Agriculture barely a topic of note at provincial economic summit

GOOD TIMES Strong performance from ag sector means it isn’t as 
concerning as bitumen bubble, says premier’s spokesperson

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Despite agriculture’s place as the second-largest industry in Alberta, it didn’t get much attention during the recent economic summit held Feb. 9.

In fact, the largest part of the agricultural discussion occurred only thanks to a question from an audience member during the first panel of the day, which had panellists talking about the Alberta economy.

A public-sector employee from the Red Deer area asked panellists Angus Watt, Dr. Michael Percy, Peter Tertzakian and Michael Holden where they saw agriculture fitting in, since “a lot of people like to drive their cars but a lot of people like to eat too.”

Watt, CEO and partner of Angus Watt Advisory Group and the managing director of individual investor services for National Bank Financial, referred to agricultural research at the universities of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and uncertainty over the price of wheat.

“I think the outlook is very positive, very constructive… but it’s incremental,” Watt said.

Percy, a professor of strategic management at the University of Alberta School of Business, said he’s pretty positive about where agriculture is growing.

“I think it’s subject to the same forces that energy is in terms of an emerging middle class in China and India,” he said. As those middle classes’ lifestyles change, they’ll want more energy and more value-added agricultural products.

Though that’s positive, he said demographics are working against agriculture in Alberta as more farms consolidate and the number of people employed in the field goes down. He said despite that downward trend, production won’t decline.

Holden, the senior economist for the Canada West Foundation, said agriculture offers a chance to diversify.

“I think the agriculture sector is an area where we could see a lot of opportunity to build those kind of value-added products before we export,” he said.

“Bitumen bubble”

The panellist list included the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, the director of United Way of Calgary, the president of the United Nurses of Alberta, the executive director of Boys and Girls Big Brothers Big Sisters as well as the economists, CEOs and financial experts.

The four panels held throughout the day covered the topics of Alberta’s economy, balancing expectations of the services, Alberta’s revenue mix and responsible spending. Most of the news coming out of the meeting covered the discussion of a provincial sales tax and the oil and gas sector.

The “bitumen bubble” blamed for Alberta’s upcoming deficit is what prompted the conference.

Premier Alison Redford acknowledged agriculture’s contributions and potential for the province in her closing remarks.

“Our tremendous success around the world with respect to agriculture and forestry is what’s going to allow us to lead into the future,” she said.

Lynn Jacobson, president of the Wild Rose Agricultural Producers, was in the audience most of the day and said the group would have liked to see more focus on diversifying the economy.

“They were just more interested in talking about oil, and the province’s dependency on oil,” he said. “It almost could have been called an oil summit instead of an economic summit.”

He felt the one agricultural question received a “pat answer” that agriculture’s doing well and there’s going to be decent prices in the future.

Jacobson said future summits should include more on agriculture.

“I think it has to be part. We’re really the second-largest industry in the province,” he said. “In my mind, how do you actually ignore it? We bring in a lot of money.”

Stefan Baranski, director of communications for the Office of the Premier, said agriculture industry’s recent successes meant it wasn’t a topic to focus on at the economic summit.

“It’s a testament to how strong the industry’s been over the last couple years,” he said. “There’s a lot of positive news in agriculture.”

Baranski said while this year’s summit was dominated by concerns over Alberta’s dependency on the oil and gas sector, agriculture could be more featured at a future summit.

“Agriculture is such a critically important industry in Alberta, it’s the backbone of our economy and that’s not lost on anyone.”

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