WINNIPEG — Few would expect Paul Earl to call for farmers to have more control in today’s deregulated grain industry.
Nor would many expect him to argue that the grain industry is at risk of “imbalance” because of a lack of farmer influence.
Few farmers might expect John DePape to call for new government regulations to protect small grain companies and directly fund grain industry data collection.
But that’s what these right-of-centre thinkers argued during the recent Fields on Wheels conference, pointing out gaps they see in the new open market for grain in Western Canada.
“Farmers need a voice,” said Earl, acting director of the University of Manitoba’s Transport Institute and former chief researcher for the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association.
“They have to think whether what they have lost in terms of farmer control is something they need to find a new way to implement. Will they find themselves disadvantaged by imbalances in the marketplace and will they have to recreate some sort of farmer control they have lost?”
DePape echoed Earl’s concern about imbalances of economic power but focused on the likely plight of small grain firms and merchants in the post-monopoly environment.
“Some of these smaller companies are going to have trouble competing with the bigger companies,” said DePape, a grain industry risk management analyst and author of the anti-monopoly blog CWB Monitor.
“Many small companies relied upon the wheat board for finance and for expertise,” he said.
DePape said the federal government should consider regulations that will help smaller grain companies compete with the giant firms that now dominate the Canadian grain trade.
“It behooves us to give them a fighting chance,” he said.
“They built their businesses, their business models, around the old system, and we’ve changed that and there are some things I think the government could do.”
DePape wants the government to not only protect the Canadian Grain Commission’s present data gathering system but to expand the system by forcing grain companies to report export sales when they are made.
DePape said a competitive marketplace survives only if a structure exists that allows competitors to operate. For him this means regulatory support for small grain companies and statistics-gathering support for the rest of the industry.
Earl said his call for more farmer control was not an argument to return to the CWB monopoly or the prairie grain pool elevator companies. He said he considers those failed approaches that hurt farmers more than helped them.
However, he thinks farmers need to have access to decision making within the grain industry, which ended with the demise of the CWB monopoly and the pools.
Earl acknowledged that developing a stronger voice within the industry will be difficult because farmers who pushed for the end of the CWB monopoly and other government interventions don’t want it now.
“Farmer control is such a bad odour. There are so many bad examples of how it should not be done in the last 50 years, that they do not even want to talk about it,” said Earl of pro-open market organizations such as the wheat growers association.