Industry groups are firing back after federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said she was disappointed to see more than $2 billion still sitting in AgriInvest accounts.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a back and forth has gone on between Ottawa and producers over money being held in those accounts.
Ottawa and the ag sector are still sparring over AgriInvest use.
Designed to act as a savings for producers, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the stated goal of AgriInvest is to help farmers, “manage small income declines and make investments to manage risk and improve market income.”
In 2020, there has been between $2.27 billion and $2.37 billion sitting in 99,673 active AgriInvest accounts, but the majority of those accounts contained less than $10,000.
“The last numbers I’ve seen did not show that farmers had used their accounts very much. Some sectors a little bit more, but not in a significant way the last time I looked at it, but that was a few weeks ago already,” Bibeau said during an Aug. 13 interview. “I would say it was a bit disappointing to see that.”
She brushed aside criticism from producers, who argue most accounts have an insignificant amount of money available in them.
“This (program) is meant to provide support in the very short term, as the first line of safety net. It’s easy to access, because you already have it in your account. You’re supposed to put this money aside every year so if you face an extraordinary challenge, you have this money quickly available, and then you can wait a bit longer or have access to other programs, like AgriStability, AgriRecovery or AgriInsurance if the needs are greater,” she said.
“This is the path within the BRM (business risk management) programs, so even if it is not a big amount for some producers, and I would put ‘big’ in brackets because it’s a relative number, but it’s supposed to be the first line of support available and not using it sends the message you don’t really need it.”
Jeff Nielsen, chair of the Grain Growers of Canada, said Bibeau’s comments were disappointing.
“We understand the minister is disappointed, but unfortunately the federal government has not asked any other Canadian to withdraw all their savings from their savings account,” he said. “Yet, it seems we’re being asked as producers, the few of us who have money in these accounts, to drain those accounts.”
He also contended that while there are producers with money in their accounts, over 72,000 of them have less than $10,000 available.
“I’d say the others are experienced, well-established producers, but we’re in a situation where we have producers facing serious financial issues and they’ve used their accounts,” he said. “It’s frustrating on our part that it seems like Ottawa doesn’t quite grasp the situation in agriculture.
“We’re frustrated there’s no grasp or any sense of reality when you look at the numbers. The numbers do not support her argument, in our opinion,” he said.
That data on AgriInvest was released to the federal standing committee on agriculture and agri-food as part of its work reviewing business risk management programs.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) was expected to make a second disclosure of information, offering more insight into AgriStability accounts, but it is unclear when that will happen.
Due to the governing Liberals’ decision to prorogue parliament, the committee has been dissolved and is unable to receive the disclosure – even if it were to be made available by the AAFC.
Canadian Pork Council chair Rick Bergmann said Bibeau’s comments were “ironic” and demonstrate a lack of understanding on how farms operate.
“It’s unfortunate that people don’t understand that $40,000 or $80,000 is very little on a farm,” he said.
He said he believes Bibeau wants to see business risk management programs made better, but, “there is a misconception that just because you have $50,000 or whatever in an AgriInvest account, you don’t have problems – and that tells me there is a significant disconnect.”