The Manitoba government has restructured its agriculture department following 14 months of planning.
It means office closures for 21 communities.
The changes were necessary, says minister Blaine Pedersen, because the days of farmers dropping into the Manitoba Agriculture office and chatting with a crop adviser over coffee are in the past.
“The old ag office, where you had an ag rep and a farmer came in to talk about herbicides, pesticides, agronomy, the private industry has taken up so much of that,” Pedersen said during an early January call with media. “We’re trying to catch up to the farm sector, where they are right now.”
The province is closing offices for Manitoba Agriculture and Manitoba Agricultural Service Corp., the provincial crop insurer, in 21 communities: Alton, Ashern, Birtle, Deloraine, Fisher Branch, Gladstone, Glenboro, Grandview, Hamiota, Lundar, Morris, Pilot Mound, Russell, Shoal Lake, Somerset, Souris, St. Pierre Jolys, Ste. Rose du Lac, Teulon, Vita and Waskada.
Under the re-structuring, 17 offices will deliver services for Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development and MASC:
• 10 agricultural service centres will provide insurance, lending, farmland school tax rebate and wildlife damage compensation services; handling of licensing and permits applications; and provide agriculture and resource development program information
• five centres will focus on resource management
• two centres will focus on mineral or petroleum services.
The 10 ag centres will be in Arborg, Brandon, Dauphin, Headingley, Killarney, Morden, Neepawa, Portage la Prairie, Steinbach and Swan River. The province will maintain nine other agriculture and resource development offices as workplaces, which won’t be open to the public.
None of about 600 people who work at the department will lose their jobs because of the restructuring.
“We’re absolutely adamant there’s no layoffs,” Pedersen said.
The closures are happening, in part, because farmers weren’t using the Manitoba Agriculture offices in the 21 affected towns.
Before COVID-19, some of the offices averaged two visitors per week.
“One to two people, per day, coming into these 21 offices (on average),” Pedersen explained, noting that more farmers are conducting their business online.
“Farmers are technologically advanced…. Right now, MASC has over 50 percent of its clients doing their seeded acreage reports, their harvest reports, online.”
The office closures will save the province about $700,000 in leases, but that money will be re-invested into technology.
“This is not about cost savings, this is about enhancing service,” Pedersen said.
The new service model will include an “interactive online chat program.”
Through that, farmers can access “real-time assistance from a smartphone, tablet, computer or through a toll-free number.”
The Keystone Agricultural Producers said more online forms, applications and licences are helpful, but some services cannot be duplicated on a computer screen.
Virtual conversations are not the same as an in-person discussion with an expert, said Bill Campbell, KAP president.
Closing offices could it make it harder for farmers to get unbiased advice from provincial ag specialists.
“I’ve got this weed… I’ve sprayed it, what’s causing this?” he said from his farm near Minto, Man. “We all realize some of the independent and private industry have got these types of (experts), but are they promoting their products or are they working for you?”
Campbell is also worried about the impact on the 21 communities. If a producer is getting agronomic advice with a cellphone app, they’re not driving to town to speak with a Manitoba Agriculture rep.
“It’s another step in the erosion of rural Manitoba,” he said.
“So, I don’t go to Souris. Well, I don’t buy something there and I don’t deal with some other services I might get there…. It has an ongoing effect on these communities.”