What’s the future of agricultural research in Alberta?

The province wants a farmer-led ag research model but what that looks like is the big question

The shape of agriculture research in Alberta is changing — and what that change should look like is now up for debate.

The provincial government held a series of “engagement” sessions with farmers this month (as well as an online survey) as a first step to creating a farmer-led research model.

Alberta farmers seem to have very different ideas about the road ahead, but they all agree on one thing — provincial ag research is vital to the long-term stability and growth of the industry.

“It’s important that we continue with agricultural research in Alberta, both for our individual farms and for the industry as a whole,” said John Mayko, a grain farmer from the Mundare area.

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“This research allows our individual farms to stay competitive in the marketplace, both within the country and internationally. Most of our commodities are priced and sold in the international market, so it’s important that we stay on the leading edge to allow our farms to remain competitive.”

Ag research here runs from farmers’ field trials and larger-scale projects (conducted by applied research associations, post-secondary institutions, and crop and livestock commissions) all the way up to long-term large-scale private industry, provincial, and federal research projects.

Public research changed under the NDP government, which shifted the focus away from productivity-based research toward more policy-based research.

“Our previous provincial government had a larger focus on things like sustainability and that sort of thing,” said Mayko, who chairs Alberta Canola’s research committee.

“Although we recognize sustainability as an important component of our research and staying competitive, staying on top of other trends is important too.

“It’s important that we have research that looks at improving our existing inefficiencies, as well as looking at new and emerging threats to our industries.”

Falling funding

But research funding was also cut.

Before the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency was dismantled in 2016, the province put about $12.9 million annually into the livestock industry. That dropped to $7.2 million in 2016-17 as the agency’s work was taken over by the Ag Ministry. It dropped further the following year with the livestock and crop sectors, as well as Genome Alberta, splitting $12.3 million.

It’s a similar story with crop research funding. In 2018, the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund was also dismantled after 17 years of operation. Five years ago, it was investing between $5 million and $7 million annually into crop research, with an additional $4 million to $5 million invested by Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions.

Last year’s change of government brought more cuts.

The UCP government announced in October it would be cutting ag research spending by $34.1 million over four years. And in December, about 50 Alberta Agriculture and Forestry staff — including researchers — were laid off as part of budget cuts.

“We’re seeing a significant decline in provincial research program funding, and that’s combined with recent reductions in extension capacity that we saw in December,” said Janine Paly, who has a mixed operation near Thorhild with her husband.

“I utilize the 310-FARM phone number resource when I need information, and unfortunately, with the reduction in capacity, I’m really limited as to whom I’m able to talk to for an unbiased source of information.

“All of these factors play a role, and they could severely impact agriculture’s ability to really realize our full growth potential. I don’t think we’re going to see it short term, but I think we will eventually.”

In order to prevent that, Paly would like to see a research model that puts collaboration front and centre.

“If I were to build my ideal situation, I think it really comes down to collaboration. That’s very important within ag research,” she said.

“In my mind, that would be an industry-led model, and that should include collaboration between producers, researchers, the government, and depending on the situation, probably private industry as well.”

Hands-on research

Within that structure, Paly thinks government should be involved in more big-picture, long-term research, while other organizations — including the applied research associations — would conduct more boots-on-the-ground, smaller-scale research.

“In an ideal situation, I think there’s a place for the applied research associations, but unfortunately, they’re underfunded, understaffed, and in some cases don’t have the expertise to conduct massive research projects,” said Paly, who is vice-chairman of the farmer-led Gateway Research Organization, as well as chair of the research and extension committee at Alberta Wheat.

“However, there is the potential, opportunity, and ability for these organizations to continue with extension activities and conduct certain projects within their capacity.”

And oftentimes, that’s the kind of hands-on research farmers are looking for, said Doug Brodoway, chair of Farming Smarter.

“It provides the information that farmers need right now, rather than wait seven to 10 years for a research paper,” said Brodoway, an agronomist from the Medicine Hat area.

“Being that I work in the field with a lot of farmers, they need that information, like, now. What’s going to save my operation over the next couple of years? How do I combat the issues that I’m facing today?

“We need the scientific research, of course, but we also need to conquer the day-to-day operations before we can wait for the time frame that it takes to get the research paper to the farm.”

That’s been a challenge in recent years, as the applied research associations haven’t been immune to funding cuts, he added.

“Right now, with the way a lot of these organizations work, it’s very tough to do that kind of hands-on work relative to the everyday operations when there is no funding,” he said.

“These groups try to raise money and carry on and run their operations, but that’s getting tighter and tighter.”

While there’s room for long-term research for high-level issues, Brodoway said, more funding needs to be put toward the day-to-day problems on the farm and the organizations conducting that research.

“Things are moving so fast, and farmers want to know what’s going on sooner rather than later, he said.

“If farmers are asking for and wanting more relevant data faster, that’s probably where the funding should be focused.”

Unbiased, high-quality research

But the research dollars will still need to come from government, at least in part, he said.

“It still has to be funded by the government,” he said. “There’s no way that people are going to pay out of their pockets — that’s been proven already. They’re not willing to support that kind of stuff. Everyone’s strapped for cash.

“The government should be the leader, in my opinion. Just put the money in the right spot. Put it to where people are getting the best bang for their buck — to the organizations that can provide that kind of direction.”

Mayko, on the other hand, is less concerned about how the research is funded or who conducts it, and more concerned about its quality.

“No matter who’s doing it, it’s important that the research is high quality and able to withstand a peer review so that we can be confident in the quality of the research and of the information that ends up coming out through it,” he said. “But some of these research projects take several years to get results, so it’s important that there’s adequate and predictable funding for future needs.”

Like Mayko, Paly sees continued need for unbiased research.

“Research that is non-biased and can increase productivity on my farm — and potentially tweak my management practices so that we’re the most efficient — is what I’m seeking,” she said.

Mayko agrees. “The types of research that are important are research that allows us to be more competitive.”

That’s why it’s essential for producers to be involved in ag research discussions beyond these government consultations, by getting involved in their local applied research associations and their commodity commissions, Brodoway added.

“Farmers definitely have to have a role in this,” he said. “They have to speak up and say where they want their money to go.

“Otherwise, we could be headed backwards real soon.”

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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