“We know that we’re going to be dealing with tough economic times.”
– STAN STRUTHERS
Hopes for an environmental goods and services program for Manitoba farmers have been dampened by the current recession and a looming provincial deficit.
The Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program promoted by Keystone Agricultural Producers may have to wait until the province gets a huge budgetary shortfall under control, Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers indicated last week.
The NDP government had previously shown interest in ALUS as a province-wide program to pay farmers for beneficial environmental practices.
But a projected $592 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year may curtail new spending initiatives, Struthers said after speaking at Manitoba Ag Days.
“I have to be able to confidently say there’s money to do that before we make any promises,” he told reporters.
“We know that we’re going to be dealing with tough economic times. We know there are good programs that may have to be delayed or deferred,” Struthers said.
“I can’t go forward to the people of Manitoba with any kind of an approach when I can’t tell them how I’m going to pay for it. That will naturally be a constricting factor in this.”
KAP originated the idea for ALUS in 1999 as a way to reward farmers and ranchers for providing environmental benefits to the public.
Years of lobbying finally produced a three-year ALUS pilot project in the western Manitoba municipality of Blanshard. Similar pilots occurred in Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island.
The Blanshard project is complete and official reports have been submitted to the federal and provincial governments. Other provinces have also completed their projects.
KAP has been pushing the province to expand ALUS into a general program for Manitoba farmers.
But Struthers said he wants to study the effect of the Blanshard project before making any commitment. The province is reviewing the results.
“When it is finished, then we will sit down and we’ll look at all of the lessons that we’ve drawn from it,” Struthers said.
That’s not good enough for KAP president Ian Wishart, who developed ALUS in the first place.
Instead of waiting, the province should redirect unspent money into a slightly expanded ALUS project with room to grow, said Wishart.
“We could piece together a program that might start small in a rather restricted manner, but it could grow. That’s the proposal we’ve always had,” he said.
“We could phase this in across the province on a step-by-step basis so we get started moving in the right direction rather than just standing here talking about it.”
But Struthers said he first needs what kind of environmental benefits the Blanshard project produced and whether they translated into financial benefits for farmers.
Meanwhi le, a provincial working committee is trying to keep ALUS alive by developing a proposal for a province-wide ecological goods and services program for landowners, using ALUS as a basis.
The committee includes KAP, cattle producers, conservation organizations and the provincial government.
Wishart said the group envisions a program involving federal, provincial and municipal governments. Conservation districts would deliver programs while the province would do the paperwork. [email protected]