Peace farmers funding research by doing what they do best — farming

Farmers in Alberta’s northwest corner are using sweat equity to fund research that matters to them

At a time when competition for government funding is stiff and every dollar counts, researchers are finding novel ways to finance the work they do.

One of the most innovative is the Mackenzie Applied Research Association (MARA).

Until last year, the association conducted research in Alberta’s northwest corner with a small staff and limited budget. But when the federal government began looking to unload its research station at Fort Vermilion, area farmers saw an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. That led to Mackenzie County purchasing the facility last November.

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“In the last few years, our funding structure changed a little bit because we are now in control of the research station,” said Jacob Marfro, MARA’s manager and research co-ordinator.

“What the farmers did was, instead of using the whole 400 or 500 acres of land for research, they volunteered their time and equipment, and we seeded a portion of it and sold the crops for profit.”

Last year, the organization raised almost $100,000 by selling crops grown in their research projects, and while the final tally for this year isn’t in yet, the organization has made close to $88,000 so far.

Raising their own funds gives the producers and researchers involved with the association a greater degree of certainty about their research investments. While MARA’s most stable form of funding right now is from the provincial government, changing government priorities makes long-term planning a challenge.

“We want to have our own funding base so that we can continue to do the research that we do,” said Marfro.

Most government grants also ask for matching industry dollars, he said, and with the new funding structure, finding those matching dollars isn’t a challenge.

“Last year, some associations could not match the amount that was needed to run their projects, but we had an excess, because our farmers’ donation alone was almost $100,000,” said Marfro.

“Because we also had the equipment and the county’s contribution for the land, we had almost $500,000.”

Diversifying Mara’s funding base beyond government and industry contributions allows the organization to be “as independent as (it) can.”

“Last week, for example, we were told we have to do this work and we have to do that work. We are not comfortable with that,” said Marfro.

“We want to minimize the government influence as much as we can.”

Their new funding structure also creates greater investment among the producers who participate in the organization’s research.

“These people are really serious about the research that they do,” said Marfro. “They pay for all the chemicals. They pay for all the seed. They use all the equipment.

“Producers are volunteering their time and making almost $100,000 for us each year.”

It also means the farmers are helping to “shape the process,” he said.

“If we get everything from the government or from private guys from outside the county, they may not like what the projects look like,” said Marfro.

“But if they take part in the whole process of, ‘we are funding you and we want you to do this,’ they help it take shape, and it works better than everything coming from the outside.”

And that’s particularly important in the far north, where “agriculture is very different from almost everywhere in the country.”

“We are unique,” said Marfro. “Our soils, our rain, and our weather are unique, so we need research to come up with plans or varieties that are more adapted to the local conditions.

“To be able to actually make meaningful decisions… you can’t use information from Manitoba.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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