The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency is being dissolved — and its demise is being mourned by many in the industry.
“We were surprised and disappointed,” said Dave Chalack, a rancher and veterinarian who is chair of ALMA’s board. “I know we had a great organization and one that has evolved in a significant and positive way over its lifetime.”
This past year, the agency put about $28.5 million into more than 200 programs and leveraged to about $170 million from industry, he said.
“In the past six years, our investments were leveraged up to about a billion dollars,” said Chalack. “So we were surprised because it’s frequently heard in the media how important agriculture is for diversification and job creation.”
The organization, which employs 25 people, will transition into Alberta Agriculture and Forestry in the next three to six months.
Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier said the decision, announced as part of the budget earlier this month, was a cost-cutting measure, and is expected to save the province about $3 million annually.
“The minister and deputy minister have promised to work with the board and staff over the coming months. I’m concerned for the staff,” said Chalack. “This is not a good time to be set free on the job market, but I’m sure they will be treated respectfully. They’re shattered.”
ALMA’s programming will continue under the provincial Agriculture Department, but its budget was reduced from $25 million to $17 million. ALMA’s board reported to the minister and was solely funded by the government of Alberta.
“They believe they will have more direct contact with stakeholders,” said Chalack.
The creation of the agency in 2008 was initially met with skepticism by many in the livestock sector, but that view has changed.
“We didn’t think there was that need,” said Rich Smith, executive director of Alberta Beef Producers. “We welcomed the funding that ALMA could provide, but we didn’t think there was a need for a new agency. It was portrayed as an agency that would lead the industry, and we already felt there was more than satisfactory leadership with the current organizations that we had.”
It took a while for the agency to find its footing, but it has since proved its worth, said Smith.
“They made some very good investments in projects and initiatives that will serve the industry well in the future,” he said. “It has made a difference. They had a substantial amount of funding available, more available than certain other sources. It was good for our industry to have access to that funding. Our ability to work with the people at ALMA to guide where the investments were made was quite strong.”
Alberta Beef Producers was working with ALMA on a number of projects and the organization provided funding for research and market development work.
The organization was valuable, said Ray Price, president of Sunterra Meats, that also received some funding from ALMA for several projects.
“They’ve been good for agriculture and for the livestock side of the business,” said Price. “It was becoming a place where everybody felt they could go to get some information and possibly some support for unique Alberta products.”
The agency’s board, which includes producers and business people, gave it distance from government and that’s a good thing, said Price. In other provinces, such as Ontario (where Sunterra has some operations), the provincial government is directly involved in some of the funding decisions, he said.
“I liked the structure because it was more business oriented on evaluation purposes,” said Price. “At least that’s what we felt versus Ontario, where you could get bigger money but it was up to a government decision-making process.
“If they were going to have a structure that provides support for businesses, it’s always good to have a business connection on the side. Business guys know business. They’re not always going to be right, but they’re in the mode of looking at things like that.”
The budget also eliminated four other, lesser-known agriculture agencies: the Agricultural Development Committee, the Agricultural Operation Practices Act Policy Advisory Group, the Alberta Farm Safety Advisory Council, and the Alberta Grains Council.
The 2016-17 operating budget for the combined Agricultural and Forestry departments was set at $1.036 billion, down from the $1.072 billion budgeted for the 2015-16 fiscal year. But it’s now forecast operating expenses for the current fiscal year will come in at $1.013 billion.
Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci’s budget said the department’s spending will fall to $1.009 billion in 2017-18 before rising slightly to $1.041 billion in 2018-19.