Forage is Canada’s biggest crop, generating billions in revenues and environmental benefits, but it’s struggling and so is the national organization created five years ago to promote it.
The Canadian Forage and Grassland Association, has lost a major funder and its executive director.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association withdrew its support, which amounted to $20,000 annually, earlier this year.
Ron Pidskalny, resigned Nov. 19, following the CFGA’s annual meeting. Pidskalny, who took on the job as part of his consulting business a year ago, realized the CFGA couldn’t continue to pay him, CFGA chair and Irricana, Alta. rancher Doug Wray said later in an interview.
The CFGA will have just $3,000 in the bank by year’s end, with three months until the start of a new fiscal year, Pidskalny told the CFGA’s annual meeting.
“Nobody is saying we’re going to have to shut it down,” Wray said.
He vowed to meet with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) again to try and convince it to continue its CFGA membership.
The CCA pulled out for 2014-15 “due to limited CCA budgets,” CCA communications manager Gina Teel said in an email Nov. 21.
“The CCA recognizes that forages play an integral role in the beef industry,” Teel wrote. “One of the ways we demonstrate this is through funding of forage and grasslands research through the Beef Cattle Research Council. In fact of BCRC’s five research priorities, forage and grasslands research receives the highest amount of funding.”
Wray said CFGA doesn’t want to duplicate forage work, but believes the association can contribute in a cost-effective way.
“We’ll be suggesting that they (CCA) harness the horsepower of this room,” he said. “We’re going to try and re-establish a much better partnership relationship with CCA.”
Most of the CFGA’s $40,000 in annual revenue comes from sponsors.
The Dairy Farmers of Canada contributes $10,000 a year to the CFGA’s $77,400 budget.
At 32 million acres, forage occupies 39 per cent of Canada’s cultivated land — more than any other crop. And it generates $5.1 billion in economic activity, plus another $13 billion in ecological benefits such as reduced soil erosion, cleaner water, carbon sequestering and wildlife habitat.
But unlike most crops, forages don’t have a checkoff to fund research or promotion. And because forage is mostly consumed on the farm where it is produced, a checkoff on the crop itself isn’t practical.
Fifty-three per cent or almost $2.7 billion of that $5.1 billion is captured by beef producers, “and they give us nothing,” Pidskalny said. Forty-three per cent or about $2.2 billion goes to dairy farmers. Forage and forage seed exporters capture the rest.
Those who benefit from forage production should support it, Pidskalny said. But how?
“I don’t think if we asked for a share of the beef and dairy checkoff that we would even be taken seriously,” he said.
“I don’t think that the industries that make a living feeding forages or marketing forages or who are developing forage seed or the industry as a whole appreciates the amount of work that needs to be done to keep forages competitive globally.”
Canadian forage yields have stagnated or declined because of a lack of research making farmers here less competitive with their counterpart in the United States and Australia, Pidskalny said in an interview Nov. 18.
In a 2007 study, Pidskalny found publicly funded forage research had declined by $44 million a year during the previous 15. Older reports said forages were “in a tailspin.”
“In my opinion, the forages and grasslands sector has declined since then,” he said. “It’s getting less support than it ever has before…”
Ironically, it comes when the world is gearing up to feed more people and there’s increasing interest in sustainable agriculture. Forages play a key role by boosting soil fertility, aiding in weed control and protecting erosion-prone land. There’s also land reclamation and climate change mitigation.
“It’s great to say we’re going to do great things for society through ecosystem services, but when the rubber hits the road we’re not going to find that there’s any gas in the tank,” he said. “The Ferrari is going to be tuned up and ready to go and we won’t have any fuel. That’s where I think we are right now.”
Pidskalny developed a template to create a national forage strategy, but estimates it will cost at least $40,000 to flesh out. That’s more than half the CFGA’s annual budget. Even if the federal government contributed half the money, the CFGA doesn’t have $20,000 to spend, he said.
“The stakeholders need to step forward with the resources to move these strategic initiatives forward,” Pidskalny said.
Implementing a strategy would cost several million more.
Part of Pidskalny’s job was fundraising, but he said the job, which was to take 50 per cent of his time, took 80 per cent and most of it was spent in administration.