Will wheat board politics hinder industry progress?

The CWB monopoly may be long gone, but the issue is still dividing farmers and impeding progress on a bunch of other issues.


The greatest evidence is the new Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission. Voter participation in last year’s mail-in ballot was meagre, but the farmers who did vote in the inaugural election chose a list of directors almost entirely composed of rabid monopoly supporters, disciples of the National Farmers Union.


Farmers, like the rest of the population, have viewpoints across the range of the political spectrum. This range of opinions is evident on the boards of many levy deducting organizations, but common sense prevails and the boards are productive.


In the current political environment, government-funded variety development is being curtailed and even eliminated, plant breeders’ rights are being strengthened and the private sector is gearing up to take the lead. These are not happy times for the left wing crowd.


The Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission is supposed to spend levy dollars on wise research and market development projects. It is not supposed to seek ways to thwart government direction or turn back the clock in an effort to recreate some sort of CWB monopoly.


The commission was all but invisible at last week’s Canadian Global Crops Symposium and industry-government Grains Roundtable in Winnipeg, save for private conversations where the other participants would gather and shake their heads.


The symposium was organized by the Canada Grains Council, which includes farm organizations, grain companies, crop input manufacturers and the railways. A large contingent of farmers was in attendance, representing groups from Alberta to Atlantic Canada. A few farmers even paid to attend and represent their own businesses.


Perhaps the gathering was too pro-business or too insensitive to the loss of the monopoly for the wheat commission to send representatives. At the very least, the commission should have had a seat at the Grains Roundtable later in the week, which dealt with a range of topics including UPOV 91 and research funding.


The Alberta Wheat Commission was well represented with both farmer directors and staff in attendance.


In Manitoba, wheat and barley are being organized into one commission, and prominent producers are serving on an interim board. Those producers could be readily identified at last week’s Winnipeg events.


To be fair, the Saskatchewan commission probably has other things to worry about, not the least of which is choosing a new general manager. 


The government-appointed, pro-business, interim board had hired Tom Steve, who was a good fit with the interim board but not with the pro-monopoly crowd that farmers elected. His recently announced departure isn’t a big surprise.


Steve has been serving both the wheat commission and the new Sask-atchewan Barley Development Commission. Barley and wheat have now decided to go their separate ways. Barley is looking for its own executive director and will operate from a different office.


Unlike wheat, the barley commission has farmer directors with a range of philosophies, which is a healthy mix for decision making. It appears they no longer want to be so closely tied to their wheat comrades. 


Maybe the worry is for naught and the wheat commission will end up making balanced funding decisions and stay largely out of the politics. I hope so, but the track record to date doesn’t look promising.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

  • Roy Bailey

    Kevin Hursh is right on (again) with his comments. This group of indivduals view optional marketing as something that should be taken away from the Saskatchewan farmers. Their left wing, anti progress thinking, will lead to the provincial government stepping and desolving this board as they are determined to take advantage if their elected position to try to take us backwards. Luckily farmers can still express thier opinion on the direction of the Sask. Wheat Development Commision and request their check off dollars back. I did this immediately when I saw the make up of the board. I would just like to add, the new CWB is much improved and more in tune with their farmer customers than the old Canadian Wheat Board, seems competition is a good thing!

  • Edward

    Who is cutting the cheque for the $5-$8 billion in annual losses and the 8-10 fold spin off and spin up for rural communities up to the large cities in Western Canada. That is $40-$80 billion dollars if you are not too good with math. Talk is cheap, time to cough up the cash guys. Show us what you are really made of. The vast majority of farmers are waiting. Call a vote on the matter to be sure though. The reasons for working together are becoming clearer. There are still those that believe if the price of grain at the farm gate dropped to zero no matter how high the port price is that things would be even better. Not many mind you, but they are out there.