmers.
“The market needs to drive those, not government,” said Christie.
As agriculture minister, NDP candidate Oneil Carlier has said the province has changed its research priorities but is still collaborating with producers.
During the election campaign, he said an NDP government would support research that focuses on farmers’ needs, drought resistance, new varieties and forage opportunities.
“We’ll make sure the research money stays here and work with farmers and organizations,” he said.
If elected, a United Conservative Party government says it would let farmers set research priorities with long-term goals that help improve Alberta’s competitiveness.
Going forward, farm leaders hope the next government will involve producers and let them direct research priorities.
“We need to make sure government funds are directed for the best use of the industry,” said Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director with Alberta Pork. “It comes down to government working with industry to see where the needs are.”
As well, some said more funding would be helpful.
“Agriculture is a significant contributor to the Alberta economy,” said Karen Kirkwood, executive director of the Alberta Chicken Producers.
“Investment into research is critical for the chicken industry, specifically for our antimicrobial reduction strategy.”
The Alberta Party, Alberta Liberals, Freedom Conservative Party and others haven’t yet laid out their platforms for agriculture research.
The election is scheduled for April 16.