Federal-provincial meeting delay disappointing but necessary

Optimism was never high that federal and provincial governments would find a short-term solution to concerns over Canada’s business risk management programs.

Another delay to a meeting of federal and provincial agriculture ministers likely won’t help.

Originally scheduled to happen in July, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the meetings to be pushed to October.

An upcoming election in Saskatchewan forced the meeting to be further delayed to November. (British Columbia also called an election this week for Oct. 24.)

It is unfortunate, but necessary.

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Dave Marit was a vocal participant when he met with his federal and provincial counterparts during Ottawa meetings in December.

The minor changes that were made at that time, allowing private insurance companies to be used as a “top up” under AgriStability, came at Saskatchewan’s suggestion.

The reality is, Saskatchewan, which boasts a significant amount of Canada’s arable land, is a major agricultural player and needs to be at the meeting.

Optimists might look to the delay as an opportunity for all involved to consider short- and long-term fixes, but producers should keep their expectations low.

These meetings are not likely to result in BRM programs, namely AgriStability, being improved.

For producers, any substantial improvement hinges on the willingness of tight-pocketed politicians to pay more.

BRM programs are funded by federal and provincial governments, at a cost-share ratio of 60-40. The cost has averaged roughly $1.5 billion in the past five years, but is expected to be higher this year because of the pandemic.

Consecutive years of strong commodity prices justified governments moving money away from risk management funding toward other programs, like those focusing on innovation. By 2013 AgriStability policy adjustments were making it harder for farmers to qualify for the program, and paying them less money when they did.

It is unlikely provincial and federal ministers will be able to agree on how to now make it easier for farmers to receive payments, and pay them more money when they do, especially at a time when governments are taking on levels of debt some economists suggest are unsustainable.

In March, Agriculture Canada officials confirmed lowering the threshold to qualify and raising the total amount that can be paid out under AgriStability was something they were exploring.

Doing so is an industry-favoured proposal, but for now, the safe money is that it will remain just that — a proposal.

Major changes to BRM programs aren’t likely to come until 2023, when the current funding arrangement between the provinces and Ottawa expires.

Politicians, who a few months ago expressed optimism over the possibility of major changes this year, are now openly sharing a lack of confidence in that happening.

If major changes to assist farmers in the near term were expected to be made at the meetings, the delay would have been more aggravating, but that isn’t the case.

Instead, it appears the provinces and federal government will continue to better position themselves for negotiating funding levels for the next agreement.

That may end up being the biggest storyline to follow when the meetings eventually happen in November.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier Farm Media’s Ottawa correspondent. Reach out to him by emailing dfraser@farmmedia.com.

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