ALMA has proven an asset to the livestock industry

Changed Even critics admit ALMA is a different 
agency than during its difficult birth

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It’s now been three years since the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) was established by the minister of agriculture. Since that time we have seen three different ministers, and ALMA has endured. Perhaps there is a message in that. Also since that time, cattle, hog and sheep prices have all either stayed strong or have increased significantly — no doubt ALMA officials would like to see a message in that. One thing for sure, since that time this farm writer is ready to eat humble pie when it comes to ALMA and there certainly is a message in that.

ALMA was created by the agriculture minister of the day during the refundable checkoff controversy, and it got caught in the crossfire between government and producer groups. Many questioned its legitimacy, including myself, seeing it as nothing more than a Trojan horse to outflank opponents of the refundable checkoff. It also seemed like a rather redundant bureaucratic exercise, taking over functions that were already being carried out by officials in the Agriculture Department.

ALMA stumbled at the beginning, with industry suspicion hanging over its head, along with management and board instability. At the time it looked like ALMA would have to fight an endless credibility war.

But what a difference three years can make and much of that change can be attributed to Gordon Cove, the ALMA CEO. He was determined to make ALMA a professional agency operating at arm’s length from department bureaucrats and overenthusiastic ministers. It helped that he had a determined board of directors that wanted to focus on the good of the industry and not the politics.

BSE marketing study

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the ALMA board was to cut their own trail, clearly showing critics that they were not under the thumb of Alberta Agriculture and were able to make decisions that might challenge the accepted political perspective of the day. In my view that tipping point came when ALMA sponsored a study into the real story of using BSE testing for beef marketing in offshore markets.

That marketing issue had been stewing for years within the cattle and beef industry, but no one wanted to touch it because it had political implications. Agriculture ministers took the position that such a marketing approach wasn’t feasible or realistic. Clearly no department officials were going to stick their neck out and challenge that position. ALMA could have taken its cue from the minister and ignored any thought of a study, but took the plunge and it gained new respect, even from its most ardent critics.

Amongst diverse research projects and initiatives it supports, ALMA is now involved with researching the value of ultra-high-frequency eartags and a cost/benefit analysis of traceability. I doubt those studies would have gone forth without support from ALMA, as both have political and bureaucratic ramifications on other government agencies and the politics of the whole issue. Again ALMA led the way in supporting the basic notion of “why and why not” — it’s sometimes that simple. I believe cattle producers will be pleasantly intrigued by the outcome of those two studies in particular.

Ironically, the future of ALMA may be more at risk than ever before, depending on the outcome of the provincial election. Obviously, if the ruling PC party wins the election the future of ALMA is assured for at least another four years. The only ominous cloud on the horizon is that ALMA will have reduced funding to carry out its work.

The concern is with the position of the Wildrose Party, if they were to win the election, ALMA employees may have to dust off their resumés. That’s because Wildrose has said that it will eliminate ALMA if it forms the government. That position has softened, as was indicated by Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith in her response to the question of ALMA’s future in the Leaders Forum feature that was published in the previous edition of Alberta Farmer. Her response mentioned that a decision on ALMA was not going to be arbitrary, and that there would be consultation with the livestock industry over its future.

I would encourage some sober second thought about ALMA by a possible Wildrose government. The party’s position is based more on the bitter circumstances and controversy that surrounded ALMA when it was established three years ago. ALMA has grown far away from those bad old days and is now well accepted as a valuable and credible asset by the entire livestock sector, including this former critic. Perhaps with some fine tuning to address Wildrose Party concerns ALMA will continue to serve the industry well.

Eating humble pie isn’t so hard, but then I have had to eat more than a few of those pies, and a few side dishes of crow in my time.

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