No one expects to get an early Saturday morning phone call from a member of the provincial cabinet, but Evan Berger, Alberta’s new agriculture minister called to do an interview before heading out to finish harvesting his canola.
In 1978 Berger left the family farm near Nanton to take welding engineering technology at SAIT. When the opportunity to purchase land came up the next spring, he became a working partner on the family farm, leaving only for off-farm employment in other agriculture-related ventures.
He married, started a family and got involved in community politics serving on the R.M. council for Willow Creek for 15 years; nine of those years as Reeve. During those years, it was a tossup whether Berger’s main passion was in farming or service work as he also split his time between the rec board, ag committee, the curling club etc.
Once Berger was elected MLA for Livingstone-Macleod in 2008, he downsized his custom farming, let go of the rented land and began selling calves at weaning instead of backgrounding them.
He and his family continue to grain farm and raise 130 Angus/cross cows.
“I have two children still in high school and they, and my wife Laurie, manage the day-to-day operation,” says Berger. “As the newly appointed minister of agriculture, I feel it is important to get a regular weekend reality check. Fixing a piece of equipment or trying to move a stubborn cow keeps me grounded. Add to that, the bookwork required to audit the operation gives me a strong understanding of what my colleagues in this industry go through on a daily basis.”
As a new MLA, Berger got his feet wet the past three years while serving as parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development, member of the Treasury Board and the Cabinet Policy Committee on Energy, the Standing Committee on Resources and Environment and the Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, standing Orders and Printing.
A pretty big mouthful for sure but the experience will no doubt help the minister in his new post.
“There were crossover committees especially in the sustainable resources area,” says Minister Berger.
“I have a good understanding of public lands, forestry and oil sands. We have such a diverse province with lumber in the Pincher Creek and south areas, irrigation farming and ranching and of course the oil and gas industries. It’s a big basket of commodities from blueberries to beef.
“While the list of our natural resources is substantial, agriculture will be a big part of our future. It is our largest renewable resource with forestry coming in second.”
The first order of business for Minister Berger is to sit down with the wide array of agriculture industry groups and he seems like a man in a hurry.
Berger is adamant the province must seize the ripe opportunities out there and will have little patience with inward shooting.
He says: “We will soon be one of only six countries in the world that feed more than themselves. That’s a tall order and not only does every sector in this province need to work cooperatively, the three western agriculture ministers must find common ground in order to move forward.”
Berger understands that what happens in one province impacts the provinces that share the same borders.
“I plan to focus on the New West partnership that was formed in 2010, between the three western provinces. It is an ambitious agreement that will create Canada’s largest interprovincial barrier-free trade and investment market. It will allow the West to market itself as one region in order to boost export development and attract international investment.”
While Berger is opening up his schedule to meet with the two other western ag ministers, he plans to continue on with the Beef Industry Advisory Council discussions instituted by his predecessor.
“I understand the mountains of paperwork that go along with farming today,” says Berger.
“I plan to discuss in detail the areas that create the most problems for producers. I don’t have a silver bullet but once we isolate the problem areas that eat up time and money, we can then work on specifics with such groups as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.”
Berger chuckles when he hears persons say that they are far removed from agriculture especially in urban centres.
He says, “If you eat – then you’re part of agriculture. I’m both humbled and honoured by this appointment. This is one heck of an off-farm job and I try to emulate Henry Ford. He was successful because he didn’t try to know everything. He drew from others that had specialized knowledge. My job is to listen carefully.”
Minister Berger and his wife, Laurie, live and farm near Nanton with their three children, Talia, Brita and Joel.