Rural Canada can’t afford trade giveaways

In the decades since the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement and later the North American Free Trade Agreement were signed, Canadian agriculture has undergone a significant shift.

There was once a multitude of diverse local and regional economic drivers, but now we have a one-size-fits-all, export-driven, low-priced commodity production model.

Farm capital needs have sky-rocketed as illustrated by the massive $90 billion farm debt. Off-farm investors control more and more of Canada’s farmland. Production — per farm, per acre and per worker — continues to go up. And that production became increasingly export and transport dependent as NAFTA-driven deregulation accelerated consolidation and transnational ownership of handling and processing facilities.

The once mighty farmer co-operative grain handlers and processors have been dismantled and absorbed into a handful of transnational corporations. Eighty percent of Vancouver’s terminal capacity used to be owned and operated by the three prairie pool elevator companies. Now, the private trade owns it all.

With the Canadian Wheat Board gone, there is no real economic participation by farmers beyond the farmgate, nor any referee to discipline the railroads.

Prairie farmers, who once ran most of Canada’s grain industry, no longer have a direct connection to customers and end-users.

Under NAFTA, Canada’s regulatory system facilitated North American integration of pork and beef slaughter, processing and marketing at the expense of regional and local processors, marketers and the jobs they provided.

Despite trade agreements, Canadian exports are still disadvantaged due to transportation costs.

Apart from supply management sectors and a brief spike after 2009, overall inflation-adjusted net farm income is dismal.

Farm communities across Canada are suffering from chronic economic decline.

This was camouflaged by off-farm manufacturing jobs in Eastern Canada and resource sector jobs in Western Canada, but those jobs are no longer easy to get. The decline of Canada’s rural economy is not often discussed, but four decades of loss have diminished the quality of rural life.

The decline of rural Canada is stark and given little attention compared to the rural quality of life in other developed countries.

Canada’s growing dependence on food imports is another sobering fact. We can grow many of these products, but have lost our own market because trade agreements help integrated food companies operate across borders, depressing prices for producers while controlling the consumer price.

Trade agreements also reward overprocessing of foods by substituting basic ingredients with cheaper ones.

U.S. President Donald Trump vilifies Mexico for the loss of U.S. jobs, but he fails to mention the American companies that flocked to the Mexican maquiladoras to take advantage of low labour and environmental standards.

NAFTA has also caused a lot of damage to the Canadian rural economy and U.S. President Donald Trump is likely to add more.

The last thing rural Canada needs is more give-aways to the U.S. in an attempt to persuade the Americans not to back out of the NAFTA deal.

It is time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped trading away the livelihoods of Canadian farmers and started repairing the damage these deals have done.

The decline of the Canadian rural economy must be turned around if Trudeau wants to prevent the election of a Trump-like Canadian leader in three years.

We need an agenda for agriculture that makes rural quality of life and viable family farms the priority.

Jan Slomp is president of the National Farmers Union. He farms near Courtenay, B.C.

About the author

Jan Slomp's recent articles


  • It’s all right to be a Redneck

    Rural Canada should stop producing food for city people.

  • ed

    Many farmers consider their one or two acres of garden, (primarily organic, no chemicals other than drift), their most important and profitable acres. The rest of ones acres often is basically a ‘treading water shell game’ to get some government payments thru tripartite crop insurance subsidies, agristability, agriinvest, young farmer rebate etc. as they use their capital gain exempt land price increase as a hedge against inflation as a retirement strategy. If the land goes up faster than the debt does and it has a large tax free component, it is a great retirement plan. It works for those who can get the timing right. The bigger the farm, the better it “can” work, but there are risks obviously.

  • Bruce

    Could it be that farm debt has increased because onetime a new combine cost 50 thousand dollars and now a new combine costs 500 thousand dollars. Perhaps the President of the NFU should spend more time reading The Western Producer. On the front page a couple of years ago was written. The average farmer is now worth $2,000,000.00 after debt.

    • Scott

      Yes but that $50,000 combine’s capacity, reliability and plain comfort is of no comparison now is it.

      • ed

        We had 4 newer and much larger combines all down and stopped foe various technical difficulties, (software glitches, control modules,etc.), while our 22 year old trusty combine completed the harvest on Sept. 22, 2016. Thank goodness because it rained most of the next 6 weeks and was nearly Christmas by time the machinery techs got some of it figured out so we can at least start next year with them. Always good to carry some spare tires, right.

  • Scott

    Trudeau will do what ever he can and will lay down the Western Canadian trade giveaways if necessary to prop up eastern unionized manufacturing jobs. There is no politician who wants to be attached to or should I say has the guts or vision to guide us through the collapse of NAFTA so why wouldn’t he will sell out. Plus were do his voters live, what has he or any Liberal government ever done to support the Western Canadian agriculture industry? The costly errors made by and which gave traction to the CWB demise were sort of handled with an oops attitude with no visible accountability.


Stories from our other publications