Fewer usually not better, and that includes ag offices

Manitoba might be doing it right. Time will tell, but closing agriculture offices that serve producers in their home regions is never a popular decision.

The province announced last week it would close 21 offices, citing it as a way to retain and better use the agricultural budget.

Other provinces have made similar changes over the years.

Saskatchewan made cuts and consolidations under both major political parties within the past 20 years. Alberta has had a couple of waves, the latest shifting the province away from staffing and delivering applied agricultural research to producers.

Federally, all stripes of government have moved away from applied research delivery to farmers. Cuts in the past two decades have seen closures of once vigorous Agriculture Canada offices and research farms in Melville, Watrous, North Battleford and Weyburn in Saskatchewan.

Back in 2013 there was speculation that 700 jobs at Agriculture Canada would be eliminated across the country through layoffs and attrition. Exactly how many disappeared is difficult to calculate but losses were substantial.

Saskatchewan retained 10 regional extension offices, including its Moose Jaw call centre, along with 21 crop insurance offices. Manitoba will also retain 10 consolidated agriculture offices, five dealing with resource management and two for mining and petroleum. Alberta has about 40, including a wide variety of inspection locations and forestry.

Comparisons between provinces are tricky but overall, western Canadian farmers have steadily fewer local and regional agriculture staff at their disposal.

Centralized call centres with agrologists and animal husbandry specialists available to discuss producers’ questions, while efficient, aren’t a replacement for locally positioned professionals who are available in person for broader discussions.

The agricultural extension system is an old model but it has served Western Canada well over the past century. Key to its success was ensuring the best information and practices reached the target audience and were adopted, and that was born out of an intimate understanding of local needs and operations.

Sure, that can be gleaned from staff training and communication, but first someone needs to harvest the knowledge and keep it current. That is unlikely to fit into an efficiency-dictated model with audited analysis.

Extension material is generally developed through a back-and-forth process involving discussions with many producers. Much of it is built on and around farmer knowledge that professionals have gleaned from interactions with producers.

The folks delivering the information and doing the research use these opportunities to understand growers’ needs. These are not necessarily things conveyed over a phone line or video call.

It’s also true that costs to maintain agriculture extension offices that might only see one or two farmers a week are significant. And farmers do make extensive use of internet-delivered agricultural information.

More and more, however, electronic delivery of information has become a replacement for agriculture department and researcher interaction with farmers.

The information only flows one way, even when it flows fast enough to be useful.

If this is the chosen model, as seems evident, governments at all levels must live up to their many promises of rural highspeed internet before any more agriculture offices are closed.

As well, agriculture departments should consider how they will gather farmer knowledge in the future.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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