Manitoba government feels way forward

Manitoba’s agriculture minister is hoping to spend this year making it easier for farmers to farm.

He also hopes to reverse the decline of the beef cow and hog herds and return agriculture to its place as a respected driving force of the provincial economy.

“You will be excited about what we’re going to share,” Ralph Eichler said about his upcoming Jan. 17 speech at Manitoba Ag Days.

He wouldn’t reveal any details, but it is clear from speaking with him that he feels farmers have been constrained by government-imposed regulations, and he wants farmers and other parts of the agriculture industry to feel free once more to invest in growth and development of their businesses.

At the same time, he and Premier Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government are trying to develop environmental protection and carbon pricing systems that achieve sustainability goals without hampering economic growth.

It’s a tough balance, but he sounds keen to see his government begin to introduce initiatives.

“I’m really excited about what that looks like,” he said.

“I’ve been listening and learning and trying to make sure we get things right for the ag sector.”

The Pallister government has been very conservative in its first months in power, launching few major initiatives while conducting an internal assessment of the state of the government after 17 years of NDP rule.

Spending restraint and cuts have been notable focuses as Pallister grapples with a budget deficit that has hit $1 billion with unknown liabilities piled up by crown corporations that the NDP relied upon for many activities.

How much room that leaves for new spending priorities remains to be seen.

Here are his views on a few issues:

Eichler wants to reverse the steady decline of the Manitoba beef herd, which has been continual since the discovery of BSE in Canada in 2003.

He thinks the current period of low prices might be just the thing to encourage cattle producers to expand their herds, while challenging returns on crop production could make beef production on marginal land seem attractive.

He also thinks Manitoba might be able to attract investment from Saskatchewan and Alberta.

“There are some opportunities because of the price of our land compared to Saskatchewan and Alberta,” said Eichler.

“I think we’ll start to see gains. It’s a grand opportunity, for those who can afford it, to breed those heifers back and keep them and increase the numbers that way.”

Manitoba’s hog farmers have been hamstrung for years by an NDP-imposed hog barn construction moratorium, and the two major processors are running under-capacity because of the dearth of pigs.

Eichler wants to change that.

“It’s about being open for business,” he said.

“The biggest problem with that is red tape.”

Both the Maple Leaf slaughter plant in Brandon and the HyLife plant in Neepawa are major provincial exporters with markets not just within Canada and North America but also in Asia. Eichler wants to see that expand.

The hog barn moratorium was slightly relaxed In the last year of the NDP government, and Eichler has given much hope to the provincial industry that building a new barn will no longer seem an impossible dream.

“It’s a great opportunity for Canadians and Manitobans. It helps grow communities, and there’s lots and lots of positives for creating those good jobs,” said Eichler.

“Just to get back to where we need to be, we need about 2.4 million (more) hogs per year to meet the current market demand.”

The Pallister government has been less defiant toward federal government carbon pricing than Saskatchewan, but it still hasn’t jumped aboard.

Eichler said his government understands that carbon pricing will have a significant effect on farmers, so the system that is imposed needs to allow farmers and other businesspeople to operate.

“We’ll have a made-in-Manitoba plan that will reflect our specific environmental needs and circumstances that meet our province’s needs,” said Eichler. 

“We know … one size (doesn’t) fit all, and we know that farmers are price-takers, not price-makers, so we have to make sure we get this right.”

The Pallister government has said it supports an expansion of the ALUS (alternate land use services) pilot program to encourage environmental sustainability, but it hasn’t rushed out a province-wide program yet. Eichler said it might take some time.

“We’re going to develop that program,” he said.

“We’re hoping that we can roll something out fairly soon, but we have to make sure we get it right.”

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