Farm program discussions expected to dominate ag ministers meeting

Producers seek changes to business risk management programs, unhappy with provisions in last version of GF2

Canada’s agriculture ministers are meeting in Calgary this week to begin negotiating the next Growing Forward agreement.

Particularly at issue during the annual federal-provincial gathering will be changes that producers want to business risk management programs for the five-year agreement, which will take effect April 1, 2018.

Many are unhappy with the changes made at the 2012 Whitehorse meeting for Growing Forward 2, even though commodity prices have been fairly strong since then, and want AgriStability and AgriInvest restored to their first iterations.

AgriStability triggers were changed from 85 percent of historic income to 70 percent, and AgriInvest government contributions were cut by a third.

The measures were expected to save governments about $2 billion in farm support over five years.

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart, who at his first meeting in Whitehorse said the deal appeared “cooked up” behind the province’s back, said producers have told him they want the programs restored.

“First of all, our goal is going to be to try to protect what we have and if possible enhance it,” he said.

“It’s an interesting time in the negotiation, where everybody holds their cards pretty close to their chest. We play that cat-and-mouse game of trying to find out what everybody else is going to be pushing for.”

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture released a policy document earlier this year that it hopes the ministers will follow. It includes restoration of the BRM programs, based on what its members have said.

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Final decisions won’t be made for some time, but ministers hope for a better process than 2012, when Saskatchewan complained it had been left out and Ontario complained that farmers hadn’t had enough say.

Stewart pointed out that there are 14 votes at the table, all equally weighted.

“We need partners. We need some friends around that table, which has been sadly lacking at times,” he said.

Stewart said he is also hearing about market access and development, trade policy, social licence and agricultural labour issues that farmers want ministers to address.

As well, the relatively new federal government has signalled that environmental and climate change policy is high on its priority list.

“We’ll have to see where the conversation goes,” said Stewart. “The feds sometimes set out specific criteria within which we can have discussions.”

Alberta minister Oneil Carlier, who attended his first meeting last year and is co-hosting with federal minister Lawrence MacAulay, said he is anxious to highlight Alberta’s industry.

The province exports 90 percent of its agricultural products, and he said he expects important conversations around trade policy, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the trade deal with Europe.

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Carlier said there will also be more discussion about how supply management can be maintained under new trade agreements.

“They have a valid argument,” he said of provinces that depend on supply managed sectors.

“It’s important that we listen to them.”

Ministers last year agreed to would work with industry to educate consumers about agriculture. Carlier said social licence is still a hot topic, and ministers are likely to be updated on efforts over the past year.

Provinces will hold bilateral meetings this week as well. Stewart said his western counterparts appear to be on the same page about the need for better grain transportation rules.

There will be differences on some issues, he added.

Manitoba minister Ralph Eichler will attend his first meeting since the April election of the Progressive Conservative government in that province.

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