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New irrigation director in Outlook looking at future potential

Brown knew Outlook area was where she wanted to be
Jillian Brown SIPA
SIPA executive director Jillian Brown has been kept busy since starting her new position in Outlook.

OUTLOOK - Jillian Brown may have just started her role as an executive director for SIPA recently, but even in the wintertime, it's one of those 'hit the ground running' sort of situations.

Working with the Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association out of her Outlook office, Brown says it's an exciting time to be involved in the irrigation field, particularly in the local area as it seems that Outlook is on the cusp of showing just why it's called the irrigation capital of the province.

Having been in Saskatoon most of her adult life, with an acreage in the Hepburn area and currently working on moving to town, Jillian's extensive education may show just why SIPA wanted her to serve in her role.  Brown has an undergraduate's degree in agribusiness from the University of Saskatchewan, a master's degree in agricultural economics with a focus on irrigation economics, and a graduate certificate in economic analysis and public policy.

Speaking with The Outlook at her office, Jillian says she knew what path she wanted to explore while in the midst of her studies, and that path included Outlook.

"When I was going to do my Master's degree, I wanted to study agricultural development, and the project that came onto my advisor's desk was looking at how irrigation impacts Saskatchewan," she said.  "Just kind of the stuff that's been happening on a year to year basis around Saskatchewan.  So, he proposed that that might be a good fit.  Part of that included interviewing farmers in the Outlook area and other areas around there and looking at how they would spend their additional money that they earned from their increased production from irrigation, and it kind of snowballed from there."

Brown says the community seems to be on the cusp of something great, which was a big selling point for her.

"Obviously, the work is here and it's where irrigation stems, but just as a place to move my family, it's pretty exciting as there's a lot of talk about growth within the community itself," she said.  "It sounds like the town council is really excited to get a lot of new initiatives started.  There's also a lot of new experience in agricultural development in this community, as well.  That was a big draw for me."

At the moment, Jillian says SIPA is working on a few existing projects, and spoke of her role in helping producers navigate their way through paperwork and other tasks in order to move on to benefiting from irrigation.

"With respect to SIPA, currently, the government has announced its intentions to pursue three big projects," she said.  "The first would be some redevelopment of existing works that have happened and extending them to what's called the Westside Irrigation Project, which is further north, and then there's another Qu'Appelle South Project, so it's these major projects that the government has in its sights.  So, the idea is that they could add 350,000 additional irrigated acres at the minimum, so it's a big project.  What we are hoping to do is not only support that as best we can, plus we have a few other projects that we're working on with our existing membership.  My role, a lot of it will be reaching out to our members and determining how best to serve them.  It's very complex trying to get irrigation done as farmers, as you've got to manage policy, manage regulations, manage funding and development, and so it's about how best can we come in and help them to move on to the irrigation process."

One may think that such an organization doesn't find itself all that busy in the middle of winter, but Brown says there's plenty keeping her working.

"Very busy at the moment, actually!" she said.  "For example, there's a lot of groundwork that needs to be done right now.  We just did some strategic planning, SIPA itself, and I'm actually the first full-time employee they've had.  We went from a volunteer board of producers who have a lot of other things on the go, and this is an opportunity to take a full-time position and really expand it.  We also have communications planning, membership development planning, and government relations and engagements planning, and how it'll all break out over the next year.  Honestly, now is the time when we're at our busiest because our farmers aren't in the field.  They have a chance to talk and discuss, and come up and give their input on things."

Wanting to know more about the potential of irrigation in the province and explore how it was developing, Brown did her master's thesis on Irrigation Saskatchewan over a five-year period, investigating data to see how it may have impacted local economy numbers.

"It was between 2011 and 2016, where there was infill development that happened, which basically means more farmers irrigating out of existing infrastructure," she explained.  "That might mean adding additional pipe, adding pivots, just a little bit of extra to get them tapped into the lines that are already there.  What we did was we went to Statistics Canada and looked at data they collect on how businesses buy and sell between each other.  We said, 'OK, we have this new development, we have new investment in water infrastructure'.  Plus, we have added production that's coming from this.  So we know that money is coming into the economy, what does that mean once that money recirculates?  People buy, people sell, if it brings new employment, those kind of factors.  We estimated a model and created a model using this data, and you say, 'Well, what if X amount of dollars was now developed in production?' and you get what are called multipliers.  So, we know that for every one dollar in the irrigation investment of infill type, you get this amount of money that comes out of the economy."

It goes without saying by now, but many eyes and ears are locked on to the massive irrigation announcement that was made by the provincial government in July 2020, in which up to 500,000 acres of land will be irrigated from Lake Diefenbaker and more than double the irrigable land in the province, a project that carries a price tag of approximately $4 billion.  Brown says the project offers loads of potential, but says there could also be a possible opportunity to change methods in relation to product processing that would mean for a 100% in-province system.

"The plans they commented on were originally designed back when Lake Diefenbaker was conceptualized in the 1960's, so this is a project that has been long overdue," she said.  "It offers incredible potential for farmers, but moreso, for the province of Saskatchewan to go from a real focus on primary production to processing, so how does that work?  Well, if we can guarantee that we can produce this amount of vegetables, this amount of crops, which you can guarantee once you have water, then suddenly it's not so risky and all over the place.  Businesses go, 'Wait a second, if we put a plant here, then we know we can get this many potatoes every year', so it starts to draw in processing.  Right now in Saskatchewan, we send our products out essentially off the field.  We send it out, it's processed elsewhere, and we buy it back for a higher price.  And when you send it out, you no longer have any influence on government policy in other jurisdictions or environmental considerations; we have no say in any of that.  If we can do that in-house, we can start to really impact how environmentally-friendly our processing is, food security in Saskatchewan, and these are things we can start bringing back and developing our own.  Transformational, as they say."

Jillian says the town of Outlook has an opportunity to serve as a central hub of activity and product demand when it comes to such a major irrigation project.

"I think Outlook is a prime example of how development in agricultural infrastructure can change a community," she said.  "You think about how many businesses are related to irrigation and how many jobs.  Begin multiplying that.  Also, Outlook has this wealth of knowledge on irrigation, so suddenly development for irrigation is going to be expanding all over Saskatchewan and we have a special skill set in repairs, equipment, managing funding for it, etc."

As for the role that SIPA may play during the span of this project, Jillian says they plan to be there for producers in any way possible, giving their input and advice and working to make sure that prosperity is on the table for all involved.

"The way we intend to position ourselves is that when a producer is new to irrigation, he comes in and says, 'Well, I hear about all this new infrastructure happening, how can I get involved?'," she said.  "As I mentioned before, there are a lot of hoops to jump through, so we want to work with producers as sort of a concierge to work their way throughout.  We hope to position ourselves as a primary role for both the producer and government input."