Sask. federal tree nursery gets assurances through 2013

A storied southeastern Saskatchewan tree nursery that played a central role in remediating the Prairies following the Dirty ’30s and spawned countless shelterbelts across the region is getting a temporary reprieve.

The Indian Head Tree Nursery, formerly an operation of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), went on the chopping block in the spring of 2012 when Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada announced it would discontinue the Prairie Shelterbelt program and dispose of the Indian Head nursery.

The decision was greeted with dismay across the region, which led to the collection of more than 10,000 signatures on various petitions, as well as letters from individuals, organizations and municipalities to federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

Ritz confirmed late last week that the nursery would be fully funded to operate through the 2013 season and would make plantings for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The move, he said, would provide continuity of service, while allowing the move to a new non-governmental business model.

Ritz made the commitment during an exchange in the House of Commons with fellow Saskatchewan MP Ralph Goodale, who called for the government to commit to maintaining the operation through the coming season.

Ritz chided Goodale for being “several months behind on this file” and said the government had done exactly that, citing meeting with the Agricultural Producers’ Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) and other interested parties.

“We’ve offered it on two or three different levels to two or three different competitors in that. There’s quite a demand for it,” Ritz said in Parliament.

“We’ve also said we will continue to run it through 2013. That’s exactly what we intend to do,” he added.

After Question Period, Goodale said Ritz “has never been this categorical before. This may be good news.”

However, he cautioned it was too soon to sound the all-clear, adding the government needed to stop all layoffs and proposed layoffs and ensure normal operations for another full cycle of operation for the nursery. He also said the government needs to act cautiously as it moved forward.

“This is essential to avoid a hasty fire sale of the farm’s assets in a piecemeal manner, as opposed to the orderly transfer of the full operation as a going concern with a genuine future,” Goodale said.

The Western Canada Tree Nursery Coalition, led by APAS president Norm Hall, responded positively to Ritz’s parliamentary statements, confirming they’d received similar private assurances a few days earlier, on May 3.

Ritz “confirmed that the tree nursery will be fully operational to the end of 2013 including harvest and distribution in 2013 and plantings to ensure supply for 2014 and 2015,” Hall said. “These assurances are all important as the tree nursery must be maintained as a viable business if it is to be successfully transitioned from the federal government.”

Business model

The coalition was formed April 22 to develop a business plan for the continued operation of the Nursery and Shelterbelt Program on a cost-recovery basis and to form a co-operative or non-profit organization to operate the program going forward. The coalition expects a business plan will be completed by Aug. 31.

“We look forward to completion of our business plan and the opportunity to forge an agreement with Minister Ritz and AAFC that will allow this 111-year-old service to be continued into the future,” Hall said in a release.

The coalition said it has reached out to rural municipal governments on the Prairies, as their ratepayers have been the beneficiaries of the service and are concerned about its continuation.

In Saskatchewan, APAS has asked all RMs to write to Ritz and their MPs supporting the value of and need for the tree nursery and shelterbelt program. Saskatchewan RMs have also been asked for a small financial contribution to assist in the costs of developing a viable business model.

Similar requests are expected to be made to rural governments in the other Prairie provinces, the coalition said.

Related story:
Trees are just too boring (Manitoba Co-operator editorial), Oct. 26, 2012

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