Canadian Agricultural Policy: Still My Passion 20 Years After Grad School

Last Thursday I got a visit from Dr. Tom Funk who was my graduate school supervisor at the University of Guelph.  All of you know I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer so Dr. Funk had his work cut out taking me on 20 years ago.

Dr. Funk is a farm boy from Benton Country Indiana.  His father started the Funk Seed Company, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with.  When he guided me through my Masters’ Degree in Agricultural Economics we shared a somewhat common background.  Both from cash crop farms, we shared many stories about “back in the day” plowing a field or hoeing the beans.

He contacted me the other day to do an interview for some work he was doing.  I told him that I was applying anhydrous ammonia to my corn.  He commented back that he used to apply that with an open face tractor 40 years ago.  In any case he arrived last Thursday in my field with the smell of ammonia wafting behind my tractor.

When you go back 20 years together, you’ve got a lot to catch up on.  Of course much of the conversation is how things have changed.  Much of the conversation was about how farms had got much more efficient through the years.  However, at the end of the day I always had to bring in the agricultural policy world and how that affects things.  With a 94-cent dollar it would seem my work is cut out for me.

I never ever board Dr. Funk with the agricultural policy world.  I think he always looked at it as if there wasn’t a lot that could be done about it.  However, I was much younger then.  When I worked with him as a graduate student I thought everything was possible or at least negotiable.  The rest so to speak is history.  After I left graduate school GRIP and NISA started which morphed into MRI and disintegrated into nothing under former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.  In 2007 we now have the bizarre world, which is almost post-CAIS, a high dollar and futures prices, which are elevated.  The question is what happens to the Canadian agricultural policy world now.

Its important because the agricultural policy world we work in determines our long-term viability and profitability.  Right now if futures prices were low I don’t know what we’d do.  We have no policy, no safety net and not a lot of prospects.  However, with futures prices feeling their testosterone to some extent we’re being bailed out.   Meanwhile everybody is striving to get more efficient.

Then came last week and at least in Ontario farmers began to see some real cracks in the agricultural policy world.  In Ontario all the political parties are focused on the October provincial election.  Last week both the provincial Conservatives and Liberals announced some new policies.  The provincial Conservatives who currently form the opposition are promising $150 million in new funding in their first year and $300 million by their fourth year.  The Liberals trying not to look like the CAIS defenders, which they are suddenly took $55 million dollars out of their hat for farmers and said they now were interested in doing RMP. (Risk Management Program, which has been proposed by Ontario farm groups for two years now and always denied by the Liberal government)

If it happens, it’ll a major change in how farm businesses in Ontario operate.  The Conservatives even said they would work with the federal government to set up a safety net program for Ontario grain and oilseed producers Quebec style.  If it is good enough for Quebec producers its good enough for Ontario farmers.  So far the NDP have not said what they would do.

This news was akin to me going up to Mike Tyson and punching him in the nose.  I did not expect the degree of detail in some of these political announcements.  There was even a call for a “value for money” audit of Agricorp, something grassroots farmers have been asking for months now.  However, until now they have been totally rebuffed.

All of this is good news but at the same time cynicism is rampant.  After speaking at six different farm rallies last year I asked the question “why is it such a good idea now?”  It was quickly answered by one of my farm suppliers who told me there is an election in October.

It’s all so Canadian.  Our agricultural policy is so hodgey podgy, to and fro, uneven and unreliable.  Meanwhile our American friends have had several solid years behind them and if the stars align this year money will be falling from trees.  However, on this side of the border we’re always one futures market meltdown from another “farm income crisis.”

I don’t want to rain on everybody’s parade.  The announcements last weeks seemed of a different ilk.  Yes, we have that 94-cent loonie.  Yes, we still have the CAIS program.  However, maybe the announcements of last week will lead to better things.  Canadian farm businesses need a solid agricultural policy environment to work in.  Aside from that, in my mind we’ve got all the other bases covered.