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Alberta Ag Retrospective

by Kristi Cox for Farming Smarter

Alberta Ag has existed in some form since the inception of the Province in 1905. While Alberta Ag changed over time to meet the evolving needs of producers, it remained a critical piece of the success of agriculture in the province. Various programs, initiatives, offices and individuals ensured producers had all the tools they needed to get the most productivity out of the land. 

Picture Butte Lake
Alberta farm land covers all kinds of landscapes.

John Knapp, former Deputy Minister of Agriculture, started out as a District Agriculturist (DA) in 1977. At the time, Alberta Agriculture had a large physical presence on the rural landscape. There were 65 district offices across the province hosting about 100 DAs, 60 District Home Economists (DHEs) and about 80 specialists who supported those out of six regional offices.  

“The technology in agriculture in the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s was a more general technology base; herbicide and fertilizer use, breeding programs, and nutrition for cattle, that kind of thing,” said Knapp.   

“The District Agriculturist’s role was to understand the needs of his or her rural community. (DAs would) sit down with individual farmers and talk about technology changes, breeding changes, livestock, fertilizer placement, herbicide use and all the different technologies. It really began to help us produce more per acre.” 

Having the DAs and DHEs based out of those district offices had a large impact on their efficacy.  

“They understood their community and they understood what individual issues were on their minds,” said Knapp.  

Knapp explained that DAs shared knowledge in three key ways: Farmers would come to their offices with questions, farmers requested on-farm visits, and DAs organized independent, expert speakers who answered questions that came from area producers.  

“DHEs worked with farm families, aiding with home design, family foods and nutrition, or clothing and textiles,” said Knapp. “All things that were part of farm families at that point. They listened, made cold calls and brought in speakers.” 

Sometimes they went together on farm visits. The DHE would be farm family focused, and the DA focused on the business and technology side. It was a unique partnership that addressed the needs of the entire farm family in a time where information wasn’t easy for the general public to access. 

In those years, having knowledgeable DAs enabled quick, effective resolutions to problems.  

Farmers appreciated the expertise

John Kolk of Kolk Farms Conrich Ltd grew up on a farm and now runs a specialty crop and irrigation farm with his family. In the 1970’s Kolk’s dad purchased a piece of land one spring with about 50 acres of salinity. The DA helped him determine the best process to remediate the land from start to finish. By that fall, they had permits in place and implemented the plan.  

“Three to four years later, it was producing crops like the rest of the land,” said Kolk. “You don’t forget those things.” 

Alberta Agriculture also offers crop insurance funded through the federal and provincial governments. This is amalgamated with a lending program under the Alberta Financial Services Corporation.  

“Those programs also sat in the district office,” said Knapp.”  You could go to talk to your DHE about home design, you could talk to the DA about a beef ration for the winter, you could talk to the loans officer about expanding your farm and you could talk to your crop insurance officer about crop insurance for the next year.” 

With these services all in one place it was truly one stop shopping for farmers. As technology progressed through the 80’s the DAs frequently referred farmers to more specialized individuals.  

When Kolk sought to expand into an alternative income source for his farm in the early 1980’s, he was considering getting sheep, and accessed Alberta Agriculture’s services. 

“We knew nothing about sheep, so we went to see the sheep specialist,” said Kolk. This sheep specialist happened to be (then) DA John Knapp. 

Knapp told Kolk what was working for other sheep producers, advised on breeds and warned of potential pitfalls. They spent about six hours together over two meetings. Considering Knapp’s experience and advice, Kolk determined the best route forward to pursue sheep production on his farm. 

“There was a level of trust in the information that was provided that gave me confidence,” said Kolk.  

“If someone wanted to talk about dairy rations, you’d contact the dairy specialist,” said Knapp. “If someone wanted to talk about seed varieties for the coming spring, you’d transfer them to the crop specialist. By the early 90’s it was clear that we needed to convert our service into specialists on the front line.” 

At this point, DAs evolved again from the role of referral agents to specialists themselves in areas like beef, crop, engineering, and agriculture economics. Just a decade later in the early 2000s, with information more readily available to producers, there was yet another shift.  

“At that stage, the department decided to take on more of a train the trainer role,” said Knapp. “They retained many of the specialists, they still had large numbers doing research and supporting the specialists, but they began to move away from front line extension.” 

A call center took on the role of front-line extension, at its height fielding about 50,000 calls a year.  

While the DAs, DHEs and their evolved forms were key to farm success in Alberta, other components of Alberta Agriculture had significant impact as well. 

prairie landscape
Fall day in south western Alberta

Ag research focus

In most provinces, research was undertaken by a combination of the federal government and universities, but Alberta Agriculture took on a lot of research themselves. 

“Good things came out of that,” said Knapp. “For example: the barley varieties developed out of Lacombe; beef genomics work where we’re breeding more efficient cows; much more efficient poultry rations; some great work on peas, breeding for fungal resistance; and Alberta Ag was part of developing that great modern plant called canola out of what used to be rape seed.” 

Alberta Agriculture also administered various programs for disaster relief, such a drought or flood, or in response to crises.  

Alberta Agriculture had a significant part in mitigating the 2003 BSE crisis. When the price of cattle fell from $1.23 to $0.22/pound in half an hour, Knapp explained that the Province faced a terrible crisis. Nobody would take our beef outside of Canada.  

“The Agriculture Minister at the time, Shirley McLellan, pulled the ag industry together and they recommended several programs to help increase consumption,” Knapp explained. “At the same time, she told the truth and her staff in the department told the truth and the public began to gain confidence in the safety of our system.” 

Knapp said Albertans consumed more beef during the BSE crisis than ever before or since. Partly because it was a good price, and partly because it was managed in a way that built trust and confidence. 

“It’s an example from seventeen years ago of what we can do today if organizations pull together and focus,” Knapp said. 

The Farmers’ Advocate Office is yet another initiative under Alberta Agriculture that had a positive impact on farmers. It helped farmers understand their rights and responsibilities around things like fence lines or stray animals and was particularly beneficial educating about surface rights. 

“When the Alberta energy industry was doing seismic work, or drilling for oil or gas, or putting pipelines through, the farmers began to know what payments were reasonable and what their rights and opportunities were,” said Knapp. 

Red Barn
Alberta has every kind of farming operation

Knapp points out that there are niches the private sector can never fill. 

“The private sector can’t make public policy,” Knapp said. “They can certainly have input into public policy, but the government is always going to need analysts and people to develop policy options for the minister and cabinet to look at.” 

While Alberta Agriculture has evolved over the years, Kolk thinks it is still relevant today. 

“Alberta Ag has been good on the whole sustainability file,” said Kolk. “Whether that’s water efficiency, irrigation efficiency, reduced tillage, reduced chemicals, or the four Rs of fertilizer- that sort of stuff is where there was a public need, a public good, and no natural seller.” 

Kolk finds Alberta Agriculture important for information exchange and distribution through conferences like the Irrigation Update and the Agronomy Update. He also thinks they are key in surveillance with issues like pests and challenges like clubroot and fusarium.  

Recently, when Kolk was investigating subsurface irrigation, one of the first things he did was to sit down with the people at Alberta Ag’s irrigation sector. When he wanted to streamline weekly moisture soil checks, he worked with Alberta Ag first for guidance with moisture sensors. From there, they consulted with Dr. Appels at Lethbridge College. 

“It takes a village,” said Kolk. “It was critical to talk to people that I had a lot of trust in because they had expertise and they weren’t trying to sell me anything. They were there to say, ‘This is what we’ve learned, and this is what you should be careful of.’” 

“If your agronomist is also working for an input supplier, he’s not your agronomist,” said Kolk. “Alberta Ag has been, and I hope in the future will continue to be, that respected source of information from a neutral party.”