At this time of the year opinion writers like to reflect on past events and hopes for the future. For the agriculture industry 2016 started out with some hope on certain issues, in particular the farmworkers’ rights situation. Somewhat naively, ag producer organizations thought the protests and demonstrations that occurred in late 2015 would cause the NDP government to meet with them and negotiate a resolution. The industry for the first time in its history even created an all-encompassing group to act on their behalf – the AgCoalition, which represented 97 per cent of agricultural production in the province. But a vindictive NDP government would have none of it and imposed a consultative group dominated by union activists and friends of the government. That group will soon come back to haunt the industry as it will be making its final recommendations to the government very soon in the new year. It all could have been done so much better and more cooperatively.
The carbon tax will be in effect in 2017 – its impact will be widespread and will encompass virtually all input costs including property taxes; as well, it will be cumulative. Sure, the government has thrown out some crumbs with grants to improve energy efficiencies – these will help those able to take advantage of new technologies but will be of little use to most producers. The carbon tax puts industries like greenhouse production at a real disadvantage to their competitors in B.C. and the USA. The Ag Minister has promised that he will consider the impact of the carbon tax on specific ag sectors. One suspects that his enthusiasm for that intention will wane, as any exemption for agriculture would set a precedent for other sectors of the economy. Besides, this year will see many ag commodity groups releasing studies on the negative financial impact of the carbon tax on their specific commodities. It’s not information the NDP government will want to hear and will be ignored in favour of its own studies that will invariably show how the new carbon tax is needed to save the planet.
There is one ag development area in 2017 that the NDP government could show some real initiative and foresight in and that is in more irrigation development. The Ag Minister was present recently at an announcement of a new potato processing plant that would require production from 9,000 acres of irrigated land. Most of those acres are only available by reallocating their present use by other crops. There is an economic benefit to more potato production, but this development would mean that other irrigated crop production would be reduced, so the benefit is not quite what it seems. Had the Minister announced that the government would also approve the development of 9,000 acres of new irrigated land that would have been a real boost to crop production. Without that increase it’s just juggling acres between crops. The problem is that bringing new irrigated acres into commercial agriculture would not be approved by the NDP environmental ideologues in the Premier’s office. It’s a pity, as more irrigated acres lead to more diversification and high-value crop production.
Another positive ag development initiative would be for the NDP government to act decisively upon the implementation of an ecological goods and services (EGS) program. EGS has been studied and kicked around enough and it’s time for some action. Part of the problem for government is that it requires acceptance that much of agricultural production is a carbon sink and that many existing practices are actually good for the environment. That’s a concept that this urban-based government would find hard to grasp; hypocritically these same folks accept the science behind climate change but don’t want to accept the science behind ag carbon sinks.
There is a development in 2017 that although not agriculture-related will impact the rural community of Alberta. This development is the construction of more pipelines – not the Trans Mountain line expansion, that’s years away from being built, but the Line 3 expansion and the soon to be approved Keystone XL pipeline, both of which could be put into production relatively quickly. Why are they important to the rural community? The reality is that any expansion in the energy industry means more jobs and economic activity in rural Alberta as it’s those folks who build and service the industry. Many are also involved in agriculture or have children who need employment. 2017 could be an interesting year for agriculture issues and initiatives … but then.