Ag minister digs his new job

Alberta’s new agriculture minister is from close to proximity to the Stettler region, with his roots planted in Camrose.

  • May. 23, 2012 2:00 p.m.

Alberta’s new agriculture minister is from close to proximity to the Stettler region, with his roots planted in Camrose.

Two weeks ago, Premier Alison Redford appointed Wetaskiwin-Camrose MLA Verlyn Olson to the portfolio in the Progressive Conservative’s majority government.

The appointment created a bit of a buzz in the agricultural community, considering Olson doesn’t have a direct agricultural background.

Stettler area farmers echoed those reservations.

“My initial concern is, will he (Olson) really understand the industry, because nothing is simple anymore,” said Halkirk area grain farmer and former Paintearth County councillor Jan Koenraadt.

“Typically, agriculture ministers have been appointed from within the field,” said Dave Longshore, who runs a purebred cattle operation near Byemoor.

“Thoughts and judgments usually come easier from being in the industry. This is not to say he can’t be effective in the position. Time will tell.”

Olson readily admits he doesn’t come from a farming background.

“I have never been a farmer, and don’t pretend to be,” he said in an interview with the Independent last week.

Olson himself didn’t expect to be named Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“I knew there would be changes, because one minister retired and four didn’t get re-elected,” Olson said. “I did not know if I would get a cabinet position or not, but if I did, agriculture was not the first to come to mind. I was delighted to be considered, though.”

First elected as an MLA in 2008, Olson served as justice minister since February 2011, taking over from Redford, who stepped down to run for the leadership of the PC party.

Olson’s background is in law. He has been a lawyer in Camrose for more than 30 years. His firm also had satellite offices in the smaller communities to the east of Camrose, where “many of my clients were farmers,” he said.

Olson has strong rural roots, which is expected to be an asset in his new job. He and wife Mardell live on a farm north of Camrose, near Armena, where they raised three children.

His father and grandfather before him both farmed that land. Olson’s father, however, died young while Olson was still a child and his mother rented the land out. Those circumstances prevented Olson from having the opportunity to actually farm himself.

When asked what strengths he brings to the portfolio, Olson said, “I like to think I have common sense; I am a good listener — I soak up information like a sponge. I have a curiosity to learn, am patient, enjoy people and see huge potential in agriculture in this province.”

Economically, agriculture is the second-most important industry in Alberta and No. 1 when it comes to being renewable.

“In the not-too-distant future, there will only be a handful of countries in the world that will be in the position to export food,” he said. “Canada will be one of those countries and Alberta will be a major player.”

In a trend not unique to Alberta, the average age of farmers is increasing and fewer young people are entering the industry, which could jeopardize the future of farming.

Olson was asked how the government plans to address that problem.

“An initiative has been started by former Agriculture Minister Evan Berger, called the Next Generation Advisory Council, which will seek input from younger people in the industry to better understand their challenges,” he said.

Olson doesn’t want the rural development portion of his portfolio overlooked. He said problems — and solutions — spill over from one ministry to the next.

For example, dwindling farm population causes lower enrolments in rural schools, causing small rural schools to face closure.

“Not one department can solve these problems,” Olson said. “The challenges must be met government-wide. It is important for the ministries to collaborate.”

From his experience in the justice ministry, Olson knows there are good models for cross-ministry cooperation.

Only days into his new job, Olson has already begun to hear from the more than 600 key stakeholder groups involved in agriculture in the province.

“I welcome their input and am willing to listen,” he said. “It is a No. 1 priority to engage with the shareholder briefings.”

Olson identified other key goals as improving marketing of Alberta products, diversification and transportation. He also hopes to get out of his office in Edmonton and hit the road as much as possible to meet with people involved in agriculture.

Those who know Olson well say he’s a smart man who would be a competent leader in any ministry.

LES STULBERG, Independent reporter