Original sin in the Western Canadian grain business

It’s pretty easy to laugh at the “Bring back the Wheat Board” crowd.

And snigger, titter and giggle. Plus smirk. Which is what a lot of people do.

Yes, it does seem rather silly to call for the Canadian Wheat Board to be reinstated as a monopoly. It’s just not going to happen, for a bunch of reasons, such as:

  1. Under international trade rules, it really can’t happen;
  2. The federal government has 0.0 percent interest in kicking up that beehive again;
  3. Most farmers have moved on and don’t want to live through that caustic debate again;
  4. You need more reasons?

So when somebody calls for the board to be resurrected, guffaws follow. And I must admit I sometimes join in with a chuckle because of the Quixotic nature of the cause.

However, underneath the absurdity and political theatre, there is a deep, open and festering wound in the Prairie farmer psyche. It’s not shared by all, most or a large proportion of the Prairie farm community, but it is a significant injury to the sense of rightness for a significant section of farmers who see themselves having been done wrong, and done wrong in an excessive fashion that seems like an unforgivable sin.

That sin is the manner in which the CWB was gutted by the Stephen Harper Conservative government as soon as it won a majority. Most farmers were still in favour of keeping the CWB monopolies, but the Harper government acted boldly and aggressively in dismantling the monopolies and it brushed aside most concerns.

For the lefties in the farming population, the pain they feel is for the death of their hopes to have an agricultural marketing system that isn’t solely private sector, but contains major cooperative elements, including government oversight of a public grain marketing agency. This was an epic loss of cooperative power and a triumph for those who wanted a commercial-only system.

Most farmers aren’t excessively ideological, and all run commercial, private sector businesses, so the majority of farmers have moved well past wanting to resurrect the wheat board. That’s part of history now, and while the present system perhaps isn’t something they favoured, they can live with it and make it work for their farm. What they want is a well-functioning grain marketing system that gets them the best return for the crops they grow.

But where this group too can feel the original sin of the breaking of the board can be felt is when signs appear that the transition from the board might have been rushed, botched and costly for them. That’s the sort of feeling that can arise when somebody states or reports that customers of Canadian grain are suddenly having big problems with Canadian grain quality and consistency post-2012. That’s been happening.

First a former CWB official now working for Singapore’s Prima Group reported wide divergences of Canadian grain deliveries from the specifications expected, and almost always delivered during the CWB years. Then Swiss grain marketer IFACO, which oversees shipments of high quality Canadian grain to West Africa, said virtually the same thing. Last week at the Canadian Global Crops Symposium another major buyer of Canadian wheat said quality and consistency have gone wrong in a big way, and it’s getting worse. (See the story in this week’s paper, out Thursday.) Just by chance, I have happened to be the Western Producer reporter to report all three stories, so I know this issue well. (Is the elimination of the CWB the sole cause of these problems? Maybe, or maybe not. The popularity of low gluten strength varieties occurred right as the CWB was being dismantled, so there might be two problems combined. Also, there was a horrifically challenging winter in 2013-14 that made getting the right grain to the right place exceedingly difficult.)

The Canadian grain industry doesn’t like this being discussed in public. Some elements of the industry were thrilled to take over more of the grain marketing system when the CWB’s powers were dissolved. Some are ideological supporters of the campaign to rid the farm economy of government or collective power and influence. Others are worried about the situation, but are concerned that Canadian grain sales and prices will suffer if word gets out that there’s something wrong with Canadian wheat. The last group would prefer people like me to not to write things like this.

Being a journalist, I think the farming public has a right to know what’s happening to their industry, good and bad. After all, they pay all of its costs, because every cost to the system is pushed down onto the prices farmers receive for their grain. It’s their industry and they have the right to know.

For most farmers, this will be a worrying sign that the Canadian industry still hasn’t gotten its act together in the post-CWB era. They’ll want this problem to be resolved in a practical manner and for this particular problem to go away. For those deeply wounded by the killing of the wheat board, it will be yet more proof of the sin visited upon them, the original sin of the post-CWB era.

So while many including me chuckle at the occasional calls to bring back the wheat board, it’s tempered for me by acknowledging that they might have a point about a problem that has not been adequately recognized, even if their preferred solution seems a bit like tilting at windmills. The thing about original sin is that it doesn’t go away, and this one is likely to become an eternal scar on the Prairie farming consciousness.

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