Research overhaul consequences far-reaching

Witnessing farmers’ passion and ability to organize around a singular goal in response to Alberta’s Bill 6, a workplace act, in 2016 with their protests and parades was impressive.

This struck a nerve with many and we saw protests from farmers like those you see in France, including tractor parades, homemade signs and chanting.

It may be naïve of me, but I wish farmers and ranchers could be even a fraction that passionate about applied agricultural research and extension.

The recent changes to the research world will have a long-lasting effect and can’t simply be repealed, as Bill 6 was. I haven’t seen one tractor rally or protest sign about current changes to research by this government.

I’m sure there are many reasons for this and I’m not making political judgments but just noting a glaring difference in reaction to two different situations.

Certainly, Bill 6 landed right on the doorstep of each farm and ranch, creating the defensive position to draw arms. Even though the attackers were wielding personal protective equipment and clipboards, it was invasive and seemingly forceful.

But this time it was the agriculture industry that asked for the change. They wanted to see more investment into research since the loss of Agriculture Crop Industry Development Fund. But what we ended up getting was a lot different than simply replacing a grant.

After a series of farmer-led research consultations, the government announced the creation of Results Driven Agricultural Research. They touted it as a one-stop funding agency that would empower farmers to decide how to spend public investment in research and extension. An interesting idea with some good promise, but not without challenges.

RDAR’s 33 initial members represented everything from goats and eggs to peas and bees, an amazingly diverse group looking for opportunities to leverage. Team FarmRite is a voting member and there is an expanded advisory committee of more than 50 organizations including all the applied research and forage associations.

Devin Dreeshen, Alberta’s minister of agriculture and forestry, appointed an interim board with $2 million to set up the organization, hire staff and set research priorities. They ran a call for proposals this fall and are set to fund some new results-driven research.

However, as the story unfolded, this change came at the expense of a complete gutting of Alberta Agriculture’s effort in research and extension, cuts to agriculture service boards, cuts to applied research associations and a transfer of agriculture research assets to post-secondary institutions.

In addition to this, the Canadian Agriculture Partnership program is mostly frozen, and a $12 million program called Accelerating the Advancement of Agricultural Innovation and Adapting Innovative Solutions in Agriculture landed on RDAR’s table. While many are willing to do their part in cost savings, there is an undeniably large decrease in investment, a loss of public-focused human resources and, most importantly, a detached relationship between producers and government.

During the early consultations, it was noted that Alberta was the only province doing its own research and that there was a strong interest in following the Saskatchewan model that supports post-secondary institutions. So, it appears the guiding direction has been to transfer some Alberta government scientists to universities and colleges and in some instances two-to-three-year access agreements for land and facilities.

Final agreements include a transfer of the Lacombe pulse program to Lakeland College and additional land and possibly equipment from the Lethbridge agronomy program to Lethbridge College.

While it may seem like a good thing that these resources are remaining in agriculture, I have serious concerns regarding the long-term stability of these transfers. They come with funding from Alberta Agriculture for two to three years. When the funds run out, the post-secondary institutions will compete, mainly through RDAR, to maintain support for scientists, infrastructure, and projects, all while the institutions face significant budget cuts.

Making things even more precarious, the overall pool of available funding will be drastically diminished and that’s when the bubble bursts.

While I hope I’m wrong, you only need to crunch a few numbers to realize that public ag research and extension will become a shadow of its previous existence.

Ironically, at the beginning of all this, many felt that groups like Farming Smarter and other producer-led groups across the province would have to step up and take on the work.

In fact, we were falsely blamed for making it happen. The reality is that we haven’t been part of the plan from the onset and are now facing reduced public funding and cuts as well.

I’m sure the polarizing political ideologies of left versus right play a big role, but I can’t help but wonder why the changes haven’t garnered more interest, dialogue, or even debate. I’ve been about as dialed into the issue as I can be and, while there’s some hope for good things to come, I must admit I’m very concerned for the future of publicly funded research and innovation development.

As for extension and knowledge transfer, I believe it will soon completely disappear.

Perhaps some may not lose sleep over this and I may be biased toward the value of applied research and extension. However, I have seen first-hand how we have helped shape a changing landscape that kept farmers profitable while protecting valuable resources. Huge milestones include the adoption and development of reduced tillage, pulse crops, novel crops such as hemp, integrated pest management, precision agriculture and much more.

We can blame this on broken relationships, misinformation, misdirection, and overall confusion that seems to be plaguing the global political landscape. It’s been fueled by apathy, political blindness and an unwillingness to dig into the issues and truly understand them. So, is this really farmer led? Only time will tell.

Farming Smarter is weathering the storm and adapting its organization. We will continue to change the way people farm. Please join our community of dedicated learners and best wishes for a great 2021.

Ken Coles PAg is a research agrologist and the Farming Smarter executive director from Lethbridge.

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