Conservatives want to put Agri-Flex on table

“…we have to make sure whatever we agree to do is not countervailable.”

– Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz wants to meet his provincial colleagues before the end of the year to sound them out on introducing the Agri-Flex proposal from the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

“We’d like to start the discussion on Agri-Flex,” the minister said in an interview. “We’d like to see if the provinces are ready to discuss it but we have to make sure whatever we agree to do is not countervailable.”

The matter would likely require additional work during 2009 to complete it, he said, “and we’ll have to see what the United States will support.”

The minister also said he wants to get more involved in promoting exports of Canadian farm and food products in Asian markets and find some resolution to the squabble with the Canadian Wheat Board over Prairie farmers marketing their own barley.

Former CFA president Bob Friesen invested substantial time and energy in trying to get the federal and provincial governments to permit regional variations in farm income support programs to meet the differing needs of producers across the country.

The proposal, which the CFA dubbed Agri-Flex, surfaced in the past year as the governments worked on the details of Growing Forward, the latest iteration of farm support programs. During the Oct. 14 federal election campaign, in which Friesen ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals in Winnipeg, both the Conservatives and Liberals promised to implement Agri-Flex.

Trade missions

China and India could become major markets for Canadian products and Ritz says he’s prepared to lead trade missions to those countries to drum up interest and awareness of the foods this country has to offer. “We need to become better connected with these markets.”

While the CWB’s directors have fought the Harper Conservatives all the way on its plan to allow Prairie farmers to market barley outside the CWB, Ritz says it’s time for them to get realistic.

Conservative MPs won all the rural ridings on the Prairies, he said, “and we weren’t shy in talking about what we wanted to do with the board.”

As well, the CWB’s share of the Prairie harvest has fallen steadily over the years as farmers elect to produce crops other than wheat and barley so they don’t have to market through the CWB, he said.

That said, “we would like to have a better working relationship with the board.”

Ritz said he continues to hear of all sorts of problems with ballots for the CWB’s directors’ election this fall. “People are getting several or none; there’s still a lot of work to be done on the voters’ list.”

The government also faces a court challenge from the farmers’ group Friends of the CWB over Ottawa’s requirements for minimum crop production for farmers to be eligible to vote in the directors’ election.

Ritz insisted the government isn’t out to kill the CWB, as its opponents charge. “We want farmers to be free to choose whether to market through it. It can still be a strong board; we’ve already seen signs it is trying to adapt,” he said.

“There’s nothing to stop the CWB from opening a pool for canola, for example, to see if there are farmers who want to use its service to sell that crop.”

The government’s support for biofuels production looks like a wise decision, he said, as fears that high crop prices would starve millions of people around the world have evaporated.

“The biofuels market will continue to provide a floor to grain prices for farmers. What we’ve seen during the last few months shows that speculators created the high grain price crisis, not biofuels.”

While the government has yet to name someone to head the inquiry into the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak that killed 20 people, Ritz said it still has plenty of time to get to the bottom of the matter before its March 15 deadline.

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