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Alberta Ag Research Now What?

By Madeleine Baerg 

March 30, 2020, after months of consultation with farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders, Alberta’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry announced that farmers will direct the managment of Alberta ag research funds. 

Specifically, Minister Dreeshen announced the creation of Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR), an arms-length non-profit to establish Alberta ag research priorities, evaluate funding applications, and allocate the Alberta government’s ag-specific research funding. 

Dr. Chalack
Dr. Chalack

“One of the platforms that the Conservatives put out [before the last election] was: ‘We are going to listen to you, farmers’. What RDAR shows is they’re saying: ‘Okay, we heard you loud and clear: government is not the place to be achieving results.’ They’re putting the money forward as sole funder; now we have the autonomy as farmers to deliver the results,” says David Chalack, RDAR’s interim board chair. “RDAR brings more accountability, responsibility, transparency, flexibility, and the ability for producers to have more direct input or control over agricultural research.”  

It’s been a busy few months since the formal establishment of RDAR in April. In six months, RDAR successfully established its policies, governance structure and direction. It is in the stages of finalizing its granting agreement with the Province.  

It also completed a whole lot of consultation.  

“It was made very clear by the Minister, both when he set RDAR up and in conversations with me, that really consulting stakeholders – the producers – is paramount.

We took that very seriously and have had an exhaustive process of reaching out and really listening,” says Chalack. 

During June, it held six consultation webinars with almost 200 stakeholders to capture input on the new organization’s direction, structure, scope and priorities. Following the large-scale consultation, RDAR brought together 50 key stakeholders as an advisory committee to further refine operating plans and goals. 

Based on the results of the consultation process, RDAR established four key research areas. They include: enhancing profitability and competitiveness; improving agriculture’s sustainability; responding to changing market demands including building ag-advocacy and public trust; and extension and knowledge transfer.   

field plots
Agriculture research requires specialized equipment and big work crews. Credit: Farming Smarter

“Our goal is that our efforts benefit primary producers first and foremost,” says Chalack.  

Now, the organization is in the process of finalizing its research agenda and preparing for an initial call for proposals. By the end of 2020, it expects to begin granting funds.  

RDAR is currently operating with an appointed board and interim management team. The board will be replaced with an elected board at RDAR’s first AGM, likely in February 2021; staffing positions will be filled with permanent staff over the coming months. Once the board shifts to an elected board, at least seven of the 11 board members will be required to be primary producers.  

The Province allocated set-up funding that financed RDAR’s incorporation and initial organizational development. Looking forward, the Province will provide RDAR a budget of $37M/year. These funds are in addition to dollars already committed by government for research at academic institutions over the next three years. 

Decision Makers

RDAR will report to two classes of membership: 33 Class A voting members that represent various commissions, producer organizations and applied research groups, and Class B non-voting members.  

“Farm Rite [which represents six Albertan applied research associations, including Farming Smarter] is a voting Class A member. We got a position, as did ARECA and AFIN. All applied research associations are on the advisory committee, plus colleges and universities too. So, we definitely feel that we have a voice, says Farming Smarter’s Executive Director, Ken Coles. 

Coles does have reservations about how this funding model might impact long-term and/or coordinated research efforts.   

“One thing I am concerned about is capacity. Funding is one thing; capacity to actually do the research is another.”  

Specifically, he’s worried about program based-funding disappearing, given that RDAR appears (at least at this early stage) to only be tasked with project-based allocation.  

“A breeding centre is not a project, it’s a program. All of us applied research associations aren’t projects, we’re programs. It’s always easier to fund a project, but is that the most efficient and effective use of funds? It’s great that, through RDAR, we’re building a little home for ag. There’s a lot of logistical value in that alone. But I do think we also need some continuity in agricultural research, and I’m a believer in a more coordinated approach.” 

That said, Coles says he is in favour of the more arms-length, industry led funding model. “I’m very hopeful it’ll be an effective organization. I’m on board with the premise.”  

Chalack’s key message to farmers as RDAR gets rolling? Here’s your chance.  

“Help each other and help us make this work. Ag is not known for its collaborative efforts generally, but we’re stronger together. Put aside all your little individual wants and needs and take this broader view of things. We’ll still be looking after issues for specific [sectors] but we need a broader sense of who we are and how we can advance ag together. This is our chance to do something better than it has been done before.”