Good times in agriculture make Ag Canada budget cutting easier to swallow

Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, celebrating five years in the portfolio later this summer, has become the purveyor of good news.

His department recently produced an overview document for the agri-food sector in 2012 that was largely a recitation of growth, income records and good prospects.

At a March 30 news conference about the previous day’s federal budget that ordered $310 million in Agriculture Canada spending cuts, Ritz had few details on how the cuts will play out, but he sure wanted to convey the health of the industry.

“In 2011, farmers earned more money from the global marketplace than ever before, over $44 billion in agriculture, food and seafood exports, up almost 13 percent from the previous year,” he said.

Growing world populations mean the boom in commodity prices and sales will continue, he predicted.

“Our value-added trade exceeded $22 billion, a new record, ensuring we’ll keep more jobs and growth right here at home.”

So the dark days of animal illness, BSE, closed markets and low profits or losses are in the rear-view mirror.

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“Today producers and processors will tell you that they are beginning to see stronger, more stable pricing, increased market access and opportunities for investment and a brighter future ahead.”

Whew. What a great time to be agriculture minister.

What a great time to have to sell budget-cutting that inevitably will affect services to farmers but that farmers might not really notice.

What an opportunity to be negotiating a five-year agriculture policy framework with the provinces at a time when farmers don’t really see much of a need for support programs.

What a perfect time to slip into the budget eight unexpected words about the next Growing Forward agreement scheduled to take effect April 1, 2013. It will include “a refocused suite of business risk management programs,” said the budget documents.

With Ritz’s comment about reforming them so they are there for the “long term,” more than a few farm sector observers saw it as code for a “refocus” that turns more onus for income or disaster protection over to farmers through insurance policies and less onto governments.

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Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales says he worries that in good times, farmers will be too busy celebrating their profits to notice a weakening of the farm safety net needed when the inevitable downturn comes.

“Right now, reports say the industry future looks bright, but we need to be prepared for when things happen because they happen in a hurry,” he said last week. “We will remind them (governments) that these programs are needed.”

Still, farmers often dream when markets or incomes turn north, the winds blowing them south won’t return soon. In the mid-1990s, the opposition often used black humour to explain the Liberal ability to get away with killing the Crow Benefit without a prairie uprising. Record high grain prices the year after the 1995 announcement helped divert farmer attention.

“This proves God is a Liberal,” more than one MP at the time said.

Is it possible that if governments use this boom time to reduce long-term benefits, opposition MPs someday will gripe: “This proves God has changed her colour to Tory blue?”

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