[UPDATED: Feb. 6, 2017] – Federal dollars are key to barley and wheat research in Alberta. Fortunately, there are a lot of signs that the Liberal government is willing to continue investing in it.
“We’ve been happy with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada,” said Jason Lenz, chair of Alberta Barley Commission.
The federal government has been hiring new scientists and replacing retired ones, he said.
“In our mind, that’s a real positive and something we were uncertain about even a year ago,” said Lenz, who farms barley, canola, wheat, and raises cattle north of Sylvan Lake. “For the most part, they have started to live up to the promises that they have told us, that they were aware of all these retiring researchers and they would be replacing them as soon as possible.”
The barley commission met with federal officials and told them it is interested in renewing agreements with its Lacombe research station, as well as Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Field Crop Development Centre there.
“We’re actively involved in that right now and we expect that we’re going to sign an agreement of some sort likely very similar to what we’ve had in the past,” said Lenz.
There seems to be a good understanding in Ottawa that Canadian research on cereals truly pays dividends for Prairie farmers, he said.
“We are getting good messages coming back from the federal side of things,” said Lenz. “It’s the provincial side we’re really struggling with. We’re not being told what their ideas are, and what they could be proposing to come.
“The problem with that uncertainty and not being able to fund research is that once that research stops and there’s a gap, it’s really hard and really expensive to ramp it up again and then have it continue on because a lot of the projects that we fund could be three- to five-year projects.”
The Alberta Wheat Commission is also seeing positive signs of commitment from the federal government. Between Ottawa and producer groups, more than $25 million is contributed to wheat research clusters.
“For every dollar invested by the public, there is a dollar invested by the industry,” said Terry Young, Alberta Wheat Commission director and chair of the commission’s research committee. “Whatever the commodity is — whether it is barley, wheat, canola, or pulses — there are federal dollars in research. If they decided to pull out, which I don’t think they will, it would make a huge difference to our industry.
“Currently the majority of varieties grown and developed in the public system is the result of AAFC and it has considerable research capacity in terms of trait development, germplasm development, you name it.”
Federal research scientists also concentrate on agronomy, which makes a big difference to growers, added the Lacombe-area farmer, who grows wheat, fababeans, malt barley, and canola.
“I wouldn’t say the majority of wheat research is made up of federal funding, but it’s 50 per cent, probably,” he said. “There are crop commissions all across Western Canada that put funding into wheat research. There are also a few private dollars put in. But it is a major commitment from the feds.”
The private system to fund wheat breeding is not particularly well established, and wouldn’t be able to fill the gap if federal government research funding suddenly dried up, Young added.
“Yes, we can pick up some of the loss capacity, and as time goes on, we probably will be picking up more. But if they all of a sudden decided to cancel their share of wheat breeding, it would have dire consequences.”
If funding was to ever become an issue, commissions would examine and research a variety of different funding models to fill the gap. A current area of concern in Alberta is the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, a source of provincial funding, which could shutter its doors April 1, 2018.
“Without that fund being replenished, and in a state of uncertainty, from the barley value chain in Alberta, that’s a huge concern for us,” said Lenz.
[CORRECTION]: This story originally stated the federal government contributes more than $25 million to wheat research clusters. In fact, that is the total from both producer groups and the federal government.