Prairie Post (West Edition)
Agriculture critics say Alberta gov’t tight-fisted with innovation hubs
Alberta is internationally celebrated as home to some of the safest, most sustainably produced, highest quality agricultural products in the world. However, farmers can not do it all on their own. They need research to support change - timely, unbiased, scientifically rigorous research – to guide their operations and keep their businesses viable.
“A good business is always trying to find ways to be better and more efficient. As a farm, you can’t stay status quo because you’ll get eaten alive. You’ve got to stay up with trends, new varieties, new techniques. But I can’t lose my business over [change]. Each farmer can’t figure out everything for themselves,” says long term grain farmer Simon Lavoie, who farms near Peace River.
In years past, the provincial government conducted a lot of agricultural research and shared results and recommendations with farmers through a network of regionally based experts. That support disappeared over the last decade. Two years ago, the province stepped entirely away from directly research and knowledge sharing. Now it funds research through an arms-length board with no specific mandate to share knowledge.
Alberta’s dozen Agriculture Innovation Hubs (Hubs) stepped forward to try to fill the void. Farmer-led, non-profit organizations, the Hubs conduct unbiased research directly applicable on-farm.
Working both individually and collaboratively, Alberta’s Hubs conduct literally thousands of small plot and field-scale research trials each year. The trials span everything from new crop varieties, novel crops, new technologies and innovative management techniques. The goal is always to find what works – and, equally important, what doesn’t – in each region’s unique conditions.
Despite the excellent work they do, Hubs consistently struggle for adequate funding. Some Hubs strive to keep the lights on and pay a bare-bones staff as provincial dollars now fund research only. Because the province prioritizes quick-return projects with immediate pay-off, critical multi-year projects get shuttered. The loss of bigpicture projects and basic operational funding not only means that Hubs now struggle to maintain long-term strategic planning, but it also decreases their ability to hold onto permanent, highly skilled researchers.
“Agriculture Innovation Hubs don’t have ongoing funding so we’re not secure. That’s causing uncertainty for sure and frustration. SARDA Ag Research needs a new building because ours is literally falling under our feet. We’re getting that process going but are we doing it for nothing?” says Lavoie. “The government keeps saying that farmers are important, but if we are so needed, why are we struggling so much for support?”
The reality is simple: without innovation Hubs, agricultural research in Alberta will be almost exclusively directed by corporate dollars and interests. That’s a dangerous problem, says Glendon area cattle and grain farmer, Jason Richter.
“If all the information we’re receiving is from companies, that information can be swayed. Companies provide data on their products but they’re not going to show you data that doesn’t make their product look good. Agriculture Hubs will tell you straight out if, for example, five times out of 10 this new product doesn’t work. When somebody like LARA (Lakeland Agricultural Research Association) offers information, we know it’s reliable, unbiased information we can trust.”
The Hubs’ goal is to take the risk individual farmers must otherwise carry. It’s a vital role, says Bonnyvillearea cattle producer, Nick Kunec.
“Farmers’ share [in profit] is ridiculously small for the risk we carry, for the equipment, the capital costs, the work required. That’s where if these Hubs can carry a bit of the risk to make trying new things a bit more economically viable [for farmers], then that’s a good thing,” he says.
Both Lavoie and Kunec sit on their regional Hub boards; Lavoie is chair of SARDA Ag Research and Kunec is a member at large of LARA. Both say a key reason that they chose to volunteer time is because big picture, good-for-all research that focuses on farmers’ priorities won’t happen without Hubs. Kunec, for example, joined LARA’s board three months ago to encourage more environmentally sustainable research projects, like cover cropping and using manure to offset fertilizer. Excited about organic production and regenerative agriculture, he believes LARA’s efforts and influence are the best avenue towards industry change.
“My hope is to have a bit of influence on the direction agriculture moves. I think having Innovation Hubs show that different techniques work, that’s going to be the only way to get people to change and to look at things differently,” he says. In addition to finding workable innovations, Hubs also translate research findings into farm-applicable information. Knowledge sharing efforts range from crop walks to newsletters, from web content to video tours, and from email campaigns to phoneaccessible researchers.
Richter says he appreciates a third critical role the Hubs play in keeping Alberta’s agriculture viable: advocacy.
“There are people in towns and cities who are three, four, five generations away from the farm. People who haven’t been on a farm a day in their life can hear incorrect information that makes them feel scared about the safe, healthy products they’re consuming.