Premier Brian Pallister appears to be determined to make funding cuts to the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC), despite calls for caution from the Keystone Agricultural Producers.
During his regular COVID news conference Tuesday, Pallister was asked why MASC salary cuts of up to 20 per cent are being considered.
“Manitoba Ag Services has been under going a number of changes long before the pandemic came along,” Pallister said, seemingly confirming the cuts were in the works. “There’s not enough work for everybody right now, I can say that for sure. But the reality is that those changes you are referring to were, may have been changes that were already contemplated pre-pandemic.”
He said new use of technology was eliminating some work and made servicing rural Manitoba easier, with less need for travel time, such as using electronic signature applications.
“This is just one example of technological improvements that are happening, some of them very belated and very common sense,” Pallister said.
Why it matters: Crop insurance, a federal-provincial program administered in Manitoba by MASC, is the most widely used business risk management program by Manitoba farmers. KAP doesn’t want possible MASC funding cuts to undermine service to farmers.
He added similar things are happening throughout the Manitoba government, both in response to the pandemic, and it an effort to provide better customer service.
Bill Campbell, KAP president, said changes to MASC, which delivers crop insurance and credit to Manitoba farmers, need to be carefully considered, ideally with farmer input.
“Crop insurance has been the most utilized business risk management tool in Manitoba out of all of the CAP (Canadian Agricultural Partnership) funding,” Bill Campbell said in an interview from his farm near Minto May 12 as he was harvesting oats.
“Manitoba’s crop insurance program is probably the most successful and utilized program in Canada where 90 per cent of the annual crop acres are insured.”
In mid-April, Pallister asked all government departments, crown Corporations, colleges and universities to come up with plans to cut expenses by up to 30 per cent, freeing up money to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also noted thousands of private sector employees had been laid off or had wages cut.
May 4 Finance Minister Scott Fielding announced the government would cut non-essential expenses 4.9 per cent and 2.2 per cent of the non-essential government workforce, saving the province $860 million.
Sources said May 12 that MASC employees have not been told what cuts are being made or how it will affect their jobs.
The lack of detail in Pallister’s response could mean final plans for MASC have yet to be negotiated by the government and the union representing employees.
MASC, like all operations, can be made more efficient with new technology, but MASC still needs adjusters to assess crop insurance in a timely way, Campbell said.
“I need to make important decisions about whether to rip up a crop and re-seed,” he said.
“Most of the work will be done out of the district offices. There aren’t many adjusters going from Portage to Swan River.”
Poor or lacking cell and wi-fi in rural areas also hampers the use of new technology in the field, Campbell said.
Crop insurance is a complex program, based on a lot of data, he added. In addition to most grain, oilseed and pulse crops, the program covers many vegetable crops, potatoes, pedigreed seed, organic crops, novel crops, forages and livestock, he said.
Office staff are needed to collect and process a lot of data, Campbell said.
MASC also administers the Education Tax Rebate Program and claims related to wildlife damage to crops.