Prospects for ag research in Alberta still up in the air

New research agency is finding its feet but uncertainty abounds

Not every one of Alberta’s 12 applied research associations have as many staff as Chinook Applied Research Association (top) and Farming Smarter, but the $2 million the dozen groups collectively receive annually from the province’s new research agency doesn’t come close to covering their costs.
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Alberta’s new research funding body has made some progress over the last six months — but it’s still very much a work in progress.

“It’s been a pretty hectic time for them with lots of growing pains, and there’s still lots of room for improvement, but we are getting support and hoping for improvements over the long term,” said Dianne Westerlund, manager of Chinook Applied Research Association.

In March 2020, the province largely exited the ag research field and said it would instead give $37 million annually to a new agency, Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR), saying the farmer-led body would be better at focusing on what matters to farmers.

But the abrupt change and having to deal with a built-from-scratch newcomer created a lot of uncertainty.

“I think we initially felt that we were a ghost out here — that they weren’t that familiar with us and what we do and how we operate,” said Westerlund. “I think that has improved. Hopefully there’s just a better understanding of us and our role in Alberta’s ag industry.”

Most of RDAR’s first year was focused on getting up and running.

“They did a remarkable job in a short period of time,” said Bentley-area farmer Jason Lenz, a director on its first elected board.

“We’re still working through a lot of the initial setup of the organization, so we’ve been quite busy. We’ve really been put to work.”

RDAR’s first call for proposals went out in October with $4 million in funding on the table. But it drew 117 proposals worth about $33.6 million, prompting RDAR to up its funding by $3 million. Between 15 and 20 projects were approved at that time. A second round in March attracted 200 proposals (asking for $58 million in all) and as of early June, 96 projects had been awarded $24 million, said Lenz, adding the aim is “funding research that’s going to lead to the competitiveness and productivity for farmers in Alberta.”

“And what’s really exciting as a farmer director is that farmers get to guide and establish where the funding is going.”

But because RDAR’s research priorities are so broad, those applying for funding aren’t always sure just what the real ones are.

“The priority list has to cover all of agriculture — so what is the focus? I think there’s still a strong need for better planning on how to fragment out the work,” said Ken Coles, general manager of Farming Smarter

The biggest gap at the moment is basic agronomic research, Westerlund added.

“There have been a few concerns that I’ve heard that some basic crop agronomy hasn’t reached a high enough level in the list of priorities yet,” she said. “The initial call was soil health and forage focused, and I think some of the organizations that do research are looking for the crop side to be a higher priority down the road. I’m sure they’re working toward that.”

But research comes in all shapes and sizes, said Lenz.

“Research isn’t just about agronomy or pounds of gain in a beef animal. Research can be pretty broad,” said Lenz, while conceding some projects may not appear to have the sort of direct benefit that RDAR is supposed to be focused on.

For example, $150,000 went to research on oat milk and $750,000 to a water stewardship and monitoring project.

The former could lead to more oats production in the province while the latter will help the effort to ensure farmers have access to the crop protection products they need, said Lenz.

“In the past, the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) hasn’t made a very good attempt to get out into Western Canada to get the right data and see what’s actually happening on the landscape,” he said. “So the data that’s going to be gathered from this is going to be beneficial to us in providing information back to regulatory agencies like PMRA so they have the proper data when they’re doing re-evaluations on some of our crop protection products.”

But some of the projects appear at odds with the commitment to fund research that will benefit producers at a farm level, said Coles.

“I do feel that it’s a little bit odd that it seems to have gone in the opposite direction. It’s more about funding the pure or academic research as opposed to that farmer-practical piece,” he said.

“While there’s been an identified need and gap on the applied and adaptive research and the extension side of things, there’s still a lack of support, and I think we need to figure that out.”

Coles said he remains concerned there’s simply not enough support for ag research.

There’s also uncertainty because the current edition of the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership (which doles out $3 billion over five years for programs and projects across the country) ends in 2023.

“There’s been some pretty good success accessing funding for projects under the CAP umbrella, and when that expires, what’s next?” said Westerlund.

Long-term funding is vital for projects that take three to five years to complete.

“It becomes a challenge when we’re having to piece things together with funding from five different projects to maintain a position,” said Westerlund. “If one project falls through, does that position fall through? So our core capacity is that much more important.”

In May, RDAR announced $4 million over two years for core funding for Alberta’s 12 applied research associations — an average of $167,000 per year per organization.

“It didn’t even come close to the level that was needed,” said Coles. “In fact, I see it as a cut. That’s actually the same level of funding that we had 17 years ago.

“That doesn’t really go that far given the value of money these days. That’s life support.”

Colleges and universities that took on some provincial researchers and their projects are in the same boat as they are a third of the way through their initial three-year grants, he said.

“That level of instability has everybody on edge,” said Coles. “We’re supposed to be collaborating, but this is survival. Every group is looking at what they can do to survive because in two years, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

That’s not a knock on RDAR, but rather, the overall support for the agriculture industry, he added.

“The lack of stability is a major concern,” said Coles. “If we want to see an innovative and progressive agriculture industry in this province, significant changes still need to happen.”

In addition to the core grant, each of the applied research associations received roughly $15,000 toward knowledge transfer and extension to fill the gap left by Alberta Agriculture’s budget cuts. “We are the extension arm now that Alberta Ag has backed away from having the regional specialists,” said Westerlund. “So having the funds to be able to do that well is what’s important for us.”

But it may not be enough.

“A lot of folks expected us to really step up and help fill the void that was left by Alberta Agriculture, but at this point, I don’t think we have the means to do so,” said Coles.

“The reality is we’re still in a position where we don’t see a path for future success. I think the risk is pretty high of losing some organizations.”

However, there’s still time to “right the ship,” he added.

“It could be the damage is already done and there’s no righting it, but I’d rather be optimistic and say that we can turn this around.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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