Opinion: Are the changes to ag research really being led by farmers?

The changes being made will have a major impact, but the issue isn’t attracting much attention

Opinion: Are the changes to ag research really being led by farmers?
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In February of 2016, I experienced something I will never forget. I witnessed farmers and ranchers unite across the province in passionate protest against the newly introduced Bill 6, the occupational health and safety legislation.

We saw France-style farmer protests including tractor demonstrations and big crowds of angry folks. It reminded me of images I’ve seen from the 1960s.

It may be naive of me, but I wish producers could have even a fraction of that passion about applied research and extension. The new government quickly repealed Bill 6 in 2019, but recent changes to public support for research and extension are transformational with permanent repercussions.

But there’s been no angry crowds, no protests and most haven’t even raised an eyebrow. I’m not making political judgments, just noting a glaring difference in the reaction to two different situations.

This time, the agriculture industry asked for the change. It wanted to see reinvestment into research after losing ACIDF (Agriculture Crop Industry Development Fund).

After a series of consultations, what came out of them didn’t replace the grant — it created something entirely different. The provincial government created RDAR (Results Driven Agricultural Research). It touted it as a one-stop funding agency that would hand farmers the reins to spend public investment in research and extension. An interesting idea with some good promise, but not without challenges.

RDAR’s 33 members represent everything from goats and eggs to peas and bees. Then there is an expanded advisory committee of over 50 organizations including all the applied research and forage associations. Team FarmRite (a group of seven ag research organizations, two agricultural colleges and InnoTech Alberta) is a voting member. RDAR ran a call for proposals this fall and has recently released its first round of funding.

Many are excited about the opportunity RDAR brings including the chance to have all agriculture industry stakeholders at the same table.

While our eyes are on the prize, this ask has come with a cost: The gutting of Alberta Agriculture’s research and extension work, cuts to agriculture service boards, cuts to applied research associations and a series of unsure access agreements of agriculture research assets to post-secondary institutions. In addition to this, the Canadian Agriculture Partnership program is mostly frozen and/or under review. (RDAR is set to take over two programs — Accelerating the Advancement of Agricultural Innovation and Adapting Innovative Solutions in Agriculture — that funded $12 million in research annually.)

While many understand and appreciate government fiscal responsibility, there is an undeniably large decrease in investment, a loss of public-focused human resources and, most importantly, a detached relationship between producers and government.

Early in the consultations, the government noted that Alberta was the only province doing its own research and looked to the Saskatchewan model that supports post-secondary institutions. So it appears the guiding direction supports transferring some Alberta government scientists to universities and colleges and, in some instances, two- to three-year access agreements for land and facilities.

While it may seem like a good thing that these resources remain in agriculture, I have serious concerns regarding the long-term stability of these transfers. First, these transfers come with funding from Alberta Agriculture for two to three years. When the funds run out, the post-secondary institutions will compete, mainly through RDAR, to maintain support for scientists, infrastructure, and projects. All while the institutions face significant budget cuts.

To make things even more precarious, the overall pool of available funding will be drastically diminished and that’s when the bubble bursts. And while I hope I’m wrong, you only need to crunch a few numbers to realize that more cuts will be imminent.

Ironically, at the beginning of all this, many felt that groups like my organization, Farming Smarter, and other producer-led groups across the province would have to step up and take on the work. In fact, we were falsely blamed for making it happen. The reality is that we haven’t been adequately considered as part of the solution from the onset despite the fact that many feel we’ll need to be.

I’m sure polarizing political ideologies of left versus right play a big role, still, I wonder why the changes slid past farmer interest, dialogue, or even debate.

I’ve been about as dialled into the issue as I can be and, while there’s some hope for good things to come, I must admit I’m very concerned for the future of publicly funded research and innovation development. As for extension and knowledge transfer, I believe it will soon disappear completely.

I may be biased toward the value of applied research and extension. However, I have seen first hand how it helped shape a changing landscape that kept farmers profitable while protecting valuable resources. Huge milestones include the adoption and development of reduced tillage, pulse crops, novel crops such as hemp, integrated pest management, precision agriculture and much more.

So, I feel this situation has been fuelled by apathy, political blindness and an unwillingness to dig into the issues and truly understand them.

Is this really farmer led? Only time will tell.

– Ken Coles is the executive director of Farming Smarter and spokesperson for FarmRite.

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