They hailed from commodity groups, producer lobby groups, research institutions and agribusinesses, and they came together here last week with the aim of directing and informing Manitoba’s new Progressive Conservative government on agriculture issues.
“This is going to be where your role is going to be very important,” Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler told more than 100 people gathered for the day-long agricultural industry consultation. “These comments are all going to be recorded and I take them all very seriously.”
He added criticism was welcome as well, stressing that creating a robust dialogue was the first step in fulfilling his mandate.
“People want to be heard, they want to have the ability to be able to say, ‘I talked to the minister about this,’” Eichler said. “So again, it comes back to that conversation.”
Last week’s consultation was the second held by the Tory government since coming to power this spring. Previous governments also held industry consultations, but did not permit media to attend.
Some themes were immediately apparent as participants brainstormed and discussed issues they face in their respective sectors. One resurgent theme was maintaining consumer trust and social licence in a world where social media allows for a vast number of opinions to be expressed by those without first-hand farm experience.
“So the other word that comes up a lot of course is education,” said Eichler, reflecting on the desire of industry stakeholders to be heard amid the online din, either by individual producers telling their stories, programs like Ag In The Classroom, or the possibility of government initiatives aimed at giving consumers more information.
“Transparency is no longer an option,” added Deputy Minister Dori Gingera-Beauchemin, who spoke about how the idea of trust has evolved. Participants were then asked to give feedback and direction on the issue.
Jake Wiebe operates a chicken farm near New Bothwell and said producers are often at the mercy of public opinion, noting that he has worked to open his farm up to consumers by installing an observation window in his broiler barn.
“This topic is a pretty passionate topic, anyone involved in animal agriculture realizes that,” he told other industry stakeholders. “But it’s good to have a variety of people at the table, because you’re challenged to think outside of your farming zone.”
However, even when public opinion backs farmers it doesn’t mean that trade barriers won’t stymie production or exports, he said, referring to the BSE crisis that saw the U.S. close its border.
Jean-Marc Ruest of Richardson International said the provincial government has an important role to play in navigating trade issues — a role that begins by talking to stakeholders.
“On the export side of things, the province has to ensure that obstacles to trade internationally or domestically are addressed in a reasonable fashion,” Ruest said. “And the provincial government is a very effective advocate to the federal government with respect to issues that impact provincial agriculture.”
Ruest also stressed that the provincial government has to create a regulatory environment that allows for innovation, something that many other stakeholders echoed.
“I think the issue of supporting science-based innovation and regulation is very important, that is the way to send a clear signal that we’re prepared to attract investment in Manitoba,” he added.
Daryl Domitruk, Manitoba agriculture’s director of research and marketing intelligence, asked stakeholders to discuss how they want to use technology as an industry.
“Do we want to be discovering new technology? Developing new technology? Or do we just want to be adopters? What are our values on this continuum? And more important, what are our risk profiles?”
Eichler said the next step for him will be to work with staff to distil the feedback provided during industry consolation, so he can bring that information to his counterparts at the upcoming federal-provincial-territorial ministers’ meeting.
“This is an opportunity to get it right,” he said. “We want to just take it to the next level.”