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Editor’s Take: Manitoba farmers falling through the cracks

The past couple of months have been frustrating ones for the staff of this publication.

For us in the agriculture sector the election was particularly ill-timed as it encompassed much of a particularly challenging growing season.

We’ve run into more than a few examples of gun-shy provincial civil servants, who have been extremely reluctant to speak to the media, regardless how innocuous the topic might seem.

They’ve been afraid they’ll run afoul of the province’s election gag law, legislation that was intended to prevent the incumbent government from using the levers of power to advance its own cause ahead of the vote.

That’s a great goal, but as with most complex things, it’s come bundled up with a bunch of unintended consequences. In this case, it’s subject matter experts speaking on what should have been apolitical topics that suddenly fall silent.

In fairness to the government, it appears the problem here is one of confusion, not maliciousness. It’s a situation that only occurs every few years and there appear to be a variety of interpretations of the law within the provincial civil service.

Some employees have taken the common sense approach that they should steer clear of controversial and political topics, but that straightforward things like agronomy are still fair game.

Others are more gun shy, adopting the precautionary principle, and refusing to comment on even the most benign topics until after the vote is held.

That’s been a bit exasperating, but eventually the journalists of the Co-operator have always found a way to tell the story.

More troubling is the way this law has appeared to prevent the province from addressing an agricultural crisis here in the province.

Beef producers in drought stricken portions of the province — and their local municipal governments — have been calling on the provincial and federal governments to recognize that the area is suffering an agricultural disaster.

That would potentially open the gate to the use of the AgriRecovery program, to help them through this difficult time, while better preserving their herds for the future. Here time is of the essence as feed shortages mount and winter approaches.

Unfortunately that urgency has been disrupted by the election process. As our Geralyn Wichers reports, the provincial government has only moved the day after the election. That action amounts to a program to aid them in setting up watering systems to keep their herds’ thirst slaked.

What it doesn’t cover is any sort of emergency funds to enable the affected producers to buy more feed to keep their herds together.

That will require either an ad hoc provincial program or tapping into the aforementioned AgriRecovery program, but here Manitoba beef producers are running into yet another electoral obstacle.

The day after Manitoba went to the polls, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Governor General Julie Payette at Rideau Hall, triggering a long-expected federal election, slated for Oct. 21.

That’s going to prevent a meeting of cabinet until sometime after that date, which is required under the approval process for triggering AgriRecovery.

That means beef producers here are left in the dark, wondering whether or not they should start culling hard, or even in the worst cases, start liquidating their herds entirely.

There’s little doubt they’d probably weigh things differently if they knew for sure support dollars were going to flow later this fall, or early winter. But as it stands now, they haven’t a clue whether it’s going to happen, and they’re forced to make these decisions without the full facts at their disposal.

This isn’t a problem unique to Canada. To our south, U.S. farmers grappled with one of their toughest planting season on record this year, even as a support program was announced, but without enough details for farmers to know what the right course of action was.

As columnist Allan Guebert notes in our Sept. 19 issue, that led to many farmers ‘mudding in’ crops that never should have gone into the ground. He also noted that this was probably in the end going to contribute to over production that would continue to weigh down global grain markets.

Similar complaints were heard here in Manitoba in the late 1990s during an extremely wet cycle that left millions of acres unseeded over successive seasons. The province responded by introducing excess moisture coverage under crop insurance, that took the uncertainty out of the equation in the future.

Similar steps need to be taken for other farm support programs to make them more predictable. AgriRecovery is a great place to start.

Farmers grapple with enough uncertainty as it is between the weather, markets and trade. They shouldn’t have to add this to the list.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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