Ag minister outlines issues of priority

Manitoba’s new agriculture minister is offering little to farmers for now, other than a government that listens better.

However, once the government has been in place long enough, Ralph Eichler plans to begin implementing a “very aggressive program” of changes, improvements and additions to Manitoba’s agriculture policies, he has said since being named minister on May 3.

“We need to put our listening cap on, pay attention to what’s going on, and that’ll be our first order of business,” said Eichler

“Everyone understands you can’t wave a wand and make everything go away, and that’s a not my goal at all, but by listening we will be able to take those ideas and feel like they’re actually going to start being implemented.”

Farmers and farm organizations often felt ignored or shunned during the NDP’s 16 years in power. Disputes, snags and gaps have developed in agriculture policy and the agriculture department that many have been eagerly awaiting for a fresh government to address.

Those include:

  • vacant agriculture department production and farm management advisors
  • the hog barn construction moratorium, which has only slightly been relaxed
  • the Bipole III power line, which crosses tens of thousands of farmland acres
  • the Lake Manitoba outflow channel, which the NDP promised to build but has not begun construction upon
  • drainage and water management policies and regulations
  • the cap on school tax rebates for farmers.

In the campaign, now-Premier Brian Pallister offered few specific promises, and Eichler seemed to reflect their approach in an interview with The Western Producer two days after being appointed.

“I just think we need to tweak things a bit. I don’t think we need to make many changes, but we do need to make sure changes,” said Eichler May 5.

He mentioned better compensation programs for production losses, the need for multi-year funding for flood compensation, and better Growing Forward programs as areas he’s hoping to address.

“We’ve got a lot of good things that are in the works. We just need to take control of those and move it to the next level,” said Eichler.

Eichler said he was “tickled to death” that Manitoba deputy minister of agriculture, Dori Gingera-Beauchemin has agreed to stay on and “the department is actually in real good shape. I have just a fabulous staff.”

Eichler grew up on a farm, briefly became a banker, was a school division administrator, began manufacturing livestock equipment, sold his business in 1999 and “got drafted into politics.”

He has been opposition critic for a wide range of portfolios, including agriculture, infrastructure, Manitoba Hydro and municipal government.

Pallister has not suggested he has radical changes in mind, but intends to eliminate much “red tape” and to get the province’s finances back in order. As part of his restraint focus, he chopped the provincial cabinet down to 12 from 19 ministers. That meant a few formerly separate departments got shoved together, but not agriculture, which now appears to be even more farm-focused with its “rural development” tasks moved into another department.

Indeed, the department itself has returned to the traditional name of “Manitoba Agriculture” rather than the NDP’s Manitoba Agriculture and Food, then Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, then Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.

The environment department has also been renamed, from “Conservation and Water Stewardship,” to now being “Sustainable Development.”

The new provincial government has many rural members and a farm-tinged premier.

Pallister grew up on a farm and as he spoke after being sworn-in as premier on May 3, he concluded by invoking the 4-H pledge.

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