Bean growers head laments drop in research funding

Farmer groups say there is more competition for dwindling funds given for shorter durations

Days before a new intake of applications for funding under the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), the executive director of Ontario Bean Growers (OBG) has expressed frustration with what he described as a decade-long regression in government support for agricultural research in Canada. Ryan Koeslag made the comments days before a new intake of applications for funding under the federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP).

“We’ve had to beg, borrow and plead,” Koeslag told Farmtario following his address to members during OBG’s annual general meeting, referring to efforts to have applications for research dollars approved under the CAP framework.

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Why it matters: Greater competition for limited research funds could reduce the availability of new varieties, new agronomic practices or other discoveries that can make farming more profitable.

A new intake for applications to the program opened March 4 and will run through April 5, with a review of the applications by the Agricultural Adaptation Council (AAC), the organization charged with administering this element of CAP in Ontario.

CAP replaced the old Growing Forward series of federal-provincial programs.

Koeslag said having research projects approved has been a struggle under CAP.

He told members that OBG has benefitted from being part of the Canada-wide Pulse Research Cluster.

As well, OBG was successful on its own during earlier CAP application intakes. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs specialist Meghan Moran is working on a CAP-funded exploration of yield response to variable rate seeding in edible beans. And University of Guelph’s Peter Sikkema gave a presentation at the meeting about the CAP-funded trials he has been leading aimed at identifying optimal weed control strategies in dry beans.

But Koeslag told members, “it has been a big fight over the past year to get funds allocated to those research programs.”

Allotments specifically for research were handed out very quickly and OBG responded by trying to have research projects approved under other category allocations, but wasn’t always successful.

In an interview with Farmtario, AAC communications manager Laura Fell said the program is mostly unchanged.

Crosby Devitt, vice-president for strategic development for Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO), said that he sympathizes with Koeslag’s frustrations. Devitt stressed the organization is grateful for the funding received through CAP for new research projects, and is also appreciative of the longstanding role played in Ontario by AAC in administering a succession of federal-provincial programs

“It has been a really effective way,” he said of AAC, to sort through and make decisions about project applications. “You kind of know where you stand,” he added, when dealing with the council.

But with CAP, Devitt said, “I think the trend is that (governments) are becoming more proscriptive and leaving less up to the producer organizations for how and what ideas to bring forward.

“As long as your priorities align (with those of the government), I guess that’s OK,” he said. “But I can see how it might get more difficult to get proposals through.”

Koeslag said part of the reason he made the comments in his OBG address is the strong commitment to research made by the organization over the years.

The priority attached by OBG members to research was evident when the floor was opened to questions following the presentation of the organization’s 2018 financial statements. Those statements revealed a drop in dollars devoted to research from $481,418 in 2017 to $356,490 in 2018. Koeslag responded by outlining the transition period between the final stages of Growing Forward 2 and the initial intake for CAP.

“We still put 52 per cent of our dollars towards research, which is certainly not what you’ll see with a lot of organizations.”

He suggested, though, that the erosion of agricultural research funding in Canada has been a much longer-term process than a simple one-year transition. He began his career in 2005 (with AAC) and remembers at that time a $35-million fund of federal-provincial money dedicated to research and development in agriculture. This was pre-allocated, and if an organization receiving funding wasn’t able to use the entire amount, it could carry over to the next year.

Now, he says, research projects must compete against various other areas of focus for a piece of a dwindling pie.

Koeslag added the burden of documentation and meeting timelines is heavier with CAP than with previous programs. It’s set up as a five-year program, but the projects are approved as three-year projects or two-year projects with very strict timelines and requirements for what happens during which time period.

Yet these timelines aren’t generally relevant to a bean breeding program, which could take 10 years to bring a product to the commercial market.

That’s a frustration shared by Devitt. “We’ve communicated that (frustration), and I think the right people know,” he said.

About the author

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Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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