“We see (slaughter capacity funding) as filling in holes and gaps in packing facilities across the country.”
– Agriculture minister Gerry Ritz
The progress reports the Liberals have demanded for their support of the Jan. 27 federal budget should help farm groups keep track of how much of the $550 million allocated for agriculture is actually spent.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff insisted on the progress reports in return for Liberal backing for the budget. Groups from many sectors have complained the Harper government is slow to fund projects it says it supports.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says the $550 million is in addition to steps being taken under the federal-provincial Growing Forward plan for shoring up farm incomes.
Ritz said in an interview he will meet his provincial counterparts in Ottawa Feb. 9 to discuss measures to help the hard-pressed livestock industry, as well as international trade developments and the lethargic World Trade Organization negotiations.
In the budget, the Harper government announced a $500 million agricultural flexibility program that will help the sector adapt to higher input costs pressures and improve its competitiveness. As well, $50 million will be available during the next three years to boost slaughterhouse capacity across Canada.
In addition, the government will amend the Farm Improvement and Marketing Co-operatives Loans Act (FIMCLA) to help make credit available to new farmers, support intergenerational farm transfers, and modify eligibility criteria for agricultural co-operatives.
As well, rural communities hard hit by the loss of a local employer can apply to the $1 billion Community Adjustment Fund.
Ritz said individuals, groups, companies or communities will have to apply to the three funded programs for money. “They will be the fifth pillar of our farm programs and will help with marketing, introduction of new technologies and dealing with rising input costs.
“There’s a lot of innovation out there that we need to make available to farmers,” he said.
“We also have to ready ourselves to meet the requirements of new markets. We need more traceability and age verification. We will look at every proposal for the AgriFlex on a case-by-case basis.”
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture said “the budget remains a mixed bag of positives and negatives for the agriculture sector.” Among the positives are the slaughterhouse assistance, the FIMCLA amendments and $225 million to expand rural broadband.
But the CFA was disappointed with the flexibility program, because the $500 million is spread over five years and is not to be used for business risk management purposes.
“While an agricultural stability program is good news, the details announced are not in keeping with what the farm community has been calling for,” said Laurent Pellerin, CFA’s first vice-president. The government needs to support Ontario and Quebec programs to support farm incomes, he said.
The farm group was also disappointed by the lack of new support for biofuels even though it talked about a new Clean Energy Fund to support energy research development and demonstration projects. “Also lacking was the mention of CFA’s proposed Co-op Investment Plan or any reference to cash advance programs and (Farm Credit Canada),” Pellerin said.
Stewart Wells, president of the National Farmers Union, said the budget “fails to address the deepening financial crisis facing Canada’s family farmers.”
There’s nothing to stop the slaughterhouse assistance from being gobbled up by Cargill, Tyson and XL, which already control over 80 per cent of Canada’s beef-processing facilities, he added. As well, he said, there was no assistance for hard-pressed livestock producers.
Richard Phillips of Grain Growers of Canada said his group would support the AgriFlex provision “as long as the money isn’t used in trade-distorting programs or ones that could be challenged under trade laws.”
The GGC also wants to know what programs were cut or curtailed to come up with the $500 million for AgriFlex. “We were disappointed there was no strong commitment to public research and we don’t want to see research cut to make this program possible.”
Liberal Agriculture Critic Wayne Easter said the budget was full of signals “but there’s nothing of substance for the financial problems in agriculture. What we need was help for the beef and hog industry and better crop assistance.”
The government should have also backed provincial support programs and injected additional funding into Farm Credit Canada. “We’re hearing FCC is stepping up the calling of loans and foreclosure actions.”
Easter said the flexibility program is a welcome initiative but doesn’t deal with the root problems in agriculture.
NDP Farm Critic Alex Atamanenko said the budget assistance “is not nearly enough to address the chronic problems associated with farm income. Once you spread this amount across the entire country, it is impossible to see this as little more than a token gesture.”
The slaughter plant assistance does not meaningfully address the livestock income problem, he said. “There is nothing (that) will wrestle economic power away from the monopoly of meat-packing companies and direct it toward cattle producers.”
There is no clear vision on how to empower farmers in the marketplace or support “for small farmers or organic producers to fulfil the rapidly growing demand for locally produced and sustainably grown food,” he said.
The Canadian Co-operative Association said amendments to the FIMCLA are long overdue. “We are hopeful that the amendments will allow for non-farmers to be members of eligible co-ops and raise the loan limits to enable coops to undertake construction and purchase of value-added processing facilities. The current loan limit for co-ops is $3 million.”
The CCA also said the slaughterhouse funding doesn’t target “new and emerging abattoirs that need funding to develop.” The association plans to monitor how that money is spent.
Ritz said the money wouldn’t be going to the large companies. “We see it as filling in holes and gaps in packing facilities across the country. For example, there is no federally inspected beef slaughter facility in Manitoba.”
The government has no problems with providing the progress reports, he said. “We are concerned about the money hitting the target.”