Right in the centre - Manitoba Agriculture a shadow of what it once was


By Ken Waddell

Neepawa Banner & Press

When word came down last week that the Province of Manitoba was closing 20 Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation (MASC) offices across the province, it came as a bit of a jolt. MASC offices were formed a number of years ago, when Manitoba Agricultural Credit Corporation and Manitoba Crop Insurance were combined. This latest move from Manitoba Agriculture is part of a 25 year shrinking of Ag services by the province.

I guess we will see if anyone agrees, but it is my experienced opinion that Manitoba has a definite problem with its ever shrinking Ag department. Agriculture, along with all the related businesses and food production, processing and export is a huge part of the Manitoba economy. The province, through several different governments and two different political parties, has basically killed off the once strong Manitoba Agriculture department. About $370 million, or two per cent of the Manitoba government budget, is spent on Agriculture. That seems out of proportion with how important agriculture is to Manitoba.

Let me give a bit of history. Back in the 1950s, the Manitoba Department of Agriculture had about 40 offices across Manitoba. Commonly known as the Ag office or Ag-rep office, they were considered an important part of a district or region. There were offices in places like Carman, Portage, Neepawa, Ste. Rose, Shoal Lake and many other locations. Most were staffed by an Ag-rep, a person who had a degree in Agriculture or possibly a Masters degree. In some places, like Neepawa, there was an Assistant Ag-rep and there was always a secretary. There was also a Home Economist, who might be headquartered in one town, but would serve two or three Ag-rep districts. The situation remained pretty much unchanged into the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1971, as a recent graduate with a U of M Ag degree, I came to Neepawa to work as an Assistant Ag-rep under the guidance of Allan Nebbs. Two years later, I was transferred to Gladstone to start up a new office.

Ag offices were responsible for many things, not the least of which was the administration, teaching and guidance of the 4-H program. Most towns, and even many country school districts, had one or more 4-H clubs. Ag offices were responsible to administer all MDA programs and many others, as well. They set up farm accounting, farm management courses and welding courses. They provided advice and written material on every aspect of farming, including crop production, livestock and pasture management, along with farm machinery and engineering advice. If the government had a rural based program, the Ag office administered it. You could order grass seed and shelter belt trees. In short, the Ag office was a rural hub of activity and information. Those functions have been mostly killed off. Much of the “advice” section has been taken over by the agronomy industry and that has been a good thing for the most part. However, there is one major problem with the agronomy based model and that is every last person in the industry has a product to sell. That can be problematic. The Ag-rep gave out advice knowing full well that the advice handed out was not attached to sales in any way.

Over the years, Ag-reps have been phased out, so were Home Economists, assistant Ag-reps and secretaries. Some would rightly claim that the loss of the secretary was the biggest loss. An Ag office that had a good secretary was a wonderful thing, as they were a huge help and source of encouragement.

From a newspaper point of view, Ag-reps and Home-Ecs actually wrote columns that had good information in them. If a newspaper, radio or TV station wanted information, all they had to do was call the Ag office and get an interview. Oh no, not now. If you want to talk to any government agency now, you have to get an interview arranged by a central person in provincial communications.

The point is that governments have slowly choked off a part of agriculture and its potential for growth by abandoning rural people, farmers and, perhaps worst of all, rural youth. 

Some would argue that, oh well, we have the internet and we can find all that stuff out online. Yeah, well how’s that working out for us all now? Would it not be better to have trusted local, unbiased information to assist the growth of our most important industry, agriculture? I think so, but as has become the pattern of governments, nobody is listening.