Farmer influence rare and fading

How much freedom is there without real competition?

A farmer might ask himself that more often these days.

It wasn’t so long ago that one of the railways was publicly owned, the largest grain companies in Western Canada were farmer-owned co-ops and nearly all export wheat and malting barley were marketed by a state agency that was farmer directed.

While no system is perfect, there was some accountability, or the possibility that it could be had, should producers choose to exercise their rights to it.

Farmers potentially had their voices heard and could leverage their influence through investment in infrastructure, provide operational direction on boards and lobby government with the power of a collective voice. Governments and corporations could be challenged.

Most of that has been lost in the past 15 years.

A few large farm input co-ops still exist. Federated Co-operatives and United Farmers are input suppliers. Farmers of North America has shown an interest in collective action.

The Quebec based La Coop Fédérée is the only large co-op food processor and buyer, known better in Western Canada by its meat packing division, Olymel.

Five farmer-owned inland grain terminals remain and there are several smaller co-ops that clean seed and do crop processing.

With the loss of farmers’ voices and an active business lobby to government, it seems that market freedom might not be as liberating as one might imagine.

At least under the CWB single desk and when the old prairie pools existed, there were farmers on those boards who regularly visited the halls of power and were consulted by agriculture ministers.

That influence, at least from Western Canada, is now lost. Producers have a choice of few grain companies and meat packers and while they are generally fine companies, the interests of those organizations are not always the same as those of farmers. Buyers and sellers of farm products can best be described as reluctant partners, both needing to exact their profits from one another.

While the pools did this as well, those profits paid for influence with the public and government.

Active interest and participation in the production check-off organizations are all that is left. We need to keep that in mind.

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