Agency spends millions with little result

When the Alberta Livestock and Meat Strategy (ALMS) and its offspring the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) were sprung on the livestock industry over a year ago by the Minister of Agriculture, they were touted as the new way of doing things to salvage the cattle and hog business in Alberta.

When the Alberta Livestock and Meat Strategy (ALMS) and its offspring the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) were sprung on the livestock industry over a year ago by the Minister of Agriculture, they were touted as the new way of doing things to salvage the cattle and hog business in Alberta. Producers were bluntly told by the minister to get with the program or get out of the business. It’s rather deplorable that if there is any gauge of the success of ALMS, it is that statement, as producers are exiting the cattle and hog business in droves.

If profitability for producers were the evaluation benchmark for ALMS and ALMA, both efforts can be judged to be miserable failures for the cattle and hog sectors. Contrary to the minister’s wishful hopes about ALMA, it never was and never will be in a position to have any impact on the market price for beef or pork – that’s the function of the North American marketplace.

If ALMA were to be evaluated on bringing change and forging new marketing initiatives for the livestock and meat industry, then, here, too, the score is very low. ALMA claims that it is not their function to initiate any programs, they state that ALMA is there to facilitate, encourage and finance efforts that will bring change to the industry. That presumes that noble concept is somehow brand new to agriculture in this province. It seems to ignore that Alberta Agriculture over the past 30 years has spent hundreds of millions of dollars facilitating, encouraging and financing efforts to improve and expand agricultural production and processing.

Those of us who have watched ALMA unfold and remember past government efforts are mystified as to what is so bold and different about what ALMA is doing. There is no difference – that’s the point – the same grants continue to flow to the same multitude of research, marketing and promotion projects – just as they always did.

But one thing has changed and that is the bureaucratic game of shuffle that has gone on between Alberta Agriculture and ALMA in its creation. Added to that is what seems to be the reckless spending of taxpayer money on administration, travel, consultant fees, IT, rent and on and on.

ALMA records show that in a 14-month period from June 1, 2008 till August 26, 2009 ALMA/Alta Ag. spent $4,545,363.00 to hand out $7,356,363.00. That has to be a new record for government inefficiency in handing out money. For the same time period ALMA directors’ expenses were a whopping $716,254.23 averaging $65,114.00 per director. At last count, ALMA had 30 full-time employees including five people solely devoted to communications (what do those folks do all day?).

ALMA apologists will cite one-time start up costs, research expenses, legal costs, relocation costs etc…. But wait a minute, Alberta Agriculture has been giving out millions in grants for years, much of it to the same groups and agencies that ALMA is now funding. Clearly there already was an infrastructure already in place to hand out that cash – did ALMA really need to reinvent the wheel.

It gets worse – was it really necessary for ALMA to relocate to a new off-site office building and pay high rents when there is enough space in the existing Ag building in Edmonton. ALMA is a government agency beholden to the Minister of Agriculture and exists at his whim – there is no point in pretending otherwise by moving it off the premises, that fools no one.

Does ALMA really need 30 full-time employees (most of them transferred from the Ag department) to do the same work that the department was doing before. Remember, ALMA claims that it is only facilitating and funding initiatives just like the department did before the changeover. I suspect there is more to this story and it may be the usual bureaucratic scheme where department employees are shuffled around to government agencies to make it look as if the department itself is downsizing.

As the ALMA machinations unfold, and with all due respect to the ALMA staff, who are doing the best they can, I would dare suggest that its role as the perceived saviour of the livestock industry will be shown to be an expensive sham. No matter all its future busyness and spending, I suspect that in the end, ALMA will conclude that try as they may, the livestock business remains subject to the whims of the marketplace and international trade politics.

The Alberta livestock industry will survive in spite of ALMA. We can only hope that those organizations that have worked so hard for so many years to develop and promote the livestock and meat industry will survive and be able to continue their good work.

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