Efforts to end the Canadian Wheat Board’s (CWB) single desk are reminiscent of the battle to kill the Crow Rate, says pollster David Herle.
Both went on for years, eventually wearing down farmer resistance and “these are both Alberta agendas,” said Herle, principal partner in the Gandalf Group, which surveys farmers for the CWB.
“The pressure to get rid of the Crow came from Alberta and the pressure to get rid of the wheat board comes from Alberta.
“If you look at the support for the wheat board in Manitoba or Saskatchewan it’s not an issue in those provinces. Overwhelmingly for wheat, people want the single desk in those two provinces.”
The latest poll ( http://www.cwb.ca/public/en/farmers/sur veys/producer/) shows when western Canadian farmers were asked to pick either the single desk for wheat or an open market 59 per cent selected the former and 35 per cent the latter.
Support for the single desk declined from last year when 64 per cent of respondents chose the single desk and 29 per cent opted for the open market.
Support for the single desk is strongest among Manitoba farmers at 69 per cent followed by Saskatchewan producers at 63 per cent. Farmers in Alberta are evenly split at 47 per cent for the single desk and open market.
While support for the single desk in wheat remains strong in Manitoba and Saskatchewan there has been a big shift in Alberta since the 2010 survey. A year ago 46 per cent of the Alberta farmers said when asked to pick between the single desk and open market they strongly support the single desk and 16 per cent said they somewhat strongly supported it for a total of 62 per cent.
This year only 28 per cent of Alberta farmers said they strongly supported the single desk and 23 per cent said they somewhat supported it putting total support for the single desk at 51 per cent.
At the same time the percentage of Alberta farmers who said they strongly or somewhat strongly support an open market hit 50 per cent, compared to 37 per cent a year ago.
This year 37 per cent of Alberta farmers said they strongly support an open market versus just 13 per cent last year.
Support for the single desk is highest among older farmers. Forty-five per cent of those 45 years old and younger support the single desk versus 48 per cent who prefer an open market.
“That’s a real challenge for the Canadian Wheat Board,” Herle said.
Support for a “dual market” for wheat, which the CWB says isn’t achievable, is up slightly to 45 per cent compared to 42 last year. Forty-one per cent selected the single desk, versus 48 per cent last year and 13 per cent picked the open market up slightly from 10 per cent in 2010.
The CWB could become a grain company or broker and operate in an open market with federal government concessions CWB chair Allen Oberg said. However, he said a dual market, where farmers would enjoy the benefits of the CWB’s single desk in an open market, is impossible because the single desk wouldn’t exist.
“The reason we ask about the dual market is to see how many producers still believe it’s possible,” he said.
Support for a dual market isn’t surprising because it promises the best of both worlds, Herle said.
“That’s really what this plebiscite is going to have to answer,” he said. “Those 45 per cent of people are going to have to land somewhere. They should have the real options put to them and they need to be persuaded.”
A majority of western farmers collectively, and by province, support an open market for barley. When asked to select either the single or an open market 49 per cent opted for an open market, compared to 45 per cent last year. Thirty-seven per cent said they want the single desk versus 41 per cent in 2010.
Forty per cent said they preferred a dual market for barley when given that option along with the other two.
Given this and other polls show a majority of farmers support an open market for barley, why is the CWB holding a plebiscite on the issue? Oberg said a formal vote is different than a survey.
Since the federal government plans to end single-desk selling without holding a plebiscite among farmers, the CWB is conducting its own at an estimated cost to farmers of $275,000.
“We’re talking about irreversible changes to an organization that has been around for 75 years,” Oberg said. “If there was ever a situation that justified a plebiscite this is it.”
Based on this latest poll, if the federal government wanted to save farmers money it would address high input and transportation costs, Herle said.
“Most farmers have bigger issues on their plate than this one,” he said.
The federal government’s stance on the CWB is out of sync with farmer concerns, according to Herle.
Meanwhile, the battle over the CWB’s future is catching the general public’s attention.
“That’s when governments might pay attention,” he said. “When urban residents start to say, ‘wait a sec, are you doing something to hurt farmers? What would you be doing that for?’” [email protected]
– DAVID HERLE