Will there be another key moment in farm supports at Whitehorse meeting?

There’s something about Whitehorse.

In the annual rotating road show of federal-provincial-territorial agriculture ministers’ meetings, the Yukon capital plays host every 11 years.

So far, its record is that cataclysmic changes to Canadian farm policy happen in that far north city in a territory where farming is at best a marginal part of the economy.

What gives?

Next week, ministers meet to sign a Sept. 14 agreement that will set the template of farm policy for the next five years.

Unless the unexpected happens, it will be a radical transformation of government programming, reducing farm financial support substantially and switching some of the hundreds of millions of dollars of savings into research, innovation and trade promotion.

Despite federal official insistence last week that nothing has been decided and so we should not presume outcomes, ministers do not typically get together after almost two years of political and bureaucratic negotiating without a deal to sign.

So Whitehorse 2012 will be a seminal moment in Canadian farm policy development, a deliberate effort by ministers to wean farmers off dependence on program aid while relying more on market opportunities.

So was Whitehorse 2001, the last time ministers gathered there.

Their agreement that year revolutionized farm programming, setting the stage for the Agriculture Policy Framework that created some unpopular programs (the Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization program comes to mind) and presaged the end of a popular program, the Net Income Stabilization Account.

But beyond the specifics of the program, the APF was a revolution.

For years, governments had experimented with ways and programs that would meet the needs of an industry with fixed and rising costs but volatile returns.

In the end, though, income disasters usually led to farmer demonstrations and a march on the federal minister’s office for ad hoc aid.

Mainly, it meant agriculture ministers would have to go hat in hand more years than not to convince cabinet to approve yet another large payout that farmers generally would not appreciate.

So the APF approved in principle in Whitehorse was a revolution of sorts, the brainchild of then minister Lyle Vanclief and deputy minister Samy Watson.

It created programs like CAIS that were statutory; meaning if there was a farm income need recognized by the program triggers, there would be a payment without an agriculture minister on bended knee pleading for yet more funds.

Farm support would be automatic and therefore less of a public spectacle.

The programs were flawed in their ability to help farmers but the revolution was in changing how farm support was triggered.

In office after 2006, the Conservatives more or less accepted the Liberal-designed system with changes they could claim made it more efficient and farmer-friendly.

Next week in Whitehorse, the rules will change again to make farm support less of a priority and market performance more of a determinant of farmer success.

There’s something about Whitehorse.


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