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Alberta ag ministry offloads 6 research programmes

The 3 recent announcements come as the ministry tries to find ways to cut $140M and 277 jobs this year.

This story was updated to include a University of Alberta announcement that was made hours after this story was published.

Albert’s agriculture and forestry ministry was busy last week.

Last Thursday and Friday, Devin Dreeshen, the minister over this portfolio, made 3 announcements that his ministry would be transferring provincial agriculture facilities and programmes over to post-secondary institutions. He also made an announcement today, Monday, October 19.

These transfers would include initial grant funding to help operational costs, but ultimately, the province will be offloading the expense of the programmes onto the post-secondary institutions, who will then—once the grant funding expires—be responsible for securing operational funds.

Lethbridge College

The first announcement involved the transfer of the Alberta Irrigation Technology Centre, as well as the Brooks Greenhouse, to Lethbridge College. The AITC has been government-run for the last 20 years.

The college intends to hire 5 staff to manage the facilities, but the announcement was absent of what would happen to the staff already managing the facilities.

For example, according to the Alberta government directory, there are currently at least 29 irrigation staff (including directors, researchers, technicians, and support staff) working at 5401 1 Avenue South, where the AITC is located.

The transfer includes a $2-million agreement, but its details have yet to be worked out. Even then, the funding agreement will eventually be managed by Results Driven Agriculture Research, an arm’s-length non-profit corporation established earlier this year.

University of Lethbridge

The second announcement publicized that the provincial government and the University of Lethbridge signed a $1.8-million agreement this past July, which allowed the U of L to recruit 3 researchers and to take control of 3 programmes that had been previously managed by the A&F ministry:

  • Apiculture and pollination
  • Specialty crops and irrigation research
  • Vegetable irrigation and potato production

The following 3 researchers recruited by the university all had been government researchers employed by Agriculture & Forestry:

  • Shelley Hoover, apiculture and pollination
  • Michele Konschuh, irrigated crops
  • Kim Stanford, livestock pathogens

Hoover was the head of the apiculture unit in the Plant and Bee Health Surveillance Section, one of 3 staff working at the Agriculture and Forestry Agriculture Centre, again at 5401 1 Avenue South.

Konschuh was a potato research scientist in the Cropping Systems Section, also at the Agriculture and Forestry Agriculture Centre

Stanford was a beef research scientist in the Livestock Systems Section at the—yep, you guessed it—Agriculture and Forestry Agriculture Centre.

And just like that, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry now has 3 fewer salaries to directly pay for, making the U of L responsible for them instead.

As with the college, RDAR will manage the funding agreement with the U of L for these programmes.

Olds College

The third announcement will see Olds College taking over the ministry’s Field Crop Development Centre based in Lacombe. The FCDC has been government run since 1973.

The transfer comes with $10.5 million in grant funding over the next 3 years. At some point, RDAR will assume responsibility for the funding agreement, as with the two Lethbridge institutions.

University of Alberta

The fourth announcement came just hours after I published this story. The University of Alberta will receive a $3.7 million grant—presumably one-time funding—to assist in transitioning agricultural research programmes and researchers from Agriculture and Forestry to the U of A.

The announcement didn’t detail what programmes per se that the UCP government would be offloading onto the university, but it did list these 4 researchers;

  • John Basarab
  • Dr. Marcos Colazo
  • Valerie Carney
  • Sheri Strydhorst

Three of the researchers transferring to the U of A were with A&F’s Livestock Systems Section: Basarab was a bovine genomics research scientist at the Lacombe Research Centre; Colazo was a dairy research scientise in the downtown Edmonton location; and Carney was the lead at the Poultry Research Centre, also in downtown Edmonton.

Strydhorst was the only one of the four who is moving from a different section: she was an agronomy research scientist in the A&F’s Cropping Systems Section and was stationed in Barrhead.

Each of the 4 announcements contained this statement:

This agreement is a part of the Alberta government’s commitment to ensuring farmers and ranchers lead agriculture research priorities – not government.

Which makes me wonder if this is code for budget cuts. After all, the 2020–21 First Quarter Fiscal Update presented by Travis Toews in August indicates that the Agriculture and Forestry ministry has to cut $140 million (p. 6) from its operating expense budget this year (compared to the 2018–19 budget, p. 212). That’s a 14.5% cut, the 5th largest of all the ministries.

As well, they have to cut 277 full-time equivalent positions (p. 218), the largest staff reduction of all the ministries. The next largest was Community and Social Services at 136 positions to be cut. In other words, 2 out of every 5 positions cut from government ministries will come from A&F.

And that’s just this year.

Those cuts have to come from somewhere, and there aren’t nearly 300 administrative assistants working in the A&F ministry.

Speaking of quotes, here’s another one that appeared in each of the 4 announcements:

Under this new model, agricultural research in Alberta will lead to tangible benefits for farmers, including higher profits, a more abundant food supply at lower cost for Albertans and ultimately a higher quality of life in rural communities.

I’m curious to know what kind of benefits these research programmes were generating if not tangible. After all, the government had this to say about the FCDC in Lacombe:

Alberta’s barley breeding program has successfully developed and introduced several new varieties of barley to both domestic and international markets.

Also:

Since 1973, the program has been developing enhanced cereal varieties for feed, malt, food and bio-industrial uses, bringing more economic opportunities to Alberta’s agriculture industry.

Maybe it’s just me, but these seem pretty tangible.

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By Kim Siever

I live in Lethbridge with my spouse and 5 of our 6 children. I’m a writer, focusing on political news, social issues, and the occasional poem. My politics are radically left. I recently finished writing a book debunking several capitalism myths. My newest book writing project is on the labour history of Lethbridge.

I’m also dichotomally Mormon. And I’m a functional vegetarian: I have a blog post about that somewhere around here. My pronouns are he/him, and I’m queer.

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