Members of the federal committee on agriculture are finalizing recommendations for business risk management programs ahead of federal-provincial-territorial meetings to discuss the matter.
Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) Agriculture Critic Lianne Rood says a report will be sent to Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Marie-Claude Bibeau ahead of meetings with provincial ministers, scheduled to take place later this month.
The report stems from a months-long effort of the committee, in which it received testimony from dozens of witnesses.
“Specifically, we know that AgriStability is not working for a good portion of the sector,” said Rood. “And I have heard that on the ground in Alberta and most recently a couple of times here in Ontario.”
Designed to support farmers who experience large declines in income, producer groups argue the required losses that trigger receiving payments from the program are too high, and the compensation received slow to arrive, and low when it does.
“There needs to be changes and industry is mostly asking for the same changes across the board, and that’s removing the reference margin limit and increasing the trigger up to 85 per cent,” said Rood.
“I think you will see those recommendations are definitely in the report, or the testimony of those recommendations, in the report.”
Putting together the report for Bibeau is a multi-partisan effort, with members of each of the major parties working collaboratively with one another during in-camera committee meetings.
A letter sent earlier this year from the committee to Bibeau outlined some of the concerns heard during its study of the matter.
Liberal MP Pat Finnigan, wrote the letter in advance of the July 3 enrolment deadline for AgriStability so that Bibeau could work with her provincial and territorial counterparts, “to implement more effective, flexible, timely and equitable programs for farmers.”
That letter noted participation in the program dropped significantly since 2012 – it was reformed to its current iteration in 2013. Fewer than 50 per cent of eligible producers have signed up for it in recent years.
“Many witnesses explained that this limited participation rate is the result of the administrative burden imposed by the program. They argued that application processes need to be simplified. The witnesses also called for payments to be issued faster,” wrote Finnigan. “The Union des producteurs agricoles reported that payments can sometimes take up to 18 months to arrive. Such lengthy time frames reduce the program’s ability to address emergencies, and businesses sometimes receive the funds they need too late.”
MPs on the committee also raised the issue of payments made under the program, because the program only pays producers after their margins have fallen below 70 per cent of their five-year Olympic average reference margin.
“The stakeholders the committee heard from requested that this threshold be raised to 85 per cent. Some witnesses asked that the program’s coverage level be also increased and that the limits on the reference margin based on allowable expenses be removed,” read the letter. “The latter measure would improve funding access for industries that generally have lower expenses, such as businesses in the beef, horticulture or beekeeping sectors that cannot fully benefit from the program because they typically have lower allowable expenses.”
But Rood, like many before her, noted any changes will hinge on the willingness of provinces and the federal government.
“It’s going to be up to the provincial and federal government to decide what they’re going to do going forward and what agreement they come to,” she said.
“There are farmers struggling out there and we need to do everything that we can to ensure that farmers have the tools in their tool box to do what they need to do to ensure that we have security here in Canada, and the COVID-19 pandemic has really brought that to the forefront – and we hope that we can work collaboratively across party lines going forward to continue to make sure that farmers have the tools they need.”
Making it easier for farmers to access payments, while correspondingly increasing the money paid out, would be costly. Government estimates suggest doing so would cost upwards of $400 million; but even at the current funding levels, some provinces contend paying their share of the program is difficult.
The federal government rejected a proposal from the provinces that would have seen the current cost-sharing structure of BRM programs move from a 60-40 split between Ottawa and the provinces to 90-10 for two years, when the current framework agreement is scheduled to expire.
Bibeau and her colleagues at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) have not submitted a counter-proposal, but continue to push for more long-term, broad and substantive changes to be made.
In an early-November interview, Bibeau said she is confident counterparts from Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia will be willing to contribute their share to make significant improvements to AgriStability, the program most criticized by producers.
“It’s going to be more challenging with the Prairie provinces and some other provinces, that are saying that they have more financial or fiscal constraints,” she said.
Once the federal committee completes its work on business risk management programs, it is expected to now undertake a study on food-processing capacity and reviewing Canada’s progress in meeting its 2025 target of having $75 billion worth of agri-food exports.