Canadian ag stabilization due for major overhaul

It might be time to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Too many things may have changed to keep tweaking Canada’s agricultural programs and still expect them to keep the industry stable and serve the interests of all involved.

Farmers often feel as though their interests are the only ones to be considered when it comes to national farm support programs. After all, they have the most to lose when the money fails to cover the costs of production.

However, agriculture and food policies also reflect the interests of the general public that pays for them and those of the politicians who create them. Often the politicians’ interests, both provincial and federal, are focused on reducing the amounts they are responsible to pay.

Politicians will take advantage of better times on the farm to make cuts to farm income programs, rail transport agreements and the like, hoping producers won’t notice or at least be reluctant to speak up should they bring attention to the “shameful” notion of farm profitability, no matter how short-lived.

When times are good in farming, farmers are the first to say they don’t need government telling them how to do their jobs. When times get tight, which is more frequent, the role of the public purse in an economically unsteady industry becomes obvious once again.

Recently Doug Hedley, Al Mussell and Ted Bilyea of Agri-Food Economic Systems wrote about the concept of a complete re-think of public support programs, food processing regulations, international agricultural trade, foreign workers and farm labour in Canada. Policies about domestic and foreign trade and product pricing models also need reconsideration, they say, with an emphasis on a more unified approach.

The ideas they raise lean toward wholesale changes to all facets of the system, including provincial and federal shared responsibilities and whether those relationships actually work for producers.

It might be hard to imagine a federal-provincial meeting of ag ministers where they could all agree on what is in the national interest and that of all farmers: livestock, supply managed, broadacre and row, vegetable and greenhouse.

It would be a long meeting.

If Canada is to be a sustainable, internationally competitive producer and exporter, able to take advantage of global market swings while feeding its own, that effort will be needed. Ideally, It would create a national industry in which farmers and agricultural trade players are able to respond rapidly to change.

It’s difficult for farmers to add risks to their operations. When times are good, they try to build resiliency with strategic capital investments and maybe some savings for the inevitable troubles ahead. When times are tough, they restrict spending to areas that will maximize short-term margins. Opportunities that require both liquidity and the confidence to act seldom come along when we are ready for them.

A sustainable Canadian agricultural system for the future must be built on the confidence that the national stabilization carpet isn’t always at risk of being pulled from beneath producers.

That is difficult to imagine in a time when provincial budgets are even more strapped than federal ones, and each province moves in its own direction.

A better plan for producers will require the nation’s agriculture and food sector to be able and ready to move as one, in one direction rather than in 10 different directions. Canada is already small enough.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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