Farm groups line up behind the feds in AgriStability

The three prairie provincial governments each enjoy a great deal of farmer support. The same cannot be said for the federal Liberal government. And yet, the situation is completely reversed when you consider the ongoing stalemate over AgriStability enhancements.

Farm groups far and wide are calling on the provinces to accept the federal offer on AgriStability, an offer made way back in November.

Weeks have turned into months. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba won’t say yes to their 40 percent cost-share of proposed enhancements, but the door hasn’t been slammed shut.

Under the federal-provincial agreement, at least two of the three prairie provinces need to join Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in agreeing to the changes.

Removing the reference margin limit and boosting support from 70 to 80 percent is less than what farm organizations have been requesting, but it would still dramatically improve support for producers facing a significant revenue shortfall. It may even convince some producers to rejoin the program.

Over the past year, the livestock sector has struggled more than grain and would probably be the biggest immediate beneficiary of the changes. In the coming couple of years, there’s no telling what might occur.

Provinces like Saskatchewan say they can’t afford enhancements. With a small taxpayer base relative to the size of the agriculture industry, the per capita cost is much greater than in more populous provinces. Thus, they are calling on Ottawa to pay more than its traditional 60 percent share for the extra expense.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau did not put the proposed enhancements and the federal share of funding on the table until the end of November’s federal-provincial meeting. It was almost as if approval only came at the last minute.

But now that Bibeau has the funding commitment, she has the ability to make the provinces look bad while the feds enjoy widespread industry support. It’s a rare occasion.

I asked Bibeau if the feds could go it alone on AgriStability enhancements, paying the 60 percent share independently where provincial governments were unwilling to add their 40 percent.

Initially she said no, but then clarified by saying this would be possible on the increase in the compensation rate from 70 to 80 percent, but not feasible on the removal of the reference margin. However, she also said that having the feds proceeding alone was not on the table.

Removing the reference margin limit would benefit cow-calf producers that may lack the eligible expenses to trigger an AgriStability claim even though they suffered a revenue drop. Hopefully, agreement can be reached to at least make this change.

Thoughts are already turning to the next overarching federal-provincial agreement for funding agriculture research and business risk management programs. That needs to be in place just a couple short years from now.

Most farmers would rate AgriStability as a failure. While you can argue over what the support levels should be in the program, it’s difficult to come up with an alternate approach.

How can you protect farmers from significant revenue shortfalls without measuring their revenue each year?

AgriStability had many predecessor programs and while the acronyms were different, the programs all worked in much the same way. If there’s some new and better approach, let’s see it.

Even more importantly, if you can’t get many of the key agriculture provinces to fund enhancements to AgriStability, how are you ever going to get them to commit the funding necessary for any improved program?

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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