While talking about his Saskatchewan Plan for Growth vision statement last week, Premier Brad Wall offered a reminder that we in this province best not forget:
Agriculture cannot be forgotten.
Oil has redefined the province’s economy in the past decade and now accounts for $10 billion in annual economic activity in. Similarly, booming potash now accounts for $6.2 billion, annually.
However, Wall emphasizes that agriculture in Saskatchewan accounts for a remarkable $8.4 billion in economic activity — sandwiched between the two non-renewable resources.
Yet our infatuation with oil and potash in recent has left agriculture as become the forgotten middle child.
And Wall thinks that everyone — including himself — has been a little guilty of this neglect.
But one of the neat things about Wall’s 66-page economic paper released last week is how much space was dedicated to rectifying this by re-establishing agriculture as one of the drivers of the Saskatchewan economy.
The paper call for some improvements in agricultural training — perhaps, the return of agriculture technical vocation training — to appropriate acknowledge the specialist nature of farming. In doing so, Wall is attempting to better establish agriculture as a true profession for not only just the producer, but also for hired farm operators who are not recognized in the way other heavy equipment operators are recognized.
The paper is also chockfull of commitments to increased dollars on crop research and bio-tech, increased livestock production, the previously announced establishment of a Global Food Institution at the University of Saskatchewan, value-added processing and improved agriculture programs that are less ad hoc. (Wall proudly announced a 77-per-cent take-up of this year’s crop insurance program.)
But perhaps the most intriguing and boldest initiative in the entire paper is the goal of increasing agriculture production.
The paper calls for a crop production increase of 10 million tonnes by 2020 and increase in agriculture and food exports to $15 billion by 2020.
Obviously, these goals are both lofty and risky. Anyone with a passing familiarity with commodity price fluctuation or agriculture’s dependency on unpredictable weather may wonder if they are all that wise.
But some interesting numbers suggest these goals could be realistic.
Take the most recent six-year period of 2006 to 2011 and consider how much higher yields compared with the previous six years of 2000 to 2005: Canola, 32 per cent; Peas, 12 per cent; Oats, 27 per cent; Barley, 15 per cent, and; wheat, 20 per cent.
Again, crop production can vary wildly year to year — depending on multiple-year weather patterns and how much farmers grow and fertilizer that can often depend on the prices.
However, if one looks at the crop yield numbers from 1992 to 2011 — a healthy 20-year span affording us more of a longer term view — one sees an average crop production increase of 2.5 per cent, annually.
To meet Wall’s target, farmers will actually have increase production by 3.7 per cent a year — a figure about the average annual production increase for every crop in the past five years accept oats and canola.
It’s also worth noting, however, that Wall’s Sask. Party government announced in the March budget a$10 million for additional wheat research — part of a record $20.4 million for crop research. The government has doubled the commitment to research since 2007 and Wall feels this investment will pay dividends in higher yielding crops.
Finally, let us keep in perspective that these are just goals. The consequences of not meeting them are hardly dire. Nevertheless, in an economic paper mostly criticized for not have bold enough goals, Wall certainly has some rather bold ones for agriculture.
And after years of government neglect when it comes to the importance of agriculture, it’s nice to see agriculture retake its rightful place in Saskatchewan.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 15 years.