Canadian Agricultural Policy Amid the Ethanol Gold Rush Still Written on the Back of a Napkin

It has become in vogue to almost forget where we are as farmers within the current genre of our Canadian agricultural policy work.  Somebody said something about the “ethanol gold rush”.  It’s like the tractor parades, farm rallies and vitriol of 2006 never happened.

It begs the question, where are we now?  Are things so much better in 2007 that we don’t need farmers in the streets and on the roads to forge an agricultural policy, which will support Canadian farmers in a consistent and bankable manner?

The problem is in 2007 I question how close we’re to that.  It’s interesting.  What changed the paradigm was a grain market, which seemingly decided it had to buy the corn acres in order to satisfy the burgeoning demand for bio-fuel.  However, before 95% of the corn was planted in North America that same market took almost $1 out of that equation.  So what was right?  Did we have a market buying corn acres or was it simply hype, hype, hype?

It’s puzzling.  Of course knowing the future would give me a lot of clues.  All of this reminds me of a great big trap for farmers.  The market creates the hype, everybody buys in including most farmers, corn buyers and even government and just before planters hit the ground, everything changes.  A few seed corn orders are cancelled.  However, most people still believe and a 13 billion bushel crop is on its way.

Nobody knows how this scenario will play out.  However, going back to the bad old days is certainly one option.  You can talk about an “ethanol gold rush” or bio-plastics in cars, but at the end of the day, much of that is still a theory.  Finding a way to support Canadian agriculture in the gaps and valleys is still very real in the heady spring of 2007.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with John Vanderspank, a Renfrew county farmer near Ottawa who was an integral visionary in the 2005-2006 farmers protest movement.  In my opinion there is nobody like John outside of Quebec in Canadian agriculture.  He’s fearless when it comes to pushing the farm agenda.  When I first met him last year in Ottawa, I sought his advice on his experience as a man who gets things done.  At a night before strategy meeting at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s Ottawa office, John schooled me on the ways of Eastern Ontario activism.

When I contacted John he was driving his tractor.  He told me he’d better pull off the road and shut off the tractor.  I asked him if he was driving on Highway 417, one of a few 400 series highways in Ontario where tractors are banned.  He had to laugh.  We exchanged good-hearted banter.  I asked John at the end of the day, after all that protest did it make any difference.

We exchanged ideas about farmers gaining new respect especially in Ottawa, but at the end of the day we both knew the support needed to sustain Canadian farmers outside of Quebec is still just a good idea.  For a guy who organized tractor blockades around food terminals and the Prime Minister’s residence it must be frustrating.  I’m sure it’s also not over.  We’ll see what the future holds.  Eastern Ontario farmers are too near Quebec to accept the status quo.  As Quebec agriculture grows richer, the disparity in Eastern Ontario agriculture will grow even more real.

In the meantime with elections in the wind some more “back of the napkin” agricultural policy may surely show its head.  What you say?   Don’t scoff.  It’s been done before.  When former finance minister Ralph Goodale talked to former Prime Minister Paul Martin in the hall and asks for $750 million for Canadian farmers in the run up to the 2006 election its like it was written on the back of a napkin.  It’s like forget the APF, farmers need support and they won’t vote for us if we don’t have something real.

I used to call it “paint the barn” agricultural policy.  That’s when provincial governments would enact policies just before an election, which provided grants for farm improvements.  Typically, that meant painting the barn or building a new cement slab for livestock.  Whatever you call it “paint the barn” agricultural policy is written on the back of a napkin.  It makes grand million dollar boondoggles like the Agricultural Policy Framework look like a big charade.

Remember that as volatility reins in the commodity market this spring.  It’s a new day, but it’s also like nothing has really changed on the agricultural safety net front.  Someday farmers need to go back at it again.  Along with our farm organizations, the fight for a consistent long term Canadian agricultural safety net will continue.