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Government exits the agricultural research game but questions abound

New publicly funded body launches drive for ‘farmer-led’ research but details still aren’t known

There was a time when having its own research operations was a point of pride for the Alberta government. But changing times, tighter budgets, and a move towards “farmer-led” research means the end of that era. Photo: File

With a flurry of announcements — and a leaked layoff plan — the UCP government has made it clear that it’s largely exiting ag research.

But what comes next is still up in the air.

In mid-October, the province shifted several research programs to universities and colleges while also informing the union representing agriculture employees that 190 jobs will be eliminated.

At the same time, a new government-funded but arm’s-length agency announced its set of broad priorities covering everything from productivity and sustainability to creating new value-added products and getting research results into the hands of farmers.

“We’re tailoring our research for the benefit of producers to increase competitiveness and profitability,” said David Chalack, chair of the interim board of Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR). “These came from the ground up, and that is important.”

But questions remain about what type of projects will ultimately be approved, how the work will be funded, and who will be doing it.

“There are some positive things happening, but I think there are also a whole bunch of elephants in the room that aren’t being discussed openly,” said Ken Coles, general manager of Farming Smarter.

“Very few people know about what’s actually happening, farmers included.”

RDAR was launched in March as a way to shift the focus of ag research in Alberta to a farmer-led, results-driven model, a move that received strong support from farmers and many researchers. A 50-member advisory committee — composed of reps from farm groups, industry and applied research associations, and post-secondary institutions — was convened in August. Four smaller working groups looked at four areas: Enhanced productivity, profitability, and competitiveness; sustainable and responsible agriculture; market demands (food safety, quality, value-added products and diversification); and extension and knowledge transfer.

In all, they cited 20 priorities but these, too, were general in nature. For example, the enhanced productivity priorities are: Improved animal and crop health; production efficiency; feed utilization; enhanced pest and disease management; and genetic improvements.

But these are integral to the “profitability and competitiveness of our producers,” said University of Alberta agriculture dean, Stan Blade, who is interim chair of RDAR’s research committee.

“Research and innovation will be the thing that’s going to continue to keep us on the upward trend, and RDAR is going to be a key component of that,” said Blade. “This is a real chance to grow our industry and to bring new ideas and new people into the industry.

“As the RDAR interim board, we’re very proud of both the process and the results that have come out in this list of priorities.”

Prioritizing the priorities

But because the list of priorities is broad, “pretty much anything will fit,” said Coles.

And since RDAR’s annual budget is only $37 million, decisions will have to be made.

“There is a finite amount of money that’s going to be available, and unfortunately when the priorities were being discussed, we really didn’t know exactly how much money was going to be available to be directed to specific projects,” added Dianne Westerlund, manager of Chinook Applied Research Association.

“If we had had knowledge of the actual amount that’s going to be available for projects, I would suspect that priority list would have been much more specific.

“The jury’s out as to how it’s all going to play out in the end, and in my opinion, that’s because of the uncertainties of how much money is actually going to be available for projects.”

Coles agrees.

“My biggest concern is that a list of priorities is basically a wish list without a budget,” said Coles. “We need to start assigning budget breakdowns to the different categories and get a little more specific on that front before there’s any meaningful meat to it.”

But that process is underway.

Eight days after releasing its priorities, RDAR issued its first call for proposals — $4 million for “producer-led” research projects on soil health and quality; water quality and efficiency; feed production; and plant and animal diseases and pests.

‘A balancing act’

Leaving the door open to a wide range of projects is not unusual for research funders, said Alan Hall, executive director of the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta, the umbrella group for six farmer-directed applied research organizations and two forage associations.

“I would say that’s been a bit by design — to take a broad approach and then see what comes forward in terms of specifics when they put out their calls for proposals,” said Hall, who worked at the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund (ACIDF) before its closure in 2018.

“It gives them a little more flexibility and a little more latitude.”

ACIDF went through a similar experience during its inception, starting out with broad priorities and then narrowing them down as proposals came in. In one meeting Hall recalled, the ACIDF board had to whittle a list of 14 priorities down to three — a “never-ending process” that required plenty of homework and “good, knowledgeable people around the table.”

That’s how RDAR plans to operate, with its interim board, staff, and technical experts evaluating proposals both on their merit and how they fit within the four categories. The priorities will also evolve through an ‘ever-greening process’ aimed at responding to new issues and opportunities.

“It’s a bit of a balancing act, and they’ve chosen to take a similar approach — keep the priorities fairly broad at this stage of the game,” said Hall. “I would expect that with experience and a bit of time, we’ll see a tightening up of some of the priorities.”

Funding fears

However, that leaves applied research groups in a bind as it’s unclear how much money will go toward new projects, and how much to existing programs and operational expenses.

“How that shakes out when projects are being evaluated is the risk,” said Westerlund. “Not everything is going to be funded, so there’s going to have to be some decisions made.”

Applied research associations have been getting about $1.5 million annually from the Agriculture Opportunity Fund, but it was axed last year. Core funding is now supposed to come through RDAR, but the details aren’t known.

“We’re facing a lot of uncertainty because we don’t have a core grant continued yet,” said Coles.

“RDAR now has us wondering if they can support programmatic functions as opposed to just projects. Everything seems to be targeted toward RDAR, and as they’re setting up as an organization, these are tough things to contend with.

“For the applied research associations, we haven’t had any certainty for a number of years. But that core support is important, especially for a lot of the groups that are smaller and more dependent on it.”

Coles also worries provincial budget cuts to municipalities will chip away at that support even further.

“As the cuts go down to the municipalities, unfortunately support of outside groups is likely to be the first thing cut,” he said. “So you’ve got this trickle-down effect where you’ve lost your core support and now you’ve lost your local support.

“I’m pretty concerned about how things are going to turn out.”

Dwindling research capacity

Topping the list of RDAR’s operating principles is: “Be a highly respected, forward-thinking leader in agriculture research funding.”

But the agency’s creation is accompanied by the government’s decision to largely get out of research. In its letter to the union, the province said 135 of the 190 jobs being cut would be in the Primary Agriculture division. Without giving specific numbers, it said the new focus on a “farmer-led delivery model” would see job losses in a number of research or research-related areas.

“I think there are a lot of concerns overall about the long-term sustainability of our research capacity within the province,” said Coles.

“There isn’t really going to be enough capacity available to do more work at this point in time. I’ve been raising that red flag a fair bit lately. We focus so much on how we’re going to divvy it up and we don’t think about who’s going to do the work.”

This round of cuts and those a year ago will have an impact, said Hall.

“There’s just going to be a significant drop in capacity for the work that’s going to be happening because Alberta Ag is no longer on the scene,” he said. “Those people carried a lot of knowledge and were carrying out a lot of the research. It’s left some holes. How those holes will be addressed has yet to be determined.”

And while the province is providing transitional funding that will allow post-secondary institutions to take over several programs (and put several provincial researchers on their payroll), the long-term picture isn’t clear. Alberta’s post-secondary system is facing a 20 per cent reduction in provincial funding over the next three years.

“Universities have taken some pretty significant cuts, so they’re having to rejig things,” said Hall. “Somewhere along the way, that may or may not have an impact on scientists. We do have a bit of a capacity issue here in the province right now. How that will be dealt with will be a longer-term issue.”

Research capacity is an ongoing discussion for post-secondary institutions, said Blade.

“We’re always trying to make sure we have the capability to address the issues that are coming up for Alberta’s producers and food processors,” he said. “We will continue to work with the government, our commodity partners, and the private sector to ensure that we can deliver on those necessary priorities.”

Trickle-down effect

Extension is another key piece that’s missing right now. Knowledge transfer was identified as a key priority among RDAR’s members, with some ranking it higher than market development.

“It was interesting how strongly it came up across the 50 members of the consultation,” said Blade. “We’ve seen a lot of change in the way the agri-food sector has addressed knowledge transfer in the past, but our members are very clear they want to see, as we start to invest in new research projects, a very thoughtful, intentional plan about how the knowledge that will be generated will actually get into the hands of producers and other end-users.”

But that area has faced cuts as well, notably the closure of the Ag-Info Centre and the layoffs of its eight specialists.

“Some of the specialists were key components of our extension plans because we were able to rely on their expertise and share that with our local producers,” said Westerlund. “The same could be said about the researchers.

“The dilution of the support and the expertise within the provincial system is definitely going to be an important element as we move forward.”

In most regions, applied research associations are now the only game in town when it comes to knowledge transfer, added Hall.

“Colleges don’t have that capability, universities don’t have that capability. Alberta Ag is now gone — its whole office structure in rural Alberta is gone. What’s left of capacity in rural areas comes down to the associations.”

Applied research associations can be “part of the solution” as long as they have the funding to do that work, said Coles.

“The changes that are happening now are going to be felt for many years to come, so I hope farmers will pay attention to what’s happening and get involved. This is a big deal.”

COPA Medallion COPA finalist in 2012, 2014 and 2015.
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