Manitoba Finance Minister Rosann Wowchuk has slashed agriculture spending as part of an effort to shore up funding for other key government programs in the year ahead.
Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives will spend $215.5 million in the coming fiscal year, 4.2 per cent less than in 2009-10, according to provincial spending estimates.
Only Innovation, Energy and Mines (7.1 per cent) and Conservation (5.4 per cent) will see greater spending cuts than MAFRI.
The estimates are contained in the province’s 2010-11 budget brought down last week.
Previously agriculture minister for 10 years, Wowchuk fought battles at the cabinet table to obtain money for BSEstricken cattle producers and a new regime of farm safety net programs.
But in her first budget as finance minister, Wowchuk walked a fine line between increasing funding in some areas and trimming others, still ending up with a $555-million deficit.
Her old portfolio was one of the casualties.
Opposition politicians accused Wowchuk of abandoning her rural roots.
“She had to make cuts but why did she have to make them in rural Manitoba?” said opposition Agriculture Critic Cliff Graydon.
“It tells me they don’t care. They don’t care about rural Manitoba. They don’t care about agriculture.”
But Stan Struthers, Wowchuk’s successor at MAFRI, defended the cuts, saying the department will target priority areas for producers.
“She had to make cuts but why did she have to make them in rural Manitoba?”
– CLIFF GRAYDON, AGRICULTURE CRITIC
“We need to be able to ensure that the dollars we put in to all of our funds are focused on those who are in the most need,” Struthers said.
MAFRI’s greatest saving will come from a 37 per cent decrease in its funding to AgriInvest.
The province will contribute $9.157 million to the former NISA program, nearly $5.5 million less than in the previous year.
The savings amount to 58 per cent of the $9.4 million overall drop in MAFRI’s 2010-11 budget.
Currently, farmers may contribute 1.5 per cent of their allowable net sales (ANS) each year to AgriInvest accounts. Ottawa and the provinces together match that amount with another 1.5 per cent contribution.
But Manitoba is dropping its share of the 1.5 per cent from 0.6 per cent to 0.37 per cent, officials explained.
Struthers said the move is legal, notwithstanding the funding formula.
“We believe we can make that reduction,” he said.
Ian Wishart, Keystone Agricultural Producers president, expressed concern that the province is unilaterally cutting AgriInvest contributions.
“It’ll be disappointing if the province does that and it’ll put our producers at a competitive disadvantage,” said Wishart.
“That’s certainly a cause for concern because we want to be on a level playing field with other provinces.”
Prov inci al funding for AgriStability remains unchanged at $39.139 million.
Wishart also expressed disappointment that the Farmland School Tax Rebate will remain frozen for the next few years. The province currently rebates 75 per cent of the school taxes producers pay on farmland. Its eventual goal, now on hold, was to cover 80 per cent.
In other agricultural measures, Wowchuk’s budget contained fee increases for applicator licences and Crown land leases. The renewal fee for pesticide and fertilizer applicators will double to $100 from $50. Crown land leases will rise from $1.88 per animal use month (AUM) to $1.97 per AUM for the next three years.
A new two per cent fee on quota transfer sales for dairy, eggs and poultry will be implemented.
The province also promised special aid to Interlake farmers who have experienced serious summer flooding for the past two years. [email protected]