Senior agriculture leader set to retire after serving province well for years

After guiding Alberta Agriculture through some turbulent times, Deputy Minister John Knapp has announced that he will be retiring

After guiding Alberta Agriculture through some turbulent times, Deputy Minister John Knapp has announced that he will be retiring this July.

Firstly, some transparency, I have known John for more than 25 years and consider him a personal friend. He started out as a DA in southern Alberta and then became provincial sheep specialist for a number of years. He then began his long climb up the departmental ladder to regional director, to ADM and finally to the deputy minister throne.

He spent some time in other government departments, but Alberta Agriculture was always his real home. During his long career, he witnessed the incredible rollercoaster the department has gone through.

He was there in the glory years when there was a DA in every town, multiple specialists for every commodity, market analysts and policy planners for every product and concept. But he was also there in the bad days when the department was cut back to a ghost of its former self. I expect he had to handle the ax a few times himself.

Like most deputies, he had his own ideas as to how to structure the department and changed it to reflect his own perspective. That role is usually attempted by actual elected ministers, being they would like to leave their personal stamp on a department — sort of their legacy as a government politician.

A lot of senior civil servants cringe when a new minister arrives to lead their departments. It usually means endless reviews of new streamlining schemes a minister might have in mind. If those ideas upset the status quo, senior department bureaucrats will carry out delaying tactics that will eventually thwart the minister until he gives up or moves on to another fate.

I recall many years ago a freshly appointed ag minister wanted to disperse the department to a variety of small towns across the province in order to get ag officials closer to the people they serve in the countryside.

It became apparent that senior department bureaucrats had no intention of moving out of their comfy offices in Edmonton. Through various bureaucratic stalling maneuvers and foot-dragging, they wore out the minister’s enthusiasm and the idea was quickly derailed.

However, John Knapp has had an easier time in making his own changes to the department, thanks to a revolving door of bosses. It seemed that by the time he had trained a new ag minister, they were either shuffled out to other cabinet posts, were fired or lost their seats in elections.

I think he survived five different ministers as deputy. He was also the first deputy ag minister to ever employ a former boss. This happened when former Agriculture Minister Evan Berger lost his seat and was then appointed to a political government patronage job in southern Alberta as an advisor to Knapp.

That did raise more than a few chuckles within industry circles and the ag media.

But his tenure was not without some controversy. The biggest was the decision to terminate mandatory checkoffs for cattle, sheep, hogs and potatoes. It was an entirely political decision and the repercussions and turmoil to those industries are still being felt to this day.

What role Knapp played in that exercise will probably never be known, but it will be part of his legacy. He played a part in the creation of the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency, a government entity that was criticized by many at first (yes, I am guilty), but has evolved into a cutting edge and significant player in advancing research and marketing initiatives for livestock and meat products.

He did modify some of the more extreme aspects of departmental cutbacks by maintaining some regional offices and kept a hand in limited extension services. Agriculture is probably the most difficult department for any deputy to manage because of the diverse nature of the industry and its ability to make every issue political, with three sides to the story.

However, even with its constant evolving history, Alberta Agriculture is now a much streamlined and focused department, it has changed along with the industry in this province.

It reflects the consolidation that has occurred at the production and processing level.

Knapp has seen it all evolve over the years and played a significant part in that evolution — it’s a job he did well — thanks, John.

— Ahead of the Heard

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