Entitlement attitude fades among farmers

Farmers in Western Canada have largely lost their sense of entitlement.

It didn’t happen all at once and it isn’t entirely gone, but a far different attitude prevails than five, 10 or 20 years ago.

There used to be an attitude that farmers were somehow owed a living: government should always be there to take care of them and farmers should have special protection and provisions not afforded other businesses.

In 1992, an NDP government in Saskatchewan dramatically altered the Gross Revenue Insurance Program that many producers felt they had been contractually promised. A Liberal government in the mid-1990s removed the Crow Benefit grain transportation subsidy, a long-standing entitlement.

In 2012, a Conservative government finally succeeded in its long-standing promise to end the CWB’s monopoly.

Along the way, whenever times were tough, there was an ongoing debate over cash injections, ad hoc payments and farm safety nets. The last incarnation of farm income stabilization is AgriStability.

Last summer, federal and provincial agriculture ministers cut the triggering mechanism so deeply that AgriStability is likely to fade away entirely. There was scarcely more than a whimper from farm groups.

Contrast that with the major farm rallies of the previous 20 years, in which farmers demanded billions of dollars to counteract dismal returns from the marketplace.

Governments continue to support agriculture in many ways and they’ve stepped up to help with recent weather-related disasters. However, grain, hog and cattle farmers no longer act as if they’re owed a living.

Crop insurance remains the primary safety net and no one is advocating cuts there. On the other hand, there’s little pressure on governments to otherwise insulate farmers from marketplace realities.

Of course, the supply managed industries of dairy and poultry are another story entirely, and entitlement remains part of the culture in much of Quebec’s agriculture industry. For most of western Canadian agriculture, however, there has been a major shift in attitude.

Outside of agriculture, there’s lots of entitlement in plain view.

It appears to remain deeply rooted within the First Nations leadership. Idle No More protests have ramped up across the country. The issues are complicated, but there’s a general sense from the protestors that government needs to solve all the problems, rather than First Nations people taking more responsibility for their own fate.

Entitlement is also a big factor in the other major story now in the news. The American fiscal dilemma could end up as the major news story of 2013.

Like many countries around the world, Americans don’t want to accept that they’ve been living be-yond their means.

Perhaps some farmers are buying beyond their means, paying high prices for land and acquiring lots of new iron. There could be a financial reckoning in a few years if interest rates rise and/or grain prices drop.

But that’s just the way of business. There won’t be much sympathy for farms that were too aggressive with their expansion plans. They won’t be entitled to a bailout or a debt restructuring plan.

Sure, as farmers we produce food for people in this country and in many other nations. Yes, it’s a noble profession. Yes, there’s a role for programs such as crop insurance and for government-funded research.

But there has been a dramatic change in the farmer sense of entitlement.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]