Splintering farm voice a slow-motion, decades-long process of division

The Canadian Pork Council’s decision to pull out of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture is just the latest dramatic moment in a long-running saga.

Observing the splintering of the Canadian farm lobby voice over the past four decades has been like watching a slow-motion multiple vehicle pile-up on Alberta’s Highway 2 or Ontario’s six-lane 401.

There are of course reasons for highway wrecks, just as there are reasons for the fractionalization of Canadian farmers.

Large agribusiness farmers checking the web for prices and trade opportunities in Asia have little in common with small farmers trying to cash in on the local food movement, other than that they both produce protein for sale.

That gap is particularly true on trade issues where trade-sensitive sectors and gung-ho exporters simply don’t share the same goals or business models.

It is a reality that Canadian governments have had to face for decades as they created a “balanced position” that supports both domestic protectionism and aggressive export expansion.

As he spoke last week about the pork council decision to pull out of the CFA, which has its own version of the “balanced position,” former CPC president Jurgen Preugschas said publicly what many skeptics have said quietly for years.

“You can’t have a balanced trade policy, there’s no such thing,” he said. “You’re in favour of trade or you’re not and you can’t be both.”

Defenders of the “balanced position” correctly argue that most countries in trade negotiations have “offensive” and “defensive” issues as Canada does, but that doesn’t square the logic circle.

Once upon a time, the CFA imagined itself the unified voice of Canadian agriculture.

Back in the days of long-serving president Herb Hannam in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the dream was that in the face of powerful and concentrated corporate players, farmers needed a concentrated counteracting voice to government and industry.

The wheels began to fall off that dream in the 1970s when prairie commodity groups began to challenge the hegemony of the big players of the day: the wheat pools, provincial umbrella organizations and the CFA.

Governments were happy to have multiple farm messages from which to pick and choose.

A turning point was the 1993 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade deal, which protected Canadian supply management but gave exporters little new access.

Export interests thought too much attention was paid to protecting supply management and too little to the export needs of the majority. The result was more aggressive lobbying by export sectors and the founding of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance.

Prairie general farm organizations blew up in the early 1980s over the Crowsnest Pass freight rate issue, and the CFA lost three strong regional members, later replaced by organizations that have sometimes struggled.

Then the prairie wheat pools, strong members and significant financial backers, disappeared. CWB briefly followed as a member, but it too is gone from the CFA.

The dream of a “house of agriculture” recedes. The volume of export voices grows.

The agricultural Tower of Babel becomes noisier.

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