EDMONTON JOURNAL — Fifty provincial government agriculture and forestry workers have been terminated with severance pay or given layoff notices as the ministry pares back spending.

Although a spokeswoman wouldn’t say what areas the employees worked in, a retired government senior agronomy research scientist said several of his former colleagues in agricultural research have lost their jobs.

Ross McKenzie, who retired six years ago from the ministry, said he worries that as government research into soil and irrigation declines, Alberta farmers will have less access to information that helps them optimize their operations.

Private organizations are less inclined to hire Ph.D. scientists, publish research in peer-reviewed journals and may charge fees for access to the information, he said.

“I would much prefer to see the things the way they are now,” McKenzie said on Friday. According to a report in the Edmonton Journal, the United Conservative Party’s October budget includes a 9.1 percent cut to the agriculture and forestry ministry’s budget this year, with a total 15 percent reduction planned by 2022-23. Of the $145 million in expenses to be eliminated, $34.1 million will come from “transitioning to a framework of producer and industry-led research,” the 2019-20 budget document said.

It’s part of a 2.8 percent reduction to overall government spending to balance the books by 2022-23. The government has said it will cut the public service by 7.7 percent during the next four years.

The budget also says the department will work with farmers, producers, and industry to determine their research priorities and develop programs to support them.

The shift is to make sure “agricultural research is led by farmers, not the government,” said Adrienne South, press secretary to Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen, in a Friday email.

She said the UCP government was elected to clean up the “financial mess” left by the previous NDP government.

“Alberta has a spending problem, and tough decisions need to be made to chart a path back to balance and ensure we can provide high-quality services in the future,” she said.

The 50 jobs affected are in management and non-unionized positions, she said. They’re also reviewing every ministry program to look for efficiencies.

McKenzie said some of his former colleagues found out Monday and Tuesday they were losing their jobs.

He worries Alberta will lose access to agriculture researchers with specialized and local knowledge. One of the affected employees is the only water management specialist who advised farmers on irrigation techniques, he said.

Another jobless former colleague is an irrigation engineer, who developed a computer model to help predict different crops’ water requirements during different stages of growth, McKenzie said. Farmers growing high-value specialty crops like sugar beets, potatoes, and soya beans use the tool for precise irrigation management, he said.

It’s not the kind of thing an industry group would develop, he said, and with nobody updating the model, it will become obsolete.

“A lot of the leading-edge farmers will use them, but then, their neighbour will look over the fence and watch what they’re doing, so it has a spin-off benefit as well,” McKenzie said.

The long-term benefits to farmers substantially outweighed the upfront research costs, he said.

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