The farmer-led research fallacy: An insider's look at research funding changes in Alberta



In February of 2016, I witnessed farmers and ranchers unite across the province in passionate protest against the newly introduced Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act. We saw protests from farmers like those you see in France including tractor parades, homemade signs, chanting and, to my guilty pleasure, protest pizza. Yes, that’s right, protest pizza! Outside the Lethbridge Lodge where then Minister Carlier was about to speak, someone had brought pizza for protesters.

Claudette and I arrived early enough to interact with the crowd outside among the tractors. Once inside, we sat near the front and watched sweat bead on Minister Carlier’s brow as he faced questions and chants from a packed room of angry folks. I leaned over to Claudette and whispered, “I think this is the closest I will ever be to feeling what it was like in the 1960s.”

Bill 6 landed right on farm and ranch doorsteps creating a defensive position among farmers to draw arms. Even though the government attackers wielded personal protective equipment and clipboards, it was invasive and seemingly forceful.

In 2020, a new government made dramatic changes to Alberta Agriculture and I haven’t seen one tractor, one sign or one piece of pizza! I wish farmers and ranchers showed Bill 6 passion about the recent changes to Alberta agriculture research, as it will create gaps in history.

I’m sure there are many reasons for the quiet, and I’m not making political judgements, but noting a glaring difference in reaction to two different situations.

This time, the agriculture industry asked for the change. They wanted to see reinvestment into research after losing ACIDF (Agriculture Crop Industry Development Fund). After a series of consultations, what came out didn’t replace the grant; it created something entirely different.

The government created RDAR (Results Driven Agricultural Research). They touted it as a one-stop funding agency that would empower farmers to decide how to spend public investment in research and extension. An interesting idea with some good promise, but not without challenge. RDAR’s 33 members represent everything from goats and eggs to peas and bees. It also has 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 and three agricultural colleges) is a voting member. RDAR ran a call for proposals this fall and is set to announce its first round of results driven research funding to the industry.

But this government completed the gutting of Alberta Agriculture’s research and extension work, cuts to agriculture service boards, cuts to applied research associations and a transfer of agriculture research assets to post-secondary institutions. In addition to this, the Canadian Agriculture Partnership program is mostly frozen. (RDAR is supposed 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 Albertans 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 Alberta government noted that it was the only province doing its own research. It 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, 2- to 3-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 their long-term stability. First, these transfers come with Alberta Agriculture funding for two to three years. When the funds run out, 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, everyone will compete for drastically diminished funding and that’s when the bubble bursts. 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.

Ironically, at the beginning of all this, many felt that groups like Farming Smarter and other producer-led groups across the province would need 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 part of the plan from the onset and now face reduced public funding and cuts as well.

I’m sure the polarizing political ideologies of left vs right play a big role, but I can’t help but wonder why the changes haven’t garnered more interest, dialogue, or even debate.

Perhaps some may not lose sleep over this and I may be biased toward the value of applied research and extension. However, I have seen first-hand how we 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.

We can blame this on broken relationships, misinformation, misdirection, and overall confusion that seems to be plaguing the global political landscape. It’s been fuelled by apathy, political blindness, and an unwillingness to dig into the issues and truly understand them. So, is this really farmer-led? Only time will tell.

Farming Smarter is weathering the storm and adapting its organization. We will continue to change the way people farm. Please join our community of dedicated learners and best wishes for a great 2021.

— Ken Coles, Farming Smarter

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