The Manitoba government’s move to close over 20 agriculture offices in rural communities is part of a larger effort to restructure and modernize the entire department, says the provincial minister of agriculture and resource development.
“This is not about cost savings. This is about enhancing service,” said Blaine Pedersen, speaking with media on Thursday, the day after his government announced a plan to close 21 offices and consolidate Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development (MARD) and Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) offices into 10 locations across the province by April 1, 2021.
The department estimates the changes will result in reduced office leasing costs of around $700,000, but Pedersen said they are “plowing” much more than that in technology to improve services, including an interactive online chat program, and kiosks to access online services at the remaining offices.
“Technology is a huge part of this,” he said, noting, as an example, that over 50 per cent of Manitoba farmers enrolled in crop insurance through MASC are already filing seeded acreage and harvested production reports online. “We’re trying to catch up to the farm sector, where they are right now.”
The offices that are being closed were only averaging one or two visitors per day prior to being closed to the public due to COVID-19, with some only seeing two visitors a week, he said. “There was definitely a need for modernization here.”
Pedersen has also stressed there will be no job losses as a result of the closures. Staff at the offices that are closing will not will not be required to move, he said.
The department of agriculture and resource development has more than 600 employees, and another approximately 200 work for MASC, noted the minister.
“We are not reducing our staffing, in fact we are moving to hire some more people,” he said.
The restructuring of the entire department began in October 2019 when natural resources was brought together with the agriculture portfolio. Among the changes, Pedersen said they are placing a higher priority on Indigenous engagement, climate policy, and a new water strategy. Strengthening public trust is also a priority, as evidenced in the job description of a new assistant deputy minister position to look after “production stewardship” — the listing was posted on the province’s job website on Wednesday.
“We’ve heard from some ‘it’s about time we did this,’ and certainly there will be some uncertainty with some staff as they get new assignments or take on new challenges, but we believe in our staff,” said Pedersen.
Meanwhile, the president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, Bill Campbell, says KAP welcomes the option for farmers to access more forms and information online, but “the opportunity to speak face-to-face with specialists is essential. This will be more challenging for many producers, particularly in Western Manitoba.”
“Though we are assured that these measures will not impact staffing levels, our members are concerned about ongoing access to staff and have noted this issue for some time,” says Campbell, in a statement issued Thursday. “Furthermore, the loss of rental revenue for rural business owners represents yet another challenge for many communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Campbell says they’re urging the province to release more information on the changes.
Manitoba Ag and MASC offices will be closing in the following locations, as of April 1:
Altona, Ashern, Birtle, Deloraine, Fisher Branch, Gladstone, Glenboro, Grandview, Hamiota, Lundar, Morris, Pilot Mound, Russell, Shoal Lake, Somerset, Souris, St. Pierre-Jolys, Ste. Rose du Lac, Teulon, Vita and Waskada.
The province will maintain 10 centres with both MARD and MASC services at Arborg, Brandon, Dauphin, Headingley, Killarney, Morden, Neepawa, Portage la Prairie, Steinbach, and Swan River.
The province will also be keeping offices open in the following communities, but they will no longer be open to the public: Carman, Melita, Minnedosa, Neepawa, Portage la Prairie, Roblin, and Virden. (The province has recently issued a request for proposal to review the crop diversification centre model regarding the non-profit applied research-focused centres in Arborg, Carberry, Melita, and Roblin.)