A Blood Issue: Marketing Freedom Coming to Western Canada

Market FreedomThere are some undeniable truths about living in Canada.  Sure, it gets cold here in the wintertime but as a people living across 6 time zones, sometimes we simply don’t know each other.

These truths also are very apparent within the world of Canadian agriculture.  I have said it many times that Canadian agriculture is made up of 3 distinct different “countries”.  It’s made up of Western Canada, Ontario and Québec agriculture.  Agriculture in British Columbia and the Maritimes is important for those folks, but it is small in comparison to the rest of the agricultural economy.  The 3 main agricultural countries in Canada are distinct in who they are.  Also true, is that they don’t know each other.  A farmer in Peace River Alberta does not know a farmer in Ste Ange, Beauce Quebec and does not know a farmer like me from Dresden Ontario.  Our agriculture is so different that it is hard to have anything in common.

I truly believe this. When you add Quebec to the mix it makes it even more so.  My Québec colleagues are wonderful farmers but they are Quebeckers 1st and Canadians 2nd.  Québec agriculture mixes culture and a rich heritage within their agricultural economy.  Ontario has a very diverse agricultural economy without the rich culture of Quebec.  Then when you cross from Ontario to Manitoba, not only do you cross the topographical border but you also cross an agricultural border.  Western Canadian agriculture has its own unique culture and agricultural production economics that separated it from the East.  For this southwestern Ontario farm boy, it always takes some work to mix into Western Canadian agriculture successfully.

I bring this up this week because the federal government introduced long promised legislation last Tuesday to end the Canadian Wheat Board’s grain marketing monopoly in Western Canada.  The Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act is meant to do away with the Canadian Wheat Board’s current monopoly over the sale of Western Canadian wheat and barley and give prairie farmers the right to choose how they sell it.  The open market is set to start on August 1, 2012.  So from the Ontario Manitoba border to BC Peace River country, Western farmers will be able to market their wheat and barley like Ontario farmers market their corn and soybeans.  For Western Canadian farmers it’s a blood issue.

So when an Eastern Canadian like me comments on the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board, it’s like I’m passing a disease around a garden party, which I wasn’t invited to.  It is interesting over a period of 25 years writing this column my opinion about the Canadian Wheat Board draws fire.  It draws so much fire that I rarely write about it.  However, more importantly, I do not write about the Canadian Wheat Board because as an Eastern Canadian farmer it does not affect me.  For those affected in Western Canada, it’s the whole ballgame.  So I have always left my opinion at the Ontario farm gate.

So let me give my opinion about the changing Canadian Wheat Board.  Be careful what you wish for?  Yes, in Ontario we sell wheat and barley to whomever we want to.  In these heady times of elevated wheat prices, that’s not a problem.  However, in the past Ontario farmers have mounted large protests across the land decrying our economic position.  With marketing freedom also comes marketing responsibility, it’s a whole different world and something not necessarily suited for Western Canada versus Ontario.

I think the Conservatives have botched the transition of marketing freedom in Western Canada.  For whatever reason they always get too political when a little agricultural economic sanity might make more sense.  To me Minister Gerry Ritz is more attack dog then someone who will lead the transition.

At the end of the day marketing freedom will come to Western Canada.  Like all changes there will be gnashing of teeth.  I’m not so sure how it will work out versus keeping a Canadian single desk marketing entity to deal with the likes of Cargill and Bunge.  However, I know that as an Easterner, I don’t want to interfere.  Our Canadian history has been poisoned too much by that.

Last January I stood up in an Edmonton Alberta conference center and spoke about the 3 distinct ” agricultural countries” within Canada.  I told the audience that we really don’t know each other.  Then I talked very briefly about the Canadian Wheat Board.  You could almost hear the crowd inhale when I mentioned it.  Emotions ran high and I knew not to yell fire in a crowded theater.

Little did I know the emergency sirens would go off in the conference center as I started speaking about the Canadian Wheat Board.  I broke the ice by telling the audience the Canadian Wheat Board was responsible for the Sirens.  The crowd broke down into laughter.

However, it isn’t a laughing matter for many farmers in Western Canada.  Simply put, marketing freedom for wheat and barley is almost here.  It will represent a totally new world for managing and marketing a crop.  It’ll be very similar to corn and wheat in Ontario or marketing canola across Western Canada.  So we’ll see if change is good.  Hopefully, differences of opinion will meld together, not only in Western Canada but also across Canadian agriculture as a whole.  At the end of the day, we’re all Canadian and we need to get to know each other.