Eight specialists at the Ag-Info Centre in Stettler have been laid off in the latest round of staff cuts at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
But the provincial government says farmers won’t be affected.
There was no public announcement of the layoffs, but the province did send letters to crop and livestock associations as well as some other organizations.
“Effective immediately, the centre will focus on providing information about Agriculture and Forestry’s programs and services and connecting producers with the many non-governmental resources available to them,” the March 11 email states. “The centre will no longer offer crop, livestock or other one-to-one specialist services.”
The official who sent the email did not respond to requests for comment and for additional information. It is understood that some of the resource agents remain at the centre, but all of the beef and crop specialists are gone.
The email also said that callers looking for specialized services will be directed to other resources in the department, or referred to other agricultural organizations in the province.
The 310-FARM phone number was expected to stay in service, but calls to the number on March 16 were unanswered. (The government is also maintaining an email address for questions at [email protected].)
Products created by the specialists include the yearly Blue Book, (a comprehensive guide for selecting and applying chemicals on the farm), Cow Bytes, (a beef rationing software program), and the yearly winter Agronomy Update conference. The 2020 Blue Book will be sent out, but plans for the 2021 Blue Book are unknown at this time.
“We will continue to ensure farmers have access to the information they need,” Adrienne South, press secretary for Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen, wrote in an email.
“The Ag-Info Centre will continue to be staffed and to respond to calls and emails. Food safety, animal and crop health, and allowing farmers to set research priorities are our main focus. Wherever possible, we will direct callers to organizations that are better positioned to answer the type of questions we’re getting.”
Two of those organizations might be Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley.
“There’s been some significant changes in the Ag-Info Centre and we’re in the same boat of trying to absorb what the new operating model is going to be like,” said Tom Steve, general manager of the two farm groups.
“We’re in the business of providing extension services at the commission level, so we want to work with the government to see where the gaps are going to be.”
It’s not clear how the situation will play out, he said.
“It’s unfortunate when people lose their jobs, and we’re just trying to absorb what the overall impact is,” said Steve. “We definitely are going to be having a dialogue with the ministry on how it sees it all unfolding.”
Once the commissions understand the full impact and scenario going forward, they will get that information out to farmers, he added.
“We knew from the last two budgets that there was going to be downsizing in the ministry and that would have an effect,” said Steve. “We have a pretty good indication of the direction they are going. It’s regrettable that some of these services are going to be lost, but we have encouraged them to have a transition plan for the alternative delivery of those services. We’ll be looking and we have reached out to government to ask those questions.”
The provincial budget tabled on Feb. 27 forecast that 277 jobs in Alberta Agriculture and Forestry would be cut.
However, the province’s fiscal situation has significantly worsened since then. Falling demand from the COVID-19 outbreak sparked a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, with the latter opening the pumps and sending the price for West Texas Intermediate, the benchmark price, plunging to the low US$30 range. The province was banking on an average price of US$58 during the year. The pandemic is also expected to cause a deep recession here and elsewhere, further cutting government revenues.