Outraged open-market proponents were calling on farmers to boycott a plebiscite on grain marketing announced by the Canadian Wheat Board last week.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says he will place little to no value on the results.
The current CWB Act requires farmers approve such a change through a vote first; the government plans to skirt that by amending or scrapping the act. Legislation is expected this fall that will end the board’s 68-year monopoly over the sale of western Canadian wheat and barley destined for export or domestic human consumption as of Aug. 1, 2012.
Ritz said in a speech to Grain Growers of Canada last week he would consider supporting the CWB’s transition to an open market, although he offered few details.
“To make the transition as smooth as possible, our government is willing to listen to all ideas that will help chart the way forward,” he said. “But this is not a blank cheque. Any future entity must present a strong business case that shows mid-and long-term viability. Our government’s priority is the farm gate, not the protection of a legislated empire.”
Neither Ritz nor the CWB have outlined who will own the CWB and be responsible for the financial losses should it fail in an open market or how the transfer of ownership will be made.
Grain companies, which will be competing with the CWB if it is turned into a grain company, say they oppose any special treatment for it.
But Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) policy manager Blair Rutter says assistance will be needed over the short term. The government should initially guarantee the CWB’s borrowings, he said.
The best way to settle the CWB’s future is allowing farmers to decide it through a vote, CWB chair Allen Oberg told reporters June 28.
“As chair of the CWB I commit to acting in accordance with the results of this plebiscite whatever they may be,” said Oberg who, along with the CWB’s board, supports retaining single-desk selling.
“I call on Minister Ritz to set aside his personal agenda and do exactly the same because listening to farmers is the right thing to do. As farmers, the CWB is our grain-marketing organization. We run it, we pay for it and we should decide what happens to it.”
Farmers don’t support the CWB’s plebiscite, Ritz said.
“No plebiscite should ever trump the rights of those farmers who want to choose how to market their grain,” he told the GGC.
The CWB will hire a firm to run the plebiscite, which will be held this summer so the results are out before Ottawa’s legislation comes forward.
The questions are the same ones endorsed in 2006 by Keystone Agricultural Producers, Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, Wild Rose Agricultural Producers and the National Farmers Union.
A) I wish to maintain the ability to market all wheat, with the continuing exception of feed wheat sold domestically, through the CWB single-desk system.
B) I wish to remove the single-desk marketing system from the CWB and sell all wheat through an open-market system.
The same questions will be posed for barley.
Active farmers who have grown wheat or barley during the last five years will get a ballot, Oberg said.
Oberg didn’t know last week how much the plebiscite will cost, but said the CWB, and therefore farmers, will pay for it.
“Spending money on democracy and the right to decide, that certainly is not a waste of money in my view,” he said.
The WCWGA, which supports an open market, is urging farmers to boycott the plebiscite. An open market will restore farmers’ property rights over their wheat and barley production, WCWGA president Kevin Bender said in a release.
“You can’t get more democratic than that,” he said.
Liberal MPs Ralph Goodale and Kevin Lamoureux said in a release last week farmers should vote.
“All these changes would be permanent and irreversible,” Goodale said. “So it’s absolutely crucial to be sure this is truly what farmers want.”
During his speech Ritz said there are many myths regarding the CWB. For example, producer cars will still be available to farmers in an open market, he said.
However, some farmers question whether the savings farmers now earn will still be there given almost no non-board grains are shipped that way.
“Well, if the economy isn’t there it means farmers are identifying the fact that they don’t need that, that they can actually haul it through a line company to a privately owned terminal… ” Ritz told reporters.
Producer car use will decline in an open market because of increased competition by grain companies, Rutter said in an interview.
“I think the real reason you don’t see producer cars on non-board grains is primarily because the grain-handling margins are very thin and there’s a lot of competition on non-board crops and that’s driving down the handling fees of the grain companies so it makes it uneconomic for farmers to book their own rail cars,” he said. [email protected]
– GERRY RITZ