Farmers fear flawed support program better than no program at all

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In 1970, Saskatchewan raised singer-song writer Joni Mitchell caught perfectly one of the great human inconsistencies: trashing conditions we face until someone tries to take them away.


It was in her song Big Yellow Taxi, a lament by a woman whose man has just been taken away by the Toronto police in a “big yellow taxi,” the street description of a police car in the city at the time.


“Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” she sang.


And so it is right now in the agriculture industry.


News that federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz is pushing provincial ministers to agree next month to a sharp reduction in benefits under AgriStability has unleashed a flurry of farmer pushback.


Part of it is farm leader frustration over the lack of farmer input into the negotiations.


But a large part of the argument also is the proposition that AgriStability is the mainstay of government support against unpredictable farm income fluctuation and must be preserved.


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When he met with CFA directors in July to answer questions about the Growing Forward 2 federal-provincial negotiations, assistant deputy agriculture minister Greg Meredith wryly noted CFA has never been happy with and vocally critical about the program’s design and effectiveness.


It’s true. AgriStability and the predecessor Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization program have been among the most reviled of farm programs in the past generation.


It was unpredictable. It was bureaucratically cumbersome. It was not bankable.


And since it is based on historic income margins, a prolonged industry decline essentially gutted the program because historic margins against which payments are triggered fell to irrelevantly low levels. 


The grain sector over years of low prices and then the cattle industry after 2003 and BSE are proof positive of the program’s inadequacies.


CAIS, introduced by the Liberal government in 2003, was derided by farm leaders and opposition politicians alike as not farmer friendly, although it churned out billions of dollars in payments over five years.


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The Conservatives promised better and introduced AgriStability with many of the same rules and flaws: CAIS with lipstick.


So now a government is saying: “OK, you don’t like it, you’ve told us that for years, so here is a chance to reduce dependence on a flawed program and to use tools better suited to your needs.”


And the farm lobby has discovered the benefits of AgriStability. It is a mainstay and all they wanted was for government to make it better, not gut it.


As is his style, Ritz will likely hold his ground if provincial ministers don’t become nervous Nellies before the ministers’ meeting in Whitehorse next week.


According to Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales, when Ontario farmers used a recent meeting with the minister to propose a strengthening of AgriStability, the minister dismissed the idea as “comic relief” in the broader discussion of the next generation of programs.


Farmers are caught defending a program they have been criticizing for a decade.


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Perhaps Mitchell should have written a sequel: “Be careful of your critical words, lest they come back to haunt you.”