Federal agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau is making serious efforts to respond to grievances among prairie farmers about defects in farm support programs like AgriStability.
AgriStability was intended to underpin farm incomes when, through no fault of their own, farmers’ operating margins drop below longer-term averages. The program is cost-shared with 60 percent of the funding coming from the federal government and the other 40 percent from the provinces.
Changes brought in by the Stephen Harper government effectively gutted the program and farm organizations have been pressing to get it restored — especially as subsidies in Europe and the United States are increasing.
Bibeau and several provinces recently agreed on improvements to enhance the usefulness of AgriStability by about 50 percent. They have strong support from most major farm groups, but are being blocked so far by reluctant provincial governments in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.
This is a golden, and very affordable, opportunity to do the right thing for farmers, and achieve a rare degree of consensus. Let’s hope for a clear “yes” very soon from Saskatchewan. That would make sense since this province’s farmers will be the biggest beneficiaries.
But we shouldn’t stop there. We should leverage what’s being done to strengthen AgriStability into momentum on other important issues for farmers.
The on-farm use of propane and natural gas should be exempted from carbon pricing, just as gasoline and diesel are already exempt.
We should accelerate government and private sector investments in the prairie-based Protein Industries Canada supercluster.
We should act quickly on plans for new “big water” infrastructure, like the proposed irrigation canals to distribute precious water from Lake Diefenbaker across a broader expanse of the Prairies, as originally proposed years ago by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, and more recently advocated by the federal department of Western Economic Diversification and the new Canada Infrastructure Bank.
Increases in our productive capacity,enabled by more widespread irrigation, need to be accompanied by far greater prairie crop diversification and value-added processing. That requires research and innovation; better infrastructure; innovative business models and financing tools; and aggressive global trade and marketing. Federal financial institutions like Farm Credit Canada and the Export Development Corp. need to prioritize these opportunities.
We also need to make the most of Saskatchewan’s bio-energy potential.
In addition to our conventional fossil fuels and power derived from wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and small modular reactors, Saskatchewan is also richly endowed with biofuel opportunities. Municipalities, looking for new business possibilities, are examining ways to get certified as “bio-development zones”.
Bio-energy should also include the production and use of renewable diesel manufactured from canola oil. The technology in this field has come a long way from the initial tests more than a decade ago. The new product can be used in all weather conditions in long-haul trucks, railways, marine and air transport. A plant location in the Regina area makes sense due to large local supplies of sustainably grown canola, the spacing of existing crushing facilities, transportation links, and the proximity of a refinery.
Also, we need a serious plan to enable farmers to be compensated for sound soil management and cropping practices. The value of carbon sequestration on prairie soil needs to be measured, certified and rewarded to enlarge vital agricultural sinks for the long-term.
Working collaboratively on ideas like these would be more productive for Saskatchewan’s wealth-generating potential than the sterile partisan sniping that too often dominates our politics.
Ralph Goodale is a former federal cabinet minister from Saskatchewan.