Checkoff Dollars Critical To The Success Of Alberta’s Sheep Industry

“The whole industry benefits from Alberta Lamb Producers so if everyone isn’t willing to pay, it’s not fair to those who are.”

Each time Gerrit Van Hierden tags one of the lambs on his farm near Fort Macleod, he contributes another $1.50 to the Alberta Lamb Producers (ALP) to help make Alberta’s growing sheep industry more profitable. Instead of an expense, he sees it as an investment.

“I consider my checkoff an investment for my business and feel I have received good value and return on my money,” says Van Hierden. “ALP is my connection to the heartbeat of what’s happening. They watch out for my business.” Along with his flock of 850 ewes, Van Hierden also raises cattle and crops on his family farm.

Checkoff is paid once per animal compared to the cattle industry where checkoff is levied every time the animal changes hands. However, those all-important checkoff dollars are under serious threat from Bill 43 – The Marketing of Agricultural Products Amendment Act, government-sponsored legislation that will make checkoff refundable to producers in the cattle, pork, sheep and potato industries. For the lamb industry it starts September 1, 2010.

What baffles sheep producers like Norine Moore, chair of the ALP Board of Directors, about Bill 43 is that this is being done without consultation with anyone in the specific commodity groups to see if it is even required, much less wanted.

“To introduce legislation like Bill 43 at the same time when government is asking our industry to step up and provide more funding for activities as well as implementing mandatory programs makes no sense at all,” says Moore.

According to Moore, who raises sheep near Stavely, the key challenges facing Alberta’s sheep industry are attracting more producers to become involved in the industry and encouraging existing producers to expand their flocks in order to meet growing demand.

Consumer demand is on the rise as more people continue to discover the flavour and tenderness of lamb, and Alberta lamb in particular. Despite the fact that restaurants and retailers are eager to serve local product, Canadian lamb currently fills only 50 per cent of the current market, with the rest being imported.

Nevertheless, in a move to appease factions in the beef industry, Minister of Agriculture George Groeneveld hopes to see the legislation passed before the end of the spring session. According to a recent article, Groeneveld said they should only “lose between eight and 10 per cent of funding and doesn’t think that a refundable checkoff will place commodity groups in a difficult situation.”

Moore knows differently. “Currently 100 per cent of our operational budget comes from checkoff contributions. Without that investment in the industry ALP will need to curtail their representation of the sheep industry to government, the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA), and within the value chain, not to mention the valuable information services, research, and production support we provide.”

Moore points out that difficulty in budget forecasting and limiting producer communications and education initiatives are just the tip of the iceberg.

“Over the last five years, each producer checkoff dollar has leveraged an additional three dollars of external funding for industry initiatives such as health, extension, research, promotion and industry development,” she says. “Fewer checkoff dollars will have a direct, negative impact on accessing those funds which means our industry will have fewer project options.”

Another point of contention for ALP is that, according to the minister, Bill 43 will result in more accountability for each of the commodity groups.

“We are a democratic organization directed by producers for the benefit of producers,” says Margaret Cook, executive director for ALP. “The elected representatives, supported by advisory groups, direct the use of the checkoff dollars. You can’t get much more accountable than that.”

Moving beyond Alberta, decreased funding will also have a negative impact on Canada’s national sheep industry. ALP is the third largest contributor to the Canadian Sheep Federation which could create budget constraints at the national level.

Back at Gerrit Van Hierden’s farm, he sees nothing positive for the sheep industry in the proposed legislation.

“If people are looking to put money in their pockets by asking for a refund, they will have a short-term benefit with a long-term detriment to the industry,” he says. “The whole industry benefits from Alberta Lamb Producers so if everyone isn’t willing to pay, it’s not fair to those who are.”

As for Moore, she doesn’t mince words: “Ultimately the vitality of the industry lies with producers. We are confident that our members value the important services we provide and will continue to support their organisation and our efforts to keep the sheep industry in Alberta growing, profitable, and vibrant.”

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