The future of agriculture was laid out on the table by industry leaders at a panel discussion and Q&A held at Reynolds Alberta Museum on April 17, 2015, chaired by PC candidate Verlyn Olson, who (prior to the election call) held the office of Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The discussion, MC’d by Barry Schultz of Parkland Fertilizers, allowed a period of time for each of the four panelists to address the industry’s future, focusing on key issues such as international supply and demand, obstacles faced and efforts being made to counter them, and developments in the industry. Time was given for questions at the end of the presentations and panel discussion.
Verlyn Olson initiated the talks by presenting the fact that Agriculture is a diverse and vast industry in Alberta, the second largest in the province. The world’s population is projected to increase by two billion people by the year 2050. They are going to need quality, nutritious food and oil to fuel their growth and economic needs. Alberta’s agricultural and oil industry will be in even more demand than current.
Dave Solverson, President of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, reported on the growing international markets available, as well as the efforts being made to obtain trade agreements with them. With Korea under their belt, sights are set on other Asian nations as well as the EU. Dave remarked about China currently having more millionaires than Canada has people. With this rapid increase in wealth, diet changes, and with it the demand for more protein rich foods, which Alberta markets can provide. In addition, droughts and policy changes have greatly hindered other world suppliers, making Alberta beef even more sought after. The potential for exports is almost limitless.
Ward Toma, GM of Alberta Canola Producers spoke mostly of changes in the grain grower industry as well as the obstacles facing it. Speaking about the canola market, for the most part, it has remained consistent. What has seen significant change in the past decade is about how grain producers do business. Transparency is rapidly becoming huge in the relationship between grower and consumer. Not just restricted to grains, ‘how’ something is grown is becoming as important as ‘what’ and ‘how much it costs’. The agricultural industry has to be sensitive to what the consumer is saying. The market is changing, and wise growers need to be very attuned to this.
This change in thinking was reflected in the presentation by Kaley Segboer, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Ag For Life. Kaley represents the new breed of young, highly trained and motivated individuals who are spearheading the future of Alberta’s agricultural industry. Both Kaley and the Ag For Life organization embrace the concept of ‘social license’.
Agricultural ‘social license’, simply put, is tied into the trust and belief of society towards the agricultural industry and the products it produces. In effect, it involves the responsibility of the industry to manage that trust and to safeguard it. It ensures that society bases its trust on accurate and up-to-date information.
Kaley and Ag For Life are also involved with educating 20,000 Albertan grade four students each year about the agricultural industry and practicing safety in it. They are looking forward to the program including Junior and/or Senior High students.
Throughout the discussion, common obstacles facing all facets of the industry were raised. Primarily discussed was the issue of transportation, and the need for diversification and development.
Casting an ominous shadow on the potential for growth in Alberta’s agricultural industry is, and always has been, how to move the volumes of product we are capable of producing to foreign markets. Verlyn Olson talked about, “the elephant in the room” at international trade meetings; International customers saying they want to buy from us, but cannot understand why we cannot get the product to them in a timely fashion. The railways have been a bottleneck to our export system for over a century, the ports at Vancouver and Prince Rupert can barely handle the volumes needed at current, let alone future quantities, and pipeline issues restrict the amount of oil we can provide to world markets.
Internal diversification and consumption can only solve some of the problem. As panelists stated, we cannot eat it all ourselves. Diversification can help however, putting more value-added products into the market. As one audience member pointed out, secondary products can create Alberta jobs as well as reduce the strain on transportation lanes. For example, it is easier and more profitable to ship crates of canola oil than it is to ship canola.
A related obstacle is having enough quality people to maintain and grow the industry. There already is a slow attrition, as fewer children are taking over the family business, and the ones that want to get into agriculture are faced with the overwhelming cost of education and start up. The panelists spoke about ways that they are trying to counter this issue. Verlyn Olson spoke of some companies he has visited who have worked through these same issues and prospered. Mentorship, incorporation of farms to include junior partners, ‘dual credit’ in which high school course credit can be applied to post secondary education, and vendor financing for young couples who want to get into farming, but cannot afford to being financed to take over farms from retired farmers who do not have kids (or kids willing to farm), but do not want to see their land get developed and paved are just some of the ideas that are being looked at. An interesting thought as well was to retool oil and gas engineers to work in and advance agriculture in Alberta. We have one of the largest per capita of engineers in the world, and with oil and gas in a slump, there is a significant number of skilled people available.
There are significant obstacles to overcome, yet they are coupled with the hope of a bright future for Agriculture in Alberta. We need visionary, influential and experienced leaders to steer the province into the future. This should weigh on the minds of Albertans as they cast their vote May 5th, 2015. With the right people in place, Alberta will become an even more desirable province to call home in days ahead.