Changing the face of Canadian agriculture

As Gerry Ritz nears next year’s milestone of becoming the longest-serving federal agriculture minister in three decades, he is also a leading player in a generational transformation of farm policy fundamentals.


As Gerry Ritz nears next year’s milestone of becoming the longest-serving federal agriculture minister in three decades, he is also a leading player in a generational transformation of farm policy fundamentals.

Gone, says Ritz, will be the assumption of government support as a built-in component of farm business plans.

Safety net programs will remain in the next five-year Growing Forward policy framework that launches April 1, but the emphasis will be on farmers responding to market signals, government policy helping them to do that through innovation, research and insurance funding and market returns largely deciding if farms survive or fail.

Ritz, a Saskatchewan MP and former grain farmer, said his inspiration to push for agricultural policy change came from his days on his west-central Saskatchewan farm beginning in the 1970s, when he also had off-farm interests in a contracting business and a local newspaper.

He said he found a far different policy environment between his farm and non-farm interests.

“On the non-farm business side, you rely on your own marketing skills, your own ability to take risks in the market,” he said.

“I found on my agricultural side, someone else was making those decisions for me or they were slanted in a certain way by government programming that didn’t let me make the decisions I wanted.”

The Canadian Wheat Board monopoly for his non-feed wheat and barley sales was part of it, but farm support programs such as the Gross Revenue Insurance Program were also were an irritant.

“GRIP allowed farmers to farm the program, and the CWB did not allow me to take my own market risks but also to reap the benefits if I made the right decisions,” he said.

Ritz began to work on those issues after he was elected as a Reform MP in 1997, and a stint as chair of the House of Commons agriculture committee gave him a broader platform to influence policy when the Conservatives won government in 1996.

Much of the outline of the first five-year Growing Forward program outline was in place by the time Ritz was appointed agriculture minister in the summer of 2007, but he was a driving force behind the federal-provincial Whitehorse agreement signed in September 2012.

The agreement will substantially cut business risk management funding over five years, re-orient government spending toward market support and innovation and make potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in savings available for deficit reduction at the federal and provincial levels.

Ritz said it is a change in policy mindset based on the assumption that Canada’s agricultural commodity price boom will continue.

“First and foremost, the role of government going forward is to ensure that any government policy or direction does not mask market signals,” he said.

“I think there is a role for government to play as a backstop, but I don’t think it can be part of your business plan. Your business plan has to be based on the assumption of no government support and then you have a good solid business case to move forward on.”

He said increased market access will help ensure Canadian agriculture has a prosperous future.

“The world has focused on securing stable and sustainable food supply,” said Ritz.

“They want nutrition and they also want a lighter carbon footprint. They want it all. Canada is one of the few countries that can deliver on all of that. We need a policy base that lets farmers take advantage of that and that does not mask the opportunities that are out there for farmers equipped and ready to take advantage of them.”

He said governments must work to provide better farm product insurance programs, including stepping up efforts to create a long-promised livestock price insurance program.

Ritz said Alberta’s experiment with cattle price insurance has had limited success because AgriStability has provided too much protection.

“A lot of the blame came from the fact that AgriStability covered 100 percent, so why would you spend money to insure your animals?”

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