What do Amish bishops and Canada’s supply management officials have in common?
According to Ian Cumming, an Ontario dairy farmer who moved to the U.S. to escape the restrictions of quota, both provide insulation from an uncertain world, but at the cost of suffocating growth and initiative.
“Our bishops at Dairy Farmers of Canada, like the Amish, will preach to you that their system of control is for your benefit,” said Cumming, who spoke in a panel discussion on supply management here at the recent National Farmers’ Union convention.
“There are no Amish youth caught for smuggling, involved in bar fights or drunk driving, and no messy divorces and bankruptcies. The Amish system takes care of them, just as the supply management bishops will tell you that there are hardly any bankruptcies or government bailouts.”
Cumming, a dairyman and reporter forOntario Farmer, bought a farm in New York state to allow his son to escape a lifetime of debt and unfair restrictions preventing expansion under Ontario’s supply management regime.
Under the free-market system, he noted, farms of all sizes exist, without the dictates of a marketing board.
One of his neighbours milks 2,100 cows, but another, an Amish farmer raises nine children by legally selling raw milk for $60 per hectolitre from a 17-head, pasture-based operation powered by horses.
“If he was two miles to the north, in Canada, he would be arrested,” said Cumming.
He argued lower milk prices south of the border have led to greater per capita consumption and more innovative products.
Cumming noted that even in 2009, a terrible year for U.S. dairies, only 3.5 per cent quit – the same as in Canada.
“Facts are a bitch,” he said. “In the end, do our children benefit over the long term with an industry that is kept overpriced, stagnant and uncompetitive?”
Many of his son’s generation have been forced to seek their fortunes outside the dairy industry, he said, because the cost of entry was prohibitive, and the “discipline” of the marketing board that effectively restricted their operation to expanding by just one cow per year.
“My son and I made the decision to live and die, succeed or fail, as free men – you can laugh at that if you want – but that is what those whose names are etched on the cenotaphs of this nation, fought for, lest we forget,” said Cumming.
Barron Blois, a board member of the Dairy Farmers of Canada from Nova Scotia, took issue with Cumming’s claim that his Ontario operation would be unfairly restricted from expanding by one cow per year.
With a cap on production in place, and moves to bring the price down, there will naturally be more buyers than sellers, Blois said. “What are the alternatives?”
During the questions session, Randall Affleck, the NFU’s Maritime co-ordinator and a dairy farmer from P.E.I., called Cumming’s “bishop” metaphor “insulting to the farm leaders of supply management.”
The current chairman of DFC milks 20 cows, he said.
“These are farm families, not corporate bastards,” he said. “Do we think that young farmers starting in will be better off without any organization?”
Steve Dick, a farmer from Ottawa, said that when he looked into getting into farming five years ago, to support a family of four, the cost of quota, land and barns for broiler or dairy would have been almost $4 million. Instead, he picked a free-market commodity.
“When we purchased our farm 20 years ago, there were nine family dairies doing extremely well. Today, there are two,” said Dick. “They have consolidated, gobbled up all the quota and most of the land.”
Martin Driesse, an organic grass-fed beef producer from Ontario, said that “greed” has been driving the price of quota ever since it was opened up to bidding.
“The concept of supply management when it was set out, no ownership of quota, caps on how much you could have, those parameters were excellent,” he said.
“But somewhere along the line, greed took over. We need to find a way to get back to the way it was meant to be.”
Dave Lewington, NFU vice-president of policy, presented a report prepared by Christie Young, of Farm Start Ontario, who was absent due to illness.
He cited a range of options Young listed for rejuvenating supply management, including increasing quota exemptions, developing untapped specialty market niches or offering exemptions for same, and offering exemptions for direct marketers.
“Each of those options has benefits and drawbacks. But the first step is to recognize that alternative producers have needs and constraints that are not currently well accommodated within the supply management system, and initiating discussions to rectify those issues,” said Lewington. daniel. [email protected]
– IAN CUMMING