Reactions were mixed as Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development announced it would close 21 of its community offices in the name of modernization.
On Twitter, a farmer called it “10 years overdue” while others pointed to a decline in services the offices provided.
Others worried that staff would lose their jobs and that services would decline.
On January 6, the province announced it would close all but 10 rural MARD and Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) offices. It will also retain offices that will not be open to the public.
Closed offices include Altona, Ashern, Birtle, Deloraine, Fisher Branch, Gladstone, Glenboro, Grandview, Hamiota, Lundar, Morris, Pilot Mound, Russell, Shoal Lake, Somerset, Souris, St-Pierre-Jolys, Ste. Rose du Lac, Teulon, Vita and Waskada.
The move will modernize and consolidate scattered services, Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen told media during a call on January 7.
MASC will offer all of its services from these consolidated offices, Pedersen said. These offices will also give “front desk” services to direct people to the department or person to handle their issue. Offices will also have a public internet kiosk.
The January 6 news release referred to “an array of services that will be provided online, by telephone or in person.” With media, Pedersen was short on details of what this meant.
Deputy Ag Minister Dori Gingera-Beachemin told media they’ll be asking for suggestions and feedback on how to handle each service best.
The office closures won’t add up to a net cost savings, Pedersen said. The leases on the offices cost about $700,000 he said.
“We’re going to plow more than that back into technology,” he said. “This is not about cost savings. This is about enhancing service.”
But modernization still appears to include ‘cutting dead weight’ in the province’s purview. Pedersen told media these offices averaged one or two visitors per day.
“There was definitely a need for modernization here,” he said.
Comments from producers appeared to back this up. Wawanesa-area producer Simon Ellis told the Co-operator he interacts with MARD and MASC by phone or internet. He suspected other farmers in his area were in a similar boat.
“Call ahead to make sure someone is in the office when you visit,” tweeted a farmer from the Isabella area.
Another tweeted he’d not been in his local office for 10 years.
For others, person-to-person contact was a must.
“I have utilized the features of our crop insurance office and have visited there prior to COVID whenever I had concerns or issues,” said Keystone Agricultural Producers president Bill Campbell, who farms near Minto.
“I guess I still will have the ability to speak with someone, but I had a relationship with the office personnel and they knew my file,” he told the Co-operator.
In a statement, Campbell called access to services, reliable information and crop specialists “essential to the strength of Manitoba’s agricultural sector.”
He agreed that services at rural MARD offices have declined over the past 10 to 15 years. Private industry provides a lot more agronomic advice. Feed companies have hired feed nutritionists and do custom analysis for producers.
Still, MARD staff have remained a backstop of “independent, unbiased information,” said Campbell.
“I think we need to be aware that some of these (ag retail) companies promote sales through their dealers, and is that the best for your farm?” Campbell said. “Is there that independent, unbiased research and knowledge to give us that credible information?”
“I consider the staff independent experts who are highly valuable,” said Ellis.
Pedersen said no staff will be losing jobs. They may work remotely or commute to new offices.
“There is no job losses in this. We are not reducing our staffing. In fact, we’re moving to hire some more people,” he said.
Gingera-Beauchemin said this includes hiring an assistant deputy minister of production stewardship and regional wildlife and fisheries managers. The province’s job-posting website also shows postings for a manager of crop industry development in Carman, a veterinary diagnostic pathologist and a regional fisheries biologist.