Dairy farmers say trade deal threatens future

Eric VanderVeen shows one of the new robotic milkers that his family recently added to their dairy farm. Despite the investment, his father, Klaas, says the future of their dairy farm is less secure now that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement has been signed.  |  Barb Glen photo

Alberta producers say the recently signed agreement will ‘negatively shape the future of the Canadian dairy industry’

Four days before the new international trade deal was agreed, Klaas and Eric VanderVeen welcomed a Lethbridge County tour group to their dairy farm in southern Alberta.

The father and son talked about their recent investment in four robotic milkers, valued at $200,000 to $250,000 each, that made their operation more efficient and capable of supporting the next generation of dairy farmers.

On Oct. 2, as Klaas awaited full details about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), he said he is worried about the business future for his son, grandchildren and the Canadian dairy industry.

“We’re going to have to tighten our belts big time,” he said. “Things won’t be the same as they were before. We were as efficient as possible and we just made some big investments in robotic milkers.… We’ve got the second generation farming. We would find it terrible if this second generation could not keep going because of these kinds of things.”

Those things include increased access for American dairy products in Canada and the loss of a milk class, Class 7, which could have increased investment in processing on the Canadian side of the border.

As a Canadian dairy farmer, “we are of course very, very disappointed with the outcome,” said VanderVeen.

“We hadn’t anticipated this. We thought that the government had said that they were behind us and we had a strong industry and they were not going to touch it … and again they put us in jeopardy.

“Not only do we give greater access to the American milk in our Canadian market but the agreement also jeopardizes our investments and severely limits our ability to export.”

Tom Kootstra, chair of Alberta Milk, issued a news release Oct. 1 stating disappointment with the USMCA deal and foreshadowing VanderVeen’s concerns about the next generation.

“This will dramatically affect our farmers and will negatively shape the future of the Canadian dairy industry. I worry about my kids’ place in the industry and the next generation of dairy farming in Canada,” Kootstra said in the release.

“This is death by a thousand cuts and weakening a thriving Canadian industry. That is not a sign of a good deal.”

VanderVeen also had harsh words.

“Looking at the overall picture, I think that (U.S. President Donald) Trump won. He pushed along and he pushed along, and he got what he wanted, and I think that our government did not have a backbone in not only the dairy industry but other industry sectors also.”

The federal government has said dairy farmers will be compensated for loss of market share resulting from the deal, though details of that haven’t been released. That doesn’t bring any relief to VanderVeen.

“We don’t want compensation. We want to earn a decent living for our hard work like any other Canadian, and thinking that you can offset the negative impacts to our family farms by throwing a few bucks to us shows a very big disconnect between our values and that of the politicians,” he said.

“Our industry is not for sale, and yet that’s kind of what happened.”

VanderVeen said he doesn’t regret the investment in robotics on his farm, though the USMCA won’t make it any easier to recoup costs.

“We are absolutely not sorry that we went that direction because we’ve got to become more efficient, and now with this coming out, we’ve got to become more efficient yet.”

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