Investing in agriculture’s future, the nightmare of finding workers, and fair rules for sharing land and water.
Those are three big issues for Alberta farm organizations, but not the only ones.
None of the farm leaders and officials who spoke to Alberta Farmer had any ‘if you want our vote’ demands for the parties contesting the provincial election.
But the issues they raised had an underlying theme: Agriculture can make an even bigger contribution to Alberta’s economy if these matters are dealt with.
“In an economy where we’re trying to diversify Alberta and stop relying solely on the oil and gas sector as the driver of the province, bolstering our industry makes sound economic sense,” said Ian Murray, chair of the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta.
Here are three of the top issues we heard from ag industry leaders.
- More Election 2015: Budget cuts have applied research associations reeling
Investment in research and varietal development is “a bedrock issue” for Alberta Barley.
“Research is important,” said chair Mike Ammeter. “That’s where we put our money, and we’ve got to continue to have the investment in that area of the industry.”
But competition for government funding is getting tighter. With the cancellation of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Innovation Endowment Fund late last year and no increase to the Agriculture Opportunity Fund in the March budget, researchers can’t continue to count on public dollars to fund their projects.
Groups like Alberta Barley use checkoff dollars to fund research, but it’s not always enough. In the last year, Alberta Barley invested in 30 new research projects, and 27 of them fell under Growing Forward 2 — which is funded, in part, by the Alberta government.
That’s an indication of how much barley growers rely on publicly funded research, including breeding programs for the varieties they need, said Ammeter.
“The risk is that we’ll have a stagnant pipeline of varietal research,” he said. “If you don’t invest in it, our competition will invest in it. If our competition is investing and we’re not, it’s going to beat us.”
Having stable funding for agronomic research and varietal development is vital for farmers — but they shouldn’t have to shoulder the financial burden alone, said Ammeter.
“It seems like, when there’s budget cuts, everything is on the table,” he said. “If we see that funding taper off, the money has to come from somewhere. Farmers are already carrying the load in a lot of places, and that fundamental research is so important for us.”
Access to labour
Darcy Fitzgerald is blunt when he talks about the pork industry’s scramble to find workers.
“We’d rather it be Canadian workers, but they don’t exist,” said the executive director of Alberta Pork.
Ottawa’s tightening of rules for temporary foreign workers is the last thing his sector needed, he said.
Of the 85,000 temporary foreign workers currently in Alberta, roughly 16,000 were set to be sent back home on April 1 because they could no longer seek a renewal when their four-year contracts expired. Most of those who worked on farms or in packing plants can’t be replaced because most Canadians “don’t think of agriculture as a career option,” said Fitzgerald.
“That’s huge. Where do we find 16,000 new workers? Where do we find 85,000 workers in Alberta? It doesn’t exist,” he said. “The government in some way, shape, or fashion has to look at that and realize we don’t have enough people here.”
The pork sector helps its foreign workers apply to the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program and get on the path to permanent residency. But the program only accepts 5,500 applicants province-wide each year, and that’s nowhere near enough, he said.
“Five thousand a year is nothing,” said Fitzgerald.
The next government has to make the labour shortage a top priority, he said.
“The provincial government doesn’t have a lot of jurisdiction there, but hopefully it can be our champion and help us move it forward.”
Land and water rights
Urban and rural Albertans need to learn to share the land, and that starts with better land and water use policies.
“Land and water use is likely one of the single biggest provincial issues that we’re facing — making sure producers continue to have access to the land and water resources of this province,” said Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers.
The Land Use Framework and regional land use plans are a “good first step,” but they’re not enough, he said.
“We need more action there to make sure we don’t have regional plans that infringe on property rights.”
Smith calls this a “huge concern” for producers affected by the two regional plans already in place — the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan in southern Alberta and the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan in northern Alberta.
“The South Saskatchewan Regional Plan itself seems to be OK in terms of watching water rights, but they’re doing a surface water quality framework under it, an air quality framework, and a biodiversity framework,” said Smith. “We need to be sure that these frameworks don’t start to infringe on people’s ability to use the land.”
Competing for resources will become tougher and tougher for all producers if the government doesn’t strengthen land and water use rights for farmers, he predicted.
“As an industry, we’re quite prepared to look at an appropriate balance of economic, environmental, and social objectives, but we think it needs to be truly balanced,” said Smith. “We can’t have a situation where the economic use of land is subjugated by social and environmental pressures.
“We need a true balance among all three of them.”