The Manitoba government’s announcement that it will close agricultural offices and consolidate services this spring is a significant shift, but one that reflects a modern reality.
As of April 1, public-facing services will be delivered out of 10 regional service centres instead of 21 and they will be staffed by provincial Agriculture Department representatives, crop insurance and the province’s ag lending agency.
These changes are a big hit for the communities losing local offices, but truth be told, many of these offices were about as busy as the mythical Maytag repairman. The days when farmers popped in at the local ag rep’s office for some advice are long past.
COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns solidly laid to rest any doubts that there are more efficient ways to deliver information and extension support than face-to-face meetings.
In the past such an announcement would have resulted in howls of outrage from the farm community. This announcement might have furled a few eyebrows, but resulted in few outbursts.
What reaction there was focused on reminding the government there is still an important role for farmers to have access to independent extension support. Farmers do not want to be totally reliant on the sales agronomists working for fertilizer and crop protection companies, a role some have described as an oxymoron.
That’s not entirely fair. Many of these companies are investing heavily in applied research programs to help farmers get the best possible results from the products they sell and to promote practices to protect the environment and avoid pest resistance.
However, it’s a little like shopping for cars. The auto dealers will do a great job of advising you which of their vehicles can best meet your needs, but they are unlikely to recommend that you simply take the bus.
The type of research that looks at all the tools and practices available to help farmers increase yields and keep costs in check while being good environmental stewards tends to come from academic, public and farmer-driven research programs. That said, the private sector companies are often invested in these programs as well.
Commodity organizations representing specific crops are now funded by farmer checkoffs and a large component of their spending is on research.
The Canola Council of Canada is one of the first examples of how farmers, industry and government have coalesced around a common goal of building a value chain that supports that commodity’s growth.
In the early days, the council was largely focused on promotion and research into new genetics. But it realized that genetics were only part of the equation that would help farmers get better yields; if farmers couldn’t get profitable yields, they wouldn’t grow the crop.
Agronomy was also key. An industry survey about 20 years ago identified that while some farmers were consistently getting profitable yields, others were struggling. In other words, they all had access to the same genetics and crop protection products, so there were differences in how farmers were managing the crop.
That’s when the council dived heavily into providing extension support to growers.
As a result, average yields have climbed. Bushels per acre went from mid-20s to the mid-30s a decade ago, to the low 40s today. The industry is targeting 52 bushels per acre by 2025.
Canola Council of Canada president Jim Everson said in a late-2020 address that it believes there is at least another three bushels per acre to be found by focusing on better fertilizer management. More efficient fertility management has the spinoff effect of reducing the industry’s environmental footprint.
Manitoba government officials are adamant that the changes announced this week are not a withdrawal of services, as has been the case in provinces farther west. Rather, these changes represent a modernization in how services are delivered. It also says they are accompanied by investment in technology to make that happen.
The one wild card in the equation is rural broadband connectivity, or lack thereof. As any of us living in rural communities already knows, sometimes it’s almost as efficient to drive to town as it is to wait out the excruciatingly slow download and upload times. However, maybe the government’s greater reliance on online platforms will add impetus to improving that scenario.
Suffice to say the research and extension landscape for agriculture has changed dramatically. Governments can’t afford to offer redundant services. They need to identify where the gaps exist and how best to fill them.