The fate of proposed enhancements to AgriStability, Canada’s major farm income support program panned as inadequate by farmers, were unclear at press time Jan. 29, as a soft deadline loomed.
Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau wanted provinces to say by Jan. 31 whether they would agree to the two AgriStability changes she proposed when Canada’s agriculture ministers met Nov. 27, 2020.
Both of them — scrapping the reference margin limit and boosting program coverage to 80 per cent from 70 — are strongly supported by Canadian farm groups, including in Manitoba.
If implemented, AgriStability will cost all governments more, but Ottawa would continue to cover 60 per cent of the additional cost and the provinces 40.
To make the changes retroactive to 2020 provinces representing two-thirds of AgriStability participants need to agree to the changes sooner than later, Bibeau told reporters after speaking Jan. 26 online at the Keystone Agricultural Producers’ (KAP) 37th annual meeting.
To achieve that threshold at least one Prairie province, and preferably all three will, endorse the changes, a federal official said later.
Why it matters: After nine years of farm groups pressuring federal, provincial and territorial governments to improve farm income support, the federal government is turning up the heat on the Prairie provinces.
Meanwhile, Manitoba Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen, long critical of AgriStability and wary of changes that would cost Manitoba taxpayers more money, was sending conflicting messages about where he stands.
In a Dec. 17 letter to Pedersen, KAP and 19 other Manitoba farm groups urged him to agree to Bibeau’s changes.
In a Jan. 22 letter of response Pedersen wrote Bibeau’s proposals won’t fix AgriStability.
While he didn’t state categorically whether Manitoba would endorse Bibeau’s proposals or not, the tone suggested not.
However, in a Jan. 27 email Pedersen’s office wrote: “As stated previously, Manitoba has not made a final decision yet. When we do, that will be formally communicated to Minister Bibeau and the federal government.”
In response to Pedersen’s letter KAP issued a statement Jan. 26 saying it was “discouraging and disappointing.”
Bibeau, speaking online during KAP’s annual meeting Jan. 26, said her “changes would result in a 50 per cent increase to the amount AgriStability pays out, which will go directly into the pockets of the farmers who need it the most.”
To make the changes retroactive to 2020 AgriStability participants need to agree sooner than later, Bibeau told reporters after speaking at KAP.
The changes would also apply until a new federal-provincial agreement on farm programs comes into effect April 1, 2023.
“The year is already over and I would like to make it (AgriStability changes) retroactive to 2020, but… it will be cut off at a certain point and we won’t be able to make it retroactive to 2020,” Bibeau told reporters.
There was some limited “wiggle room” on the Jan. 31 deadline, a federal government official said.
There were rumours of another AgriStability meeting among Canada’s agriculture ministers — something the Saskatchewan government has suggested.
“We are certainly more than willing to have another discussion, another meeting,” Bibeau’s press secretary, Jean-Sébastien Comeau, said Jan. 27. “We will lend an open ear to what provinces have to say.”
But it’s unclear what compromises could entice the Prairie provinces given they don’t want to spend more — a position KAP president Bill Campbell says is short sighted.
Ottawa won’t budge on the current long-standing cost-sharing formula of 60-40, federal-provincial, a federal official said.
Ottawa believes it has a good proposal given that Quebec and British Columbia currently offer it and cover the cost to boot.
Ottawa’s plan is also less expensive than what farmers want — payouts triggered when farm margins fall below 85 per cent instead of 70.
KAP and other farm groups have said Bibeau’s changes are a “good first step,” to making the program more useful.
Bibeau thanked KAP for supporting her proposal.
“This is something we know farmers across the country have been asking for,” she said, adding Manitoba pork producers had a tough 2020.
“Fixing AgriStability is a priority for our government,” Bibeau said. “It needs to be simpler, fairer, more predictable and more generous.”
That’s the short-term goal, she said, but agriculture ministers are also starting to talk about longer-term issues in the lead-up to the next federal-provincial program agreement.
“However, consultations on longer-term fixes to AgriStability should not come at the expense of the short-term fixes farmers are asking for today,” Bibeau said, an allusion to Pedersen’s letter that suggests the focus should be on replacing AgriStability.
Bibeau told reporters later that if her proposals are implemented money won’t be taken from other farm programs to make up the difference.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “I am actually surprised to hear something like that because Minister Pedersen consulted stakeholders on the idea of cutting AgriInvest to put it on AgriRecovery set-aside program. I have never made any suggestion of cutting other programs. I am really committed to improving AgriStability in the short term and have a closer look at all the programs for the next generation of the Canadian (Agricultural) Partnership in 2023.”
Pedersen told reporters Dec. 1, 2020 he believed if the federal government spends more on AgriStability it will claw back the money through cuts to AgriInvest and AgriInsurance.
“What we are proposing is the complete opposite of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Bibeau said in an email Dec. 3 in response to Pedersen’s speculation. “The proposal we put on the table seeks to enhance, not cut, business risk management programs.
“It is unfortunate that Minister Pedersen is directing his efforts away from trying to step up to improve BRM programs.”