Meeting delay dampens AgriStability hopes

Provinces and the federal government continue to grapple over improvements to Canada’s business risk management programs, but will have to wait until November to formally discuss changes.

An October meeting between the country’s provincial and territorial agriculture ministers and federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has been delayed until November to accommodate an Oct. 26 election in Saskatchewan.

The delay lowered expectations that significant changes to the programs, notably AgriStability, were coming soon.

At the heart of the issue is the amount of money being made available to farmers applying to AgriStability, and the threshold that triggers the payments to them.

Designed to support farmers who experience large declines in income, lobby groups have suggested the required losses that trigger payments from the program are too high, and the compensation received is too low.

Making it easier for farmers to access those payments, while also increasing the money received, would be costly — government estimates suggest upwards of $400 million. Some provinces contend paying their share of the program is difficult.

The federal government rejected a proposal from the provinces that would have seen the current cost-sharing structure of BRM programs move from a 60-40 split between Ottawa and the provinces to 90-10 for two years, when the current framework agreement is scheduled to expire.

Bibeau and her colleagues at Agriculture Canada continue to push for more long-term, broad and substantive changes to be made.

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Dave Marit was thankful for the meeting delay, noting farmers in the province account for a significant portion of AgriStability claimants.

Marit’s party is dominating the current polls and is expected to once again form a majority government.

Saskatchewan is one province raising concerns over current contribution levels to AgriStability. Its most recent 2020-21 budget estimates, released in June, show $32.9 million is expected to be spent this fiscal year. The province is expecting to run a $14.3 billion debt over the same time period.

“How do those costs get passed onto the provinces, and at what ratio? I think that’s the one point that is going to be very concerning for us going into the November meeting, if we are privileged enough to form government and be there,” Marit said.

The opening offer from the provinces to Bibeau was “a reasonable offer for the short term” according to Marit because he says it would have helped farmers in the immediate future while a more significant overhaul of the programs was being negotiated.

He said that compared to other industries, an increased federal commitment “would have been significantly less for agriculture than what was given to other industries.”

“My thought was (Bibeau) would say ‘no, 90-10 is not an option but here is what we’re willing to do.’ But she came back to us and just said, ‘60-40 is where it’s at and where it is going to be.’ ”

Marit said a lack of a counter offer from Bibeau is concerning.

Ontario Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman, who is hosting the virtual November meeting, expressed hope the delay would give Ottawa more time to put together a counter proposal for a short-term solution.

“With the expectation that a counter offer or counter discussion would happen, we haven’t heard any direction from the federal government as to what they would accept,” he said. “We had indications they would accept something different, but they’ve never come forward with that and hopefully that’s what they can come forward with (in November).”

Optimism in a short-term solution remains low across the agricultural sector.

“If you’re asking me for confidence on short term, I’m probably less confident on short term,” said Marit, echoing a sentiment shared on social media by several producers.

“Long term, which means it wouldn’t take effect until 2023, I’m probably a lot more optimistic in that. The issue that will come is how the cost sharing is going to come about.”

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