It wasn’t the first time Bill Chapman had travelled to the Peace country from his Barrhead office to speak at a producer event. Chapman, a crop business development specialist with Alberta Agriculture, spoke in Fairview at an Alberta Barley Commission regional meeting there last month.
He’s part of a network of specialists that replaced the days of district agriculturists and home economists found in towns across rural Alberta. This is the face of today’s Alberta Agriculture (ARD) in the Peace country and across the province.
The shift in extension services took place in the mid-1990s, says Barb Shackel-Hardman, head of ARD’s Ag-Industry Extension Branch.
It was a different picture back in the early days. As one of the provincial government’s first departments when the province was formed 104 years ago, Alberta Agriculture has a storied history of providing extension services to producers.
The department’s extension services were “rolled out as a way to help make this a food-producing province,” Shackel-Hardman says. “We were after settlers, we wanted people on the land.” Of course, she says, once the settlers were here, the question became how to keep them.
Even then, there was a social aspect to extension services. It was really about society building. “Often, farm women were coming from an urban setting and here they were without a baker down the street or all those conveniences when it came to caring for the family,” Shackel-Hardman says.
As the province grew and changed, so did society. Alberta Agriculture’s extension services evolved as well. Today, ARD has 13 field offices across the province, each serving as a regional point of contact.
Two are in the Peace, where nine specialists and support staff work in the Grande Prairie office, with 10 operating out of Fairview. There are also specialists operating in sub-offices in Spirit River and High Prairie. Field office administrators can assist with such matters as premises ID numbers and traceability, and facilitate access to specialists or information, depending on what the producer or business might need.
“These specialists work in farm safety, 4-H, farm direct marketing, marketing, new ventures, conservation, business development and forages,” says Shackel-Hardman.
Though many specialists are not physically located in the Peace, they are still available to Peace producers, albeit in ways other than face-to-face contact.
“A century ago, extension services were all about how to provide food, and now the focus is on production, development of new crops, and different livestock operations,” says Shackel-Hardman. “Today, we have more specialized business, rural processing and new business opportunities such as ag tourism and local food production.”
The client today is different too. “When extension services started, society as a whole was not as well educated,” Shackel-Hardman says. “Farmers then may have had a Grade 8 education and today they might have a masters or PhD.”
Access to information has increased wildly, and so has transportation accessibility. “Decades ago, a farmer wouldn’t consider travelling to Red Deer for a trade show.” Today, she says, it’s commonplace.
SHIFTING TO SPECIALISTS
“The DAs tended to be generalists, in response to industry of the time,” Shackel-Hardman says. Based on industry feedback and changing times, Alberta Agriculture moved the shift of its extension services away from mixed farming to specialization. That required specialized support. ARD is not the sole supplier of extension anymore, she notes. “We’ve got fabulous industry groups, such as the canola council, that have a great presence,” she said.
A number of applied research associations are also critical to a comprehensive offering of support for remote producers. “ARD supports those initiatives through finances, as opposed to people,” says Shackel-Hardman. “We might not be seen to be there, but we’re often behind the scenes.”
By dialing 310-FARM, producers can also access any type of specialist from any location. Specialists are available by phone through the Ag Info Centre to assist producers and businesses across the province. The Ag Info Centre will funnel specific requests for event speakers to specialists around the province. ARD provides financial assistance and partners with a number of other organizations such as Ag Service Boards, Applied Research Associations and Forage Associations on extension activities.