Outgoing Director Cites Single-Desk Advantages

“They are still in a position where their ability to put legislation through on the wheat board is doubtful, but I don’t have any illusions that if they were in a majority situation they would move pretty swiftly on their commitments.”

– BILL NICHOLSON

Outgoing Canadian Wheat Board director Bill Nicholson predicts that the Conservatives under Stephen Harper will continue in their bid to eliminate single-desk marketing of wheat and barley in Western Canada.

Lately, inflammatory comments from federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz have been rare, however, board supporters still bitterly recall the “tinfoil hat” days, when the rhetoric from both sides reached a fevered pitch.

While the District 9 director wouldn’t describe recently relations between the minority government and the wheat board as experiencing a “thaw,” he noted that there have been efforts to tone down their differences.

“We certainly have made efforts, in spite of our different views, to have a constructive and professional working relationship,” he said, at last week’s CWB Farmer Forum in Shoal Lake.

“There are interactions between the government and the wheat board that just have to happen to get adjustment payments approved and information back and forth. So probably both sides have made some efforts to improve relationships.”

The recent throne speech, however, clearly shows that the government’s position on single-desk marketing of wheat and barley hasn’t changed, he said.

“They are still in a position where their ability to put legislation through on the wheat board is doubtful, but I don’t have any illusions that if they were in a majority situation they would move pretty swiftly on their commitments.”

TELLING EXAMPLE

To see what would result if the single desk were to be eliminated, Nicholson said that farmers need look no further than what happened when the Australian Wheat Board was replaced with an open market.

It’s been a full year now since the AWB’s monopoly was pulled, and the results have not been pretty, he said.

With 26 accredited marketers

all vying for the same grain, there was evidence that Australian wheat is being sold for less to international buyers.

For example, grain that once brought a premium over competing product from the United States on the Japanese market ended up being sold at a $26-per-tonne discount, said Nicholson.

Cheaper Australian wheat hurts the whole grain industry, he added, because now exporters including Canada have to stoop lower to compete for sales.

Also, competition for sales by the 26 new Australian marketers has resulted in congestion, logistical tangles, lower-quality product, and dissatisfied customers, as they all scrambled to access rail and shipping infrastructure at the same time.

“For the short term, it has created some opportunities for us,” he said. “We’ve gained some affluent customers who depended on Australia exclusively for supplies that now feel they can’t count on them anymore.”

NOT ASSETS

It also showed that even though the AWB was a sizable player with assets and capital before its monopoly was removed, it will need an international partner to regain market share.

The result would be far worse in Canada, he added.

“It’s worth pointing out that the AWB has had 20 years to build up assets and a capital base, whereas the CWB has essentially zero other than an office building,” he said.

With his days as a CWB director over, he plans to get back to work on his 6,000-acre farm near Shoal Lake.

“There’s no question that I’ll miss it. But there’s lots of things on the farm that have been sitting, waiting, and either not getting done or not getting done well, so there will be plenty of things to do there,” said Nicholson, who after 12 years as a director is ineligible to run again.

As for his successor, he hoped that elections this fall would result in a replacement with a “passion” for the CWB, a strong desire to learn how the board works, and an “open mind” on the issue of grain marketing.

With single-desk selling continuing to be a contentious issue among local farmers, he acknowledged that the race would involve candidates both for and against the board.

Nicholson added that he believes the CWB’s record stands for itself in serving the interests of farmers.

“My position has always been well known,” he said. “I would hope that the new director would also be a strong board supporter, but that’s for farmers to decide.” [email protected]

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