Progress toward developing a new set of farm support programs is slow and shows no signs of speeding up soon, judging from Canada’s agriculture ministers’ meeting Feb. 11.
“There really seems to be a lack of progress going ahead,” said Ron Bonnett, Canadian Federation of Agriculture president, after ministers wrapped up their semiannual meeting in Toronto.
The current federal-provincial Growing Forward agriculture agreement expires March 31, 2013. A review of business risk management (BRM) programs under the agreement is ongoing.
But federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was noncommittal when asked where the review was at.
In fact, Ritz appeared to play down the importance of BRMs in favour of other Growing Forward initiatives.
“The consensus is that we need to move away from reactive programs,” he said during a news conference following the Feb. 11 meeting in Toronto.
“At the end of the day, we want to see farmers use innovation, science and research, which we’re more than happy to help fund, and move forward into that new marketplace that’s exciting out there.”
One thing is clear: Ottawa and the provinces have no plans to renegotiate existing programs before they expire in 2013.
“At the end of the day, we agreed that the existing programs are serving the sector,” Ritz said. “We have no intention of fundamentally changing them in mid-flow.”
That didn’t sit well with Bonnett, whose organization, along with other Canadian farm groups, are looking for interim changes to AgriStability and other BRMs.
One change would be to revise the five-year Olympic average system for reference margins, which producers say works against them if they have a number of bad years in a row.
Another would be to introduce new risk management tools, such as allowing farmers to hedge on input costs, said Bonnett.
He said it’s wrong not to allow programs to change substantially if they aren’t working.
“We wouldn’t do that in our own businesses,” he said. “You always have to be conscious of situation change and the need to have modifications made.”
Bonnett said he has no problem with supporting innovation, research, market development and other non-BRM initiatives which Ritz encouraged.
But it shouldn’t happen at the expense of income support programs, he said.
“At the same time, you have to make sure that the system is in place to carry farmers over the rough periods, because we know they’re going to be there.”
Bonnett also objected to Ritz’s comment that “all sectors of agriculture are pumping away on all eight cylinders.”
That may be true for grains and oilseeds but not for hogs, cattle and horticulture, which are still recovering from prolonged depressed prices, he said.
Ritz was vague on when consultations with producers on the next Growing Forward agreement will start, saying he consults with CFA and other farm groups all the time.
Bonnett said there have been informal consultations between farm organizations and ministers’ staffs but there have been no formal talks so far.
Manitoba Agriculture Minister Stan Struthers later said a round of consultations is tentatively planned for this spring. But that could be affected by a series of provincial elections expected this year, he said. [email protected]
– GERRY RITZ