Farm groups say the federal data discredits argument that gov’t aid must wait until producers use up program money
Data sent to the House of Commons agriculture committee shows that most AgriInvest accounts hold less than $10,000 each.
Only a small percentage of accounts contain $100,000 or more, according to a letter from Agriculture Canada to the committee.
This highlights why the federal minister’s insistence that producers use their accounts before expecting any further help is flawed, said Grain Growers of Canada president Jeff Nielsen.
“The government sees the $2.3 billion,” he said, referring to the total amount in AgriInvest accounts, excluding Quebec. “This isn’t big money.”
The average balance in an AgriInvest account is just more than $28,000, according to information the agriculture department provided earlier this year.
Farm organizations have asked for immediate help for the sectors most affected by COVID-19. But minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has repeatedly said farmers have to use the money in their accounts first.
The committee asked for detail on seven different breakdowns of AgriInvest data before July 1. It wanted 10 years of history but the department said a change to how data was collected starting in 2015 meant only the last five years are available.
There were 99,673 active accounts as of June 5, 2020, says the letter.
In the last five years, about 40 percent of producers withdrew from their accounts each year, and about 75 percent made deposits.
But more startling was the number of accounts with a balance of zero — 10,888 — and the number with less than $10,000 in them — 62,332.
The information showed 12,071 accounts with $50,000 or more, 7,958 with $75,000 or more, and 5,621 with $100,000 or more.
The approximately 800 accounts not accounted for in the responses to the questions appear to have balances between $10,000 and $50,000.
Nielsen said the numbers indicate that farmers are using their accounts as they are supposed to, and that the government is asking more than 73,000 of them to draw down on money they don’t have or that hardly makes a difference in any size of farming operation.
Questions that the department hasn’t answered yet include the number of accounts per year that were withdrawn to below $10,000 and down to zero, and the number of open accounts and balances by sector and by province.
The sectoral differences are key to farmers’ arguments that some industries are hurting more than others.
Both GGC and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture have said there is no reason for the delay in providing those numbers.
When the department provided sectoral averages for all provinces, excluding Quebec, in early June, CFA second vice-president Chris Van Den Heuvel said they had to have more detailed data to come up with the averages.
He suggested that releasing details didn’t fit the government’s narrative. Bibeau has told farmers to draw money out of their accounts, but she also may have had incorrect information.
For example, she told a Senate committee meeting in May that grain producers had more than the department numbers say they do.
“I’ll offer the example of the amount of money that the grain sector has in their AgriInvest account. This is the most significant one,” she said during the May 15 meeting. “I think the average is over $100,000. That is significant for grain businesses. I would strongly encourage them to use this money, of which 50 percent has been provided by the government through the years for difficult times.”
But the department numbers show that the grain sector balances are about $33,600.
The largest accounts were actually held by potato growers at an average $94,548.
The committee asked for the percentage of accounts sitting above 50 percent and 75 percent of the maximum allowable.
Those percentages were 0.4 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively, and included accounts in the cattle and grains sectors.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, La Financiere Agricole du Quebec administers the AgriInvest program. A request for data on that province’s accounts wasn’t returned before Western Producer deadlines.