Sparks fly over pulse levy decision

Annual general meetings at CropSphere are usually quiet affairs, so it was unusual to see some fireworks at this year’s SaskPulse meeting.

The fuse was lit when Tim Wiens, chair of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, reported during the annual Saskatoon farm show on what action was taken on last year’s resolution calling on the board to make the levy refundable.

He said the board conducted broad consultations with growers, including an Insightrix Research poll of 739 farmers, which determined that 50 percent support the existing non-refundable levy, 44 percent want it to be refundable and six percent were indifferent.

The $30,000 survey also revealed that 90 percent of growers say they receive fair to excellent value for their levy dollars but that 46 percent would request a refund if the levy was made refundable.

“After all the factors were considered, the board did not feel that there was a clear case that growers wanted to move away from the non-refundable pulse levy,” said Wiens.

The decision raised the ire of many farmers at the meeting.

“Rather than proceeding with steps to make the levy refundable, you had a survey conducted, wasting more of our money,” said Gwen Wensley, a grower from Wiseton, Sask. “It’s all just trying to circumvent the resolution.”

She said making the levy refundable allows growers to express their dissatisfaction with association decisions by demanding a refund.

“That’s the only way we’ve got to sort of jerk your chain,” said Wensley.

Former SPG chair Lyle Minogue defended the board’s decision. He said policy can’t be set by a small group of farmers with an agenda who attend the annual meeting.

“It’s important that the board has a chance to use their judgment and decide what the bulk of the members want,” he said.

Minogue grew up in a small town where volunteers ran the local rink. There was one guy who refused to volunteer or contribute money to the rink.

“The first guy there with a kid in one hand to skate and his curling broom in the other was him.”

He believes the same thing will happen if the association switched to a refundable levy.

“We’ll have a whole bunch of people in this province taking a free ride, and I don’t think we should go that route,” he said.

Wiens said the fairness issue factored into the board’s decision. Much of the levy is spent on variety development at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre, and those varieties are made available royalty free to all of the province’s pulse growers.

One farmer who didn’t identify himself said making decisions based on polls is dangerous, pointing to all the polls that predicted Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.

“The people who cared showed up here last year and passed that resolution and you guys ignored it. That’s wrong,” he said.

Another farmer was also skeptical about relying on polls.

“You guys spend all this money doing all this other stuff. Why don’t you have a real vote?” he said. “Whatever you did means nothing.”

Retired University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist Ken Rosaasen said farmers can effect change by voting in directors who reflect their views.

“If you really want to change the levy, do it through the democratic process,” he said.

Wensley also expressed anger with the board’s decision to only temporarily reduce the levy to .67 percent from one percent for one year starting Aug. 1, 2016. She doesn’t think the levy should have ever been doubled to one percent in the first place.

“If people left it alone, we wouldn’t be near as ticked off as we are now,” she said.

That is one area where Minogue agreed with Wensley.

“I think they should have cut the levy back quicker than they did, and I think they should continue cutting back,” he said.

“We don’t want them out buying property and spending money to use it up. You’re exactly right, we’ve got to be lean and mean and efficient.”

The association collected $22 million in levies in 2016, which was $4.4 million more than it had budgeted. Levy revenue has taken a big jump the last couple of years because of strong pea and lentil prices and plentiful acres.

Wiens said the board has until the end of the current fiscal year to determine what the levy will be going forward. And he had the last word on the contentious refundable levy debate.

“I realize that there may be a feeling that we’re not listening to what you are saying, but we’re trying to determine what all producers are saying to the board and that’s what we used to make our decision.”

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