For a brief and shining moment, Canadian agriculture truly was “this year’s model,” to quote singer-songwriter Elvis Costello.
Just a year ago, the sector was the belle of the ball during the federal government’s annual budget, having for the first time in living memory, captured the imaginations of the nation’s policy-makers.
At that point the Trudeau government was touting its new “Innovation and Skills Plan” to bolster the middle class. It was under this umbrella that agriculture was suddenly seen not as a poor cousin perpetually in crisis, but instead as one of the cylinders of the nation’s economic engine.
Alongside advanced manufacturing, digital industries, health/bioscience and “clean” technologies and resources, the agri-food sector had been identified as a key area that would increase productivity, grow the economy and provide opportunities.
Budget documents noted its federal Advisory Council on Economic Growth had recently “highlighted the sector’s potential for growth, citing Canada’s natural endowment of water and arable land, research strength and accomplishments and strong network of entrepreneurs.”
That budget also set out a target even the government itself characterized as “ambitious” — growing agri-food exports to “at least $75 billion by the year 2025.” The government further justified its faith in the sector by noting global food demand was forecast to “rise significantly” by 2050 in the face of a growing world population and better economic conditions for many.
Farm sector observers said at the time the budget was long on rhetoric and short on concrete plans, as these documents frequently are.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s response was typical, noting the government had failed to “specify details on certain policy targets” but noted they were otherwise “pleased with the emphasis on the contributions of agriculture.”
In the end the sector received a putative $100 million in funding commitments, but only $70 million — over the course of six years — was new money. The sector was also promised a small piece of the government’s $200-million pledge to fund “clean growth” initiatives.
What a difference a year makes. Last week federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau tabled his third budget, and it would appear the government’s focus has moved on to other things.
This year farm groups talk of having to dig deep into the budget to find any direct mention of the sector.
The Grain Growers of Canada’s Jeff Nielsen expressed concern over the lack of action or even acknowledgment of certain key issues, noting the federal government’s “commitments are baby steps at a time when a giant leap is needed.”
Levi Wood, president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers, took it one step further, implying the government’s actions were borderline neglectful to a sector that’s supposed to play a key role in growing the economy of tomorrow.
As Wood put it, “ignoring the farming community is something that farmers are used to but refuse to accept.”
It is only natural the sector should be disappointed by a dismal showing after what was a promising start under this federal government.
Compounding this sense of betrayal is the fact the sector is facing pressing issues on many sides.
Key trade agreements are under a cloud of uncertainty, threatening the existing markets of many farmers and agri-food companies.
An ongoing grain transportation meltdown is stirring memories of the shipping crisis of 2013-14, made all the more critical by the expiry of emergency measures and the slow journey of Bill C-49 through Parliament and the Senate.
There’s no doubt the buck stops with the federal government on these issues. They’re the ones with the mandate to regulate railways and negotiate trade deals.
These problems need federal action and farmers are right to expect it and lobby for it. But when it comes to growing the sector, and the role of government in reaching that goal, it might be time for a reality check.
Was the government ever going to add tens of billions to the total of annual agriculture and food exports from Canada? Or was the heavy lifting always going to be up to the sector itself?
Too often the attention of policy-makers is fleeting. Like a fickle romantic interest, they can flit from one new and shiny thing to the next, failing to ever make a true connection.
Like a jilted lover, perhaps the best advice to the sector is that it’s time to work on itself, rather than pining for the attention of others. Don’t sit there, craving the recognition that may never come.
Better to get out there, make new connections and continue doing what they’ve always done — building their businesses.